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Hello, writers. It’s hard to believe two months of our new year are gone already. I’m scrambling to get Jinx 2 ready for the copyeditors by Monday, while Jinx 3 is taped to the wall as a series of index cards written in different colored markers.

(I can’t remember what color each character was in the last two books. The Bonemaster is aqua at the moment, though on reflection I’m pretty sure he was either red or magenta to start out with. Probably magenta; I think Simon Magus was red.)

I hope you caught Emmet’s brilliant and funny diary on
beginnings… if not you should. Beginnings are incredibly important. Every editor and agent I’ve worked with takes this as given. I’ll still be revising the beginning of Jinx 2 even as it marches out the door. I spent much of yesterday putting in and taking out the second sentence.

The reason is simple. Glancing at the beginning is how most prospective readers decide whether to read.

But tonight I want to talk about Passive Protagonist Syndrome.

Here’s an example of a synopsis with PPS:

The Jewel, The Jewel! is the tale of a callow youth, Beauregard, who is the Chosen One who must find the Jewel of Togwogmagog to save the realm. But where is the jewel? With the world going to hell in a handbasket around him, he is forced to go off in search of same. Many terrible things befall him on the way.

But a kindly vampire and several other stout companions—one with a terrible secret—each befriend him. The vampire is the one who rescues Beau when the Evil Earl, who wants the Jewel for himself…

Anyway, you get the idea. (And no, I can’t write synopses.) The alleged protagonist is only the subject of one sentence, and that sentence says he “is forced to” do stuff. This is a protagonist who fails to protag. Everyone around him is protagging. He’s just eye-candy.

That’s rather obvious PPS. But PPS is insidious. It creeps into chapters, scenes, and paragraphs just when you think you’ve got it licked.

Here are two things I’m learning now:

1. Your protagonist needs to be active in the scene even if s/he’s nailed to the floor.

Don’t let other characters take over your scenes. (I have this problem with Simon Magus. He’s very hard to control.) Even if the scenes really belong to other characters—fights between other characters, discussions between other characters, shady deals between other characters—make sure your protagonist is shown reacting constantly. You can do this by showing the protagonist speculating about the other characters’ motives, observing their expressions, etc.

(That’s assuming your protag is able to witness the scene. If your protag is not there in any way, shaper or form… can you justify the scene being in the story?)

2. If the chapter ends with a line of dialogue or a reaction-shot, as often as possible the line or reaction should be that of your protagonist.

I learned this quite recently from Anne Hoppe, the editor of Jinx. She pointed out that several of the original manucript chapters ended with someone else (usually Simon) delivering a line of dialogue. Instead, Jinx ought to respond or react to the line, if only in his head, in order to maintain his protagitude.

If the scene ends with the Evil Earl or the Dread Least Grebe cackling in triumph, clearly in control of the situation, and the Callow Youth arse-deep in transom alligators, it still needs to end with the Callow Youth’s perspective, intentions, concerns, etc.

Tonight’s challenge:

A Callow Youth is nailed to the floor of the Tower of Doom, while the Evil Earl and the Dread Least Grebe argue about whether it would be more advisable to hold him/her for Ransom, or feed him/her to the transom alligators and make it look like an accident.

Write the scene. Make sure the CY reacts at least twice during the scene, and then gets the last line even if s/he can’t speak.

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Comment Preferences

  •  For "way, shaper or form" above (23+ / 0-)

    Please read "way, shape or form". If I go back to edit now, it'll all disappear... :p

    -9.0, -8.3 "Remember, a writer writes. Always." --Throw Momma from the Train

    by SensibleShoes on Thu Feb 28, 2013 at 08:38:26 AM PST

  •  'Protagitude' is a great word, but (12+ / 0-)

    what do you mean by 'way, shaper, form?'

    I recently got a 'passive protagonist' note, and went through and just gave the drippy idiot a bunch more dialogue where, while he still doesn't do anything, he at least responds to it via lame wisecracks.

    So he's reactively active, or something. Well, he's still just as passive, but at least we check in with him.

    "Gussie, a glutton for punishment, stared at himself in the mirror."

    by GussieFN on Thu Feb 28, 2013 at 05:11:35 PM PST

  •  Persimma opened her eyes and wished she hadn’t. (15+ / 0-)

    She was lying on the floor, stomach down, head turned to the side, and she couldn’t move.  It was easy to see why not.  The embroidered right sleeve of her Quest Jacket was nailed to the floor in five places -- that she could see.  Huge iron nails crushing and tearing the gold and copper embroidery thread, the tiny beads that had taken hours to position just right, the little lappets of crocheted lace.  All ruined.  She’d never be able to repair it.  Unless she –

    “She’s got to be worth a lot of money.”  The hoarse snarl came from behind and above her.  “Look at that Quest Jacket.”

    Persimma tried to twist around and realized that her left sleeve must be nailed down too. Bastards.  War criminals.  Despoilers of finework.  

    A reedy avian pipe, also behind her but from higher up.  “But the transom creatures hunger.  And we could videotape the feeding and show it at the Feral Feast.”

