I recently read a piece by Donald Maass in one of my favorite blogs—Writer Unboxed, and he asked compelling questions about why we choose a particular protagonist. I wrote about this in a guest blog a few weeks ago, but in case you missed it, here are my thoughts.
Why do writers choose a certain type of protagonist and subject matter?
My story ideas are based on a social issue that haunts me, and then I have a rough idea of what’s going to happen. But I never know which new characters will pop up, or what twists and turns are coming, and that discovery is the most fun.
I expected that to happen, but what I didn’t expect was how creating Britt Johansson as my protagonist would change me. When I first imagined Britt, I thought I was creating someone almost the opposite of me. She’s tall and athletic, a tough photojournalist willing to make people uncomfortable to get her photos, blurts out whatever she’s feeling or thinking, and doesn’t like to delve too deeply into her own psyche.
I’d have made a terrible journalist because I would hate to ask hard questions that put people on the spot. I’m deliberate where’s she’s spontaneous, and I’m a ruminator. And yet, I wonder if there isn’t a shadow side of me that harbors some of those characteristics.
In addition to following the murder of a local coed, and getting involved in a dangerous high-stakes crime that requires every ounce of her strength and skill to make it out alive, at the core of my story is Britt’s decision whether to stay in Spirit Lake or go.
I’ve moved quite a bit in my life—my grandmother used to say I had wandering feet. I don’t wander that much anymore, but the desire is still there, and I continue to feel the loss that happens when you give up one thing to get something else.
So I created a character who longs to go and longs to stay and through following her adventures, I get to explore some of my own feelings about what that conflict has meant to my own life.
And, since writing about Britt, I’ve become much more physically active, and I take more risks. Not Britt’s kind of risks, but the kind that build confidence in small ways every day. Is there a connection? Has my inspiration inspired me? I hope so. I look forward to how else Britt might inspire me in her next adventure.
Have your protagonists changed you? In what ways?