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.
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.
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.