A week ago Barbara O’Neal gave us a wonderful post called Positive Thinking for Writers. It started me thinking. Writers aren’t the only ones who could benefit from a positive outlook.
Stories have intentions. They have moods. They send signals to readers that set readers’ expectations and influence their orientation to the tale, to themselves and to life, at least for a time. We could say these signals are sent by the author’s voice, but more precisely they come from how protagonists behave, speak, think and feel on the page.
How does your protagonist see himself or herself? If I were to ask you, you’d probably say that your main character is yearning, challenged, responsible and active. Am I right? Then why is it that so many protagonists come across instead as suffering, helpless, weak and lost? If you don’t believe me come and read my slush pile, or just head to your local independent bookstore and sample what’s on the shelves. Many protagonists are not lit by a spirit of compassion but are instead infected with woe.
Many stories I read are built on a foundation of pathos. See how sad things are! Watch my character rise and triumph in spite of that! While that sounds okay, it is really saying that these authors deep down believe that we are all helpless. The author is saying in effect, poor me!
Compassion is different than pathos. Rather than poor me, it says poor you! It allows plot circumstances to be a bitch and personal journeys to be hard, but it doesn’t permit defeat to be a pervasive condition of existence. Pathos is rooted in despair. Compassion is rooted in hope. The same story can transmit either feeling to readers. It can burden readers with worry or it can inspire readers to believe. It can cause dread or stir expectation. How characters experience their experience in turn determines how readers experience a novel.
What kind of spirit does your protagonist have, positive or negative? When obstacles arise does your protagonist blame others or self? Is your protagonist’s primary expectation that he or she will fail to obtain what’s desired or gain it? Is the world around your protagonist one primarily of assistance or of pain? Many protagonists are fundamentally negative, which may create a certain tension but also cannot inspire.
We may identify with characters, we may cheer for them, but even that is not the same as being inspired by them. To understand why not we only need look at people in life. Think about people you’ve known who assume the worst, resist the truth, resent, blame others, beat up themselves, focus on problems, wallow in self-doubt, always compare, agonize, cling, stew, feel bored, expect perfection, take everything personally, let things just happen, and wait for lucky breaks. Such people can nevertheless be successful. When they are, are we inspired by them?
Not so much.
Causing your characters to win, reach their goals, heal or find redemption also does not mean we’re going to automatically love them and wish to be like them. An uplifting ending is nice but it offers us nothing at the beginning. When we’re swept up by someone else’s spirit it generally happens right away and continues to buoy us every day, or in fiction terms in every scene.
Are stories robbed of drama when characters make the best of it, leave the past behind, feel grateful, see their possibilities over their limitations, live in the present, plan ahead, forget fear, smile, communicate, accept setbacks, forgive, earn their keep, take responsibility for their lives, make changes happen, persist, stay interested and even entertained? Not at all. Negative things can happen to positive people. Your task is to construct a story, meaning conflict, but it’s also to provide company, meaning characters, who engage us deeply.
Negativity cannot engage us deeply; positivity can. So, without turning your protagonist into Pollyanna, and without making your main character inactive, lacking inner struggle and without room for growth, let’s see how a dramatic plot and compelling inner journey can coexist with positivity.
- What mood are you in today? Are you down, discouraged, afraid, anxious, tired, envious, stuck, or lacking confidence? Turn your mood around. Breathe. Meditate. Drink green tea. Go for a run. Use affirmations. Shake it off and become excited, empowered, brave, singular, happy, grateful, curious, and creative.
- Today write not just at a safe fifty-five miles per hour but blast off. Break the box. In the scene you’re working on, surprise the hell out of yourself.
- In the scene you’re working on, what mood is your protagonist in? Does he or she feel helpless, set upon, oppressed, avoidant, incapable or trapped? Turn it around. Show through action or speech that he or she is capable, challenged, has a plan, has options, can face up and affect the outcome.
- In this scene, pause and allow your protagonist to appreciate something cool, neat, beautiful, human or different.
- In this scene, allow your protagonist to feel that what’s happening is good.
- In this scene, find a way for your protagonist to change something.
- If in this scene things go against your protagonist, find a way for your protagonist to suck it up, shrug it off, look ahead and feel ready.
- If in this scene things go well for your protagonist, find a way for your protagonist to not take it for granted, resolve to do better, reach out to another and/or give back.
What did you come up with? Do any of these new elements change the scene’s plot purpose or outcome? Do any of these new elements interfere with your protagonist’s inner struggles and journey toward wholeness? Does a hint of positivity in your protagonist turn you off?
I will bet not. Positive people are like that. We want to be around them. But, really, whom are we talking about here, your protagonist or you? Pretty obvious, right? What if you turned around your protagonist in every scene? What if you turned yourself around on every writing day? What would happen to your fiction? What would happen to your sales?
How are you turning positive today? How is your protagonist? How are you making that change in the scene you’re working on right now?
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