    Where was Bunny Nesbit?  Probably still frivolling with that luscious lagomorph from the Swamp Bar.  How stereotypical of him.  No wonder bunnies weren’t the go-to stout companions.  Once she got free, maybe those iron nails could be worked into some kind of dangly ornamentation.  

    Artistic fervor replaced the headache, the despair, and the fear of death that was hopping up and down in the background trying to get her attention.  “Hey, you antagonists!  Let me up!  I’ve got some ideas that might interest you.”

  •  From the crypt. (12+ / 0-)

    “And to think mistakenly that Kafka was the only writer who turned his character into a cockroach. That was an error.”  His hands and chest were stuck deep in yellow, dense mucilage. Thoroughly stuck.  The more he squirmed, the more it hurt, the tighter he was held. He lifted his head to keep it out of the muck, but his neck was rapidly becoming more and more tense. “It makes sense. He turned me into a bug, and, of course, I decided to visit this roach motel. Moths to flames. And now I’m stuck.”

    “No panic, no, not yet.” He tried to breathe deeply. “What ugly hands and feet I now have, and these long antennae, twitching back and forth, back and forth.”

    He could hear their voices through the cardboard.  Yelling. An argument. The fat one shouting, “Look, let’s just squash him. Step on the box. End the problem. Flatten him out. One less pest in the world. Let’s do it.” And then the skinny one was shouting, too, pleading,  “Don’t. Don’t do it. Let’s ransom him. Let’s cocllect some money for him. At least let’s get something out of all of this.”

    “You gotta be kidding. Nobody would believe that this bug was really Cy. You can’t convince anybody of that. And nobody is paying anything for this cockroach, no matter what story you tell about it. I say I step on him and flatten him out.”

    “No you don’t, fathead, nobody kills me like that!” he tried to shout. But the only sound that emerged from his misshapen, greenish mouth was a weak squeaking nobody would be able to hear. Evidently cockroaches, he thought, do not have operatic equipment.  Or even any vocal cords. They do, however, have tear ducts, he noticed.  His heart pounded.  His neck ached. A tear rolled down his proboscis and fell on the goo with a splat.

    Outside the argument continued. Would they use him for bait? Would they burn the box in lighter fluid with him in it? Would they flush him down the toilet? Would they let him drown in the box or starve to death?

    He clenched his jaws. “There has to be a way out of this. I’m not a vengeful person, but Laurel and Hardy are going to pay for this.” He pulled hard, and one of his legs broke off. And then he discovered it. He had wings.

  •  mine (13+ / 0-)
    Jasper pulled at the nail in his right hand.  Ouch, ouch!!  Damn.  That hurts!!

    "No way is this bandit worth a ransom from anyone," said the Least Grebe.  "Leave him here in the tower to rot."

    "You are bitter because he stole your map and got away from the swamp six times," Earl Weirdrobe said.  "I think the troll would pay quite a bit for his lone companion."

    Ha, I doubt that myself.

    Jasper pulled on his left hand and despite tears rolling down beside his mouth pulled it free.  It felt like a dead fish and he dared not try to wiggle it to wake it up.

    "I say just throw him out of the tower and see if big Hitch can catch him," the Least Grebe said.

    Temper, temper! Jasper tasted the sweat in his mouth and wanted to shake it out of his eyes.  He pulled on one foot.  Oh, damn!  His attention faded for a bit, but he thought just one more pull might free that one.  He pulled.

    "No.  I prefer the alligator threat and a note that the ransom and the map come trough that transom within five hours or one piece of his friend will arrive with toothmarks on it each hour after until the money and map arrive," said the Earl.

    While the Earl laughed at his own joke, Jasper pulled the other foot free.  He was afraid the blood would trickle across to the plotters before he could free his other hand.  And then what?

    "I say, we play a hand of Last Man Standing," said the Earl, "and whoever wins gets to decide.

    "Let me open the window, then," the Grebe said.  "I have beaten you a dozen times.  You have little chance of winning this time."

    The Earl smiled and pulled out the cards.  

    Jasper wondered if he could throw himself out of the window and survive.  It would be better than alligators.

    The two plotters hunched over their cards.  Jasper bit his lip through, but he freed his final hand.  Pain rolled through him, but the open window beckoned.

    "Cheater!" yelled the Earl.


    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Thu Feb 28, 2013 at 05:48:59 PM PST

  •  Something like... (13+ / 0-)

    The Earl laughed deep in his throat as he taunted his victim.

    "Didn't see that one coming, did you boy? Honestly - you young punks think you can just waltz in, evade a few obvious traps, snarfle the transom alligators, and waltz right on out with your loot. What part of Tower of Doom did you not get? Oh right - the part that knocked you out and nailed you to the floor."

    Beside him, the Dread Least Grebe ruffled its feathers and gave a series of gloating peeps, its mad little eyes flaring with insane glee.

    Clarse slowly opened his eyes. He decided to take inventory while the Earl continued to gloat. Good news: 1) Waking up at all. 2) Definitely nailed to the floor - but only through his clothing. They must want him intact for now. 3) Thoroughly gagged - at least he didn't have to worry about saying something stupid. Bad news: just about everything else. He rolled his eyes experimentