It was Sunday evening. Halfway through Labor Day weekend. We brought our dinner and a bottle of wine to our roof. It’s a two-acre, multi-level terrace atop our Brooklyn apartment building. Around us was a late summer dusk panorama.
Manhattan was to the west, its skyline turning silhouette, a million lights winking on. We could see the East River bridges with their draped necklaces of lights and blinking red crowns. Planes banked overhead, on final approach to LaGuardia airport. The sky was stormy, clouds crisscrossing in confusion. Then, gloriously, a keyhole opened in the sky on the western horizon. Sunset beams burst through, radiating outward, back lighting the clouds in gold.
We sipped our wine, watched our son skip around and wished we had brought sweaters. The school year was looming ahead, a summer full of memories was fading behind, a time of fights and finding each other again. Our birthdays are coming up soon. Mine is a big (very big) one.
I pause rarely, as my wife will tell you. Sitting still and reflecting are luxuries for me. But that evening I found myself taking measure. At a time when many guys are planning retirement, I feel like I’m getting started. I’m now an elementary school dad. In my immediate future are parent friendships and the fight against video game addiction. I’m turning over the wardrobe in my closet, buying new suits yet hanging on to sneakers. I’m buying monthly Metrocards yet also riding a Swiss scooter. I’m wondering how to balance work, writing and family.
At almost sixty I’ve reached a crossroads that feels like almost thirty. Sunday evening was the end of something and the beginning of something else that I can barely define, a phase for which I have no map, a new land which I fear and hope to love. Everything is different. My roles are changing. A new book is brewing inside, one completely different than I’ve written before. Publishing is changing. I’ve got plans not to get ahead of the curve but to ride a future wave which hasn’t yet started to swell, but will.
I’m becoming a new me–again.
I mention that because in many manuscripts the protagonist’s sense of self is poorly defined. In even more, a sense of the phases of life is altogether missing. Oh, good manuscripts are good at giving me a character’s back story. But that’s not the same thing as personal history.
How does your protagonist understand his or her own evolution? Powerful characters are real people. To become fully real we need to create their personal history. Here are some ways to discover, and use, the seasons of the self.
- As your story opens, what phase is your protagonist leaving behind? Detail it. What phase is your protagonist heading toward? List the worrisome questions in his or her mind.
- What have been the periods, to date, of your protagonist’s life? What events began and ended each one? What were the highlight and the low moment of each? What did your protagonist learn (or fail to learn) in each era? Give each one a name.
- How does your protagonist measure time? Create a system. Watch the clock as the novel’s events unfold. What hour is it now? And now?
- Who is your protagonist at the beginning of the novel? Write down six things that define this person. How is he or she different at the end? Revise the original list of six, point for point, difference for difference.
Narrative is not just events. It’s change, especially inner change. (Read back through Writer Unboxed posts from this past summer.) The most profound inner changes are the changes to one’s sense of self. Pin them down for your protagonist and you’ll create a story that’s more than just what happens. You’ll spin a story about what we can become.
What’s the current season of your protagonist’s life? How will it end and what new phase will begin? Is that anything like you?