I had a little fit of insight the other night while in my short story class. We were sitting around discussing how our first drafts had turned out. It was the final class—thought of by some as The Dread Reckoning—when each of my students gets to hear what the rest of us think of their newborn baby. That, of course, is how a freshly calved story feels.
As a teacher, I got lucky again. Eight stories, all filled with things to admire. But, naturally, I had suggestions for making them—shall we say better? Not exactly; a story isn’t tomato sauce. Instead, what I had were suggestions for making the second draft of each story something closer to what the first draft seemed to want to be.
I believe the crux of every tale is the protagonist. The protagonist is not a puppet. When our fictions work, our fabricated characters are in some ways more real than the folks we know, more essential on the page than the “real” people from whom we got the idea for them. Think of Lear. Think of Emma Bovary or Raskolnikov. Think of Ahab. Are they not—in every sense but having actually trod the earth—as real as, say, Abe Lincoln?
So: Here you are, writing away. Somehow, your unformed protagonist feels your influence. She creates herself under your fingers. In this world in which, like some germinating seed, she becomes herself, you are god. You don’t get to be a god anywhere else but here.
And at this point, my insight: As the god of her world, you owe her. You owe her the opportunity to grow fully, to reveal herself vividly, to be—in some meaningful sense—rewarded for all that free will she’s busily exercising, those qualities of character she is somehow summoning forth, out of nowhere, to become alive. It is your responsibility, as her god, to be just.
This does not mean you have to guarantee her a happy ending—that would make her struggles meaningless—but it does mean that you must give her the opportunity to thrive, or if not, at least to go down swinging—to “die standing up”—rather than to make a brief, futile, fictional appearance and be gone.
Like an “actual” person, your protagonist deserves the chance to be everything she can be. She didn’t ask to be born and become, but now that she’s in the process, give her that.
This thought came to me as I stared into the eyes of a woman—and a good writer, too—who had received my comments on her story and now glared back at me with suppressed fury. I don’t often get that response and I try never to arouse it. But there it was. Here’s what had happened.
Her heroine was the victim of a man who came over to her apartment with Chinese carry-out food for dinner but then drugged her, sexually assaulted her, and put her life under siege: a stalker. We see her damaged, isolated, struggling gamely to hold herself together, bravely but fruitlessly trying to get the authorities to keep him away. We come to root for her. She finds a therapist and tells him her story. When she’s done, she feels a little better, and even decides to go down the street—in public—and have a glass of wine. But even as she does, we see a van trailing her . . . and the story ends.
So it was my thought that she deserved better than this. To be more than, as the writer called her, “a rat in a maze.” Reward her for her bravery, her dignity as a woman, her willingness to reveal herself; give her some tools to escape that maze, give her a chance to prevail.
My student said: “But that’s not the story.”
To which I could only say, “The story is what you want it to be. You’re the writer. You can decide whether or not to give her a hopeless life.”
And she said, “Then it would be a different story.”
We went back and forth. She informed me that this might just be the first story, that there could be more stories, and that her protagonist’s situation might—but not necessarily—change. I hope it does. In this first story, her god doomed her.
So that’s what I think. If you’re going to be god—which is the part that writers play—give your protagonist a reason to believe in you.
What are your thoughts on this?