One of the biggest challenges I have faced so far during the course of drafting The Road Elsewhere is the development of my protagonist’s character. We see the reality of the world and the progress of the story through his eyes. If he’s not believable, or interesting, a reader is unlikely to want to carry on to find out what happens to him.
And here is the rub: in order for him to be interesting, believable and for him to progress, he needs to have flaws. The tricky bit is to get him flawed enough to be believable and intriguing, but not so much that he is dislikeable and put people off finding out about what happens to him.
I think it may still be possible to dislike aspects of a protagonist and still be interested to see how their story progresses, if there’s hints of humanity underneath that suggest the potential for advancement and redemption. I also think there is an important distinction between dislikeable and unpleasant. We can love many an unpleasant protagonist, whether they grow and become more agreeable or even not. But it’s hard to get on board with a thoroughly dislikeable one, with no redeeming features whatsoever.
So a balance needs to be struck between flaws and virtues, still be believable and leaving room for them to grow.
At first I couldn’t deny that there was a distance between him and the reader. I started off the story in third person, though it focussed on his actions, the way Harry Potter does. I hoped that his actions, speech and reported feelings would be enough for the reader to engage with him and allow them to develop their opinions of him objectively. But there was too much distance, too much of a wall and I found it very hard to portray his emotions effectively and yet simply. The answer was obvious to me in the end. It needed to be first person. The reader is in his head, seeing out through his eyes. You get his feelings first hand and it takes a lot less description (and less is always more) to create and impression of his personality.
This led, however, to me needing a more detailed idea of his personality. He suddenly needed a narrative voice of his own. This can make the difference between a reader being hooked or just putting it back on the shelf.
I try to think of getting to know a character as being a bit like peering through an open door into their minds. The room, or space, beyond has the potential to tell you a lot about them, if you visualise yourself going through the door and moving around what lays beyond. The clutter, or lack of clutter, on the shelves and the drawers laden or lacking contents collected from their life experience can help lead you on a journey around their personality. Try to imagine the furniture, the layout, the décor.
As they progress, you move through the room, discovering as you go. The room may change dramatically before you’ve finished exploring. It may become tidier, messier or it even empty out entirely. You may not even visualise a room beyond the door at all, but an empty space, or an outdoor spread of land, one that might gradually blossom and green, or gets blasted black by the fires of experience.
I see Rowan’s ‘room’ as being very similar to the bedroom he has in his father’s castle. I’ve mapped it out in some detail in the time I’ve been writing him, but the story hasn’t lead the reader around most of it yet. The reader at this point in the story will still only have first impressions: there is definitely clutter, but not an awful lot of definition. It’s a lazy place, messy and lacking pride. His clothes, much mended, are scattered across the floor and bed. There’s a few traditional trappings of his culture around, like a small shrine to the gods his kingdom worships and jewellery and formal robes fit for his position. But they are not cared for, used regularly or shown to advantage.
There are a few secret places in this room though. The reader knows of these too by this point in the story. There’s a spot under the bed against the wall and some drawers in a closet under a great pile of shoes that he uses to hide more personal things in. Even I haven’t finished rooting through these places yet, but I know he does use the spot under the bed to hide the books and ornaments from his mother’s homeland he has managed to scavenge on the black market. There is still much tension between the country his mother was born in and the kingdom he is prince of and at this stage in his journey he finds it simpler to avoid confrontation by hiding the evidence of his curiosity.
The fact that he has curiosity, though, I hope, hints at some integrity underneath, some depth of character that he possesses but has yet to be presented with the opportunities to refine. I’m hoping as the story unfolds he will clear away some of the needless clutter he has no care for and start to fill it with things he has pride in. Some weapons, perhaps, that he becomes proficient with. Some clothes that suit him and his lifestyle. Perhaps he might clear a place to display the things he has acquired from his mother’s culture, rather than hiding them away.
I’ve reached the point in the story where he has just started to grow. He has started to allow himself to be happy and take pride in what he’s doing.
Of course, as I have discussed before in The Art of Conflict, good times can’t last, and his world’s shortly to be tipped upside down again. People he has come to trust will hurt him. The knee-jerk reaction for him will be to regress, to shrug back into the cloak of surliness and insecurity, cast his new outlook onto the floor amidst the rest of his clutter and consider that maybe it was never worth trying to be happy.
But I need to make sure that the thread of dignity and pride he has discovered within himself is strong enough to not snap completely. It may come close to it under the pressure he’s about to be put through, but hopefully it will ultimately strengthens as he pulls himself through.
When I come to the redraft I think the arc of his progress will be easier to see and refine. It can’t be too smooth but I need to make sure there’s a good smattering of hints of quality all along the way that gets the reader interested in his fate.
But in the mean time, it’s time to turn up the tension and fling in a bit of betrayal to see how his quality weathers the storm.