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Proving Your Protagonist Has What It Takes

photo adapted / Horia Varlan

Many writers of contemporary fiction start their stories with their protagonist in a fairly low place, barely tolerating his existence. It’s a modern-day, first-world setup: without trees to chop and a cabin to build and fields to plant, our hero-to-be is disillusioned in some way, unable to kick into gear and effect change. Then something unexpected happens, knocking our hero all the way to rock bottom, from where he must either choose to change or die. It is a fight for psychological survival.

This is a hero’s journey that many writers have experienced. We may have plenty to say about it that could be meaningful to others who are struggling. It may even be the reason we write.

But when translating this story to the page, there is something writers often leave out: proof of your protagonist’s agency. We may care about the problem, but why should we believe this sullen soul is capable of showing us the way beyond his ennui?

You need to give us some hint, early on, that the protagonist has the potential to greet change head-on and conquer whatever obstacles might stand in his way.

To demonstrate how an author might embed such proof of agency, let’s look at the opening of Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love. Our narrator is octogenarian Leo Gursky.

 

Paragraph 1

When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT.

Okey dokey. I think this “hero” will serve our discussion.

Continuing on with the rest of the long first paragraph:

I’m surprised I haven’t been buried alive. The place isn’t big. I have to struggle to keep a path clear between bed and toilet, toilet and kitchen table, kitchen table and front door. If I want to get from the toilet to the front door, impossible, I have to go by way of the kitchen table. I like to imagine the bed as home plate, the toilet as first, the kitchen table as second, the front door as third: should the doorbell ring while I am lying in bed, I have to round the toilet and the kitchen table in order to arrive at the door. If it happens to be Bruno, I let him in without a word and then jog back to bed, the roar of the invisible crowd ringing in my ears.

 

Paragraph 2:

I often wonder who will be the last person to see me alive. If I had to bet, I’d bet on the delivery boy from the Chinese take-out. I order in four nights out of seven. Whenever he comes I make a big production out of finding my wallet. He stands in the door holding the greasy bag while I wonder if this is the night I’ll finish off my spring roll, climb into bed, and have a heart attack in my sleep.

 

Paragraph 3:

I try to make a point of being seen. Sometimes when I’m out, I’ll buy a juice even if I’m not thirsty. If the store is crowded I’ll even go so far as dropping my change all over the floor, the nickels and dimes skidding in every direction. I’ll get down on my knees. It’s a big effort for me to get down on my knees, and an even bigger effort to get up. And yet. Maybe I look like a fool. I’ll go into the Athlete’s Foot and say…

…[Leo continues on to say how he tries on many shoes he doesn’t buy, concluding the long paragraph with the next sentence]…

All I want is not to die on a day when I went unseen.

 

Paragraph 4:

A few months ago, I saw an ad in the paper. It said, NEEDED: NUDE MODEL FOR DRAWING CLASS. $15/HOUR. It seemed too good to be true. To have so much looked at. By so many. I called the number. A woman told me to come the following Tuesday. I tried to describe myself, but she wasn’t interested. Anything will do, she said.

Are you ready to invest in Leo Gursky yet? Apparently, many readers were: The History of Love was a New York Times bestseller and translated into more than twenty-five languages. Part of that may have to do with the dual narration promised on the back-cover copy; counter-balancing the old man’s tale is the spunky voice of fourteen-year-old Alma Singer, who is trying to find a cure for her mother’s loneliness. Certainly this helped those who might be on the fence. But I hadn’t read the back-cover copy when I bought the novel. I read this first page in the store and bought it. Let’s look at why.

This is where I usually analyze the passage. Today, I’d rather turn it over to you. Let’s see if we have a meeting of the minds in the comments.

In the paragraphs shared here, what other ways does Krauss promise us that Leo Gursky is worthy of reader investment? I came up with one dozen! Please stick to only one in your comment, though, so we can all have some fun. Use the paragraph number for reference. How did the technique you cite promise that Leo’s tale might be more than a miserable slog? Have you noticed proof of agency techniques in other books, or used one yourself?

I’ll start us off: that beautiful gut-punch of a sentence ending paragraph 3—“All I want is not to die on a day when I went unseen”—would be enough proof of agency to keep me reading. I love stories that offer up keen observations about the human condition, and Leo Gursky, although elderly, lonely, and depressed, delivered this on page one.

If the comments don’t uncover all of the 12 clues I found, I’ll post the rest of mine in a comment tonight.

About Kathryn Craft [1]

Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. Her work as a freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com [2] follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads writing workshops and retreats, and is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers. Learn more on Kathryn's website.