Birthday: In Which Emmie Becomes a Characterization Guinea Pig
I was thinking today about characterization, and I thought that because it is my birthday, what better way to talk about characterization than by utilizing petite moi?
No really, petite moi.
Every character has to have a goal, but we’ll focus on protagonists right now — or as the lovely Nila E. White said in her blog today, protags. I like the sound of that. I think I’ll use that as a name for a Viking someday: Protag the Conqueror. And since today’s blog is using me, we’ll go ahead and rename that little one-year-old Emmie. Behold, Protag the Cake Devouring Conqueror.
I’m digressing already. Protag always needs a goal, because she is the most important character in the story. If Protag has no goal, she’ll probably get into something you don’t want her getting into, and then she’ll end up mixing up every variety of grain you bought to make bread with while you’re on the phone until you have a massive amount of wheat berry soup and have to get creative and make muffins with it. Better to just have a goal for Protag. She’s a feisty one if you don’t give her some direction. Give her a goal, and under that umbrella, give her a bunch of little goals. These will help you make scenes!
What if she wants to put her green sparkly ballerina tiara on the cat, but she can’t find the tiara? Then she finds it, but the cat runs away. Disaster! New goal. Ride the dog to chase the cat? Protag needs goals.
Protag also should really have some awesome skills and strengths like Napoleon Dynamite. As you can see, baby Protag is seriously awesome at playing that guitar. You can tell by the expression on her face; she knows what she’s doing. Groovy.
So Protag has some goals, and Protag needs strengths to reach those goals, regardless of how many times the cat runs away. If Protag just gives up and starts pulling every book off your bookshelf one by one sitting just out of reach of the phone cord, your book won’t go anywhere either. Remember, Protag exists in a time when phones still had cords. Ah, the good ole days. The book trick wouldn’t work anymore. Protag always knows her context.
No matter how many riffs Protag can play on her guitar, she always will have some weaknesses. For instance, the propensity to scrunch up her entire face creating multiple chins and call it a smile. Imagine the chagrin of Protag’s mother when a seven-year-old Protag imitated the above smile (complete with missing front teeth) for school pictures that year. Now imagine sending those to the fam.
Protag sure isn’t perfect — she’ll have her moments when you want to just yell at her that the tiara shouldn’t even GO on the cat. But on occasion, those little weaknesses may become endearing, like when you actually see the grouchy snow white cat wearing a sparkly green tiara and think maybe Protag is a genius after all. Regardless, if Protag is going to be well-rounded, she needs strengths and weaknesses working in tandem (and sometimes against each other).
Finally, Protag needs her quirks. She needs those little things that may be a little strange (like pairing a rainbow bathing suit with roller skates in Alaska while the big galumphy giant dog looks on) but that make readers relate to her, even if they don’t one hundred percent like her. It’s how anti-heroes are possible. Without those things, our little Protag would be like a sheer cliff face. Her quirks, strengths, and weaknesses are like handholds you carve out of the rock so that your readers can get to the top. Without them, they’ll just slide back down.
And Protag will never get her cake.
***In case you were wondering, every little anecdote in this blog post is something I actually got up to as a child. It’s a wonder my mother didn’t ship me off to an asylum. If you couldn’t tell, I hated her being on the phone — beyond the books and grain-soup (that actually did turn into some pretty tasty multigrain muffins), once I was all bundled up to go out into the Alaskan cold and sled, and she got on the phone. She took too long, so I stood there, looked her in the eye, and peed. I have a feeling my future children will repay me for that one.***