First posted 9th May 2017
Writer, I have just picked up your novel, and I’m reading the opening pages. I’ve opened the door of the mind-transporter; here comes my first glimpse of a whole new world. It looks good, and something fascinating is going on over there… And then this big hairy bloodspattered guy walks casually over, sword in one hand, blaster in the other, and he smells of garlic and belches into my face, and I slam the transporter door closed and put it hastily back on the shelf because I don’t want to spend the next few hours sitting next to him. The problem here, Writer, is that I have not warmed to your protagonist.
Last time I critted an opening-chapter protagonist I didn’t warm to, Writer’s reply was “I’ll make him nicer.”
And I thought, that isn’t quite what I need. I’m happy to spend time with people who aren’t nice. Paul Atreides isn’t nice; neither is Sparrowhawk. Breq Mianaai isn’t nice. Granny Weatherwax isn’t nice. So what exactly is the problem here?
Then I found a quote from John Yorke’s book INTO THE WOODS: “The protagonist is… the person the audience care most about. ‘Care’ is often translated as ‘like’, which is why so many writers are given the note ‘Can you make them nice?’” And I thought YES, that’s it! Protagonist, you don’t have to be nice, but you do have to care about stuff, and you have to make me care about that stuff too. You have to show me your agenda, part of it at least. If I don’t understand what you’re doing straight away, I have to have a reason to want to hang around and find out more. We have to build a good relationship, fast; in the opening pages. You have to win my trust, to convince me that whatever you’re telling the rest of the cast, you’re being honest with me, you’re opening up to me. The garlic’s because of the ongoing vampire problem. You’re spattered with blood because you’ve just come from the field hospital. The sword is your recently-dead sister’s, the blaster is a sterile-field generator, you’re hairy because you’ve just worked a triple shift trying to save as many people as possible, with no time off for grooming. You’re sorry about the belch; coming off-shift you were so thirsty that you drank a litre of Choke. And you’ve always hated being so big. You bang your head on doorframes, your feet stick off the end of your sleep-mat, and people are scared of you because you’re big. You so hate that.
Now – too late – now I’m starting to understand. If I had known all that, or even some of that, before I met you, I wouldn’t have slammed the door on you. You’re bitter; yes, I’m really not surprised. You’re twisted; yes, who wouldn’t be, after what you’ve gone through? You’ve done some dreadful things, killing your sister for example; some people might call that monstrous, but I can see why you thought it was right, why you felt you had to do that. I understand. I empathise. I want to support you now; I’m cheering for you. You’re telling me your story, and I care about how it comes out. I hope you solve your problems. I want you to survive, and learn, and change. I want to spend an evening with you, sometime soon. I’ll buy dinner. Tell me more…
Sue Thomason lives in rural North Yorkshire, near the sea, with an ex-GP and up to 5 cats. Varied involvement with written SF has included a handful of published short stories, reviewing for both VECTOR and FOUNDATION, co-editing an anthology of locally-based SF/F stories, and being Chair of Milford. She writes fiction mostly for her own entertainment and to find out what happens (often this surprises her). Her other interests include outdoor pursuits, gardening, classical/early/folk music, and collecting interesting or unusual paper clips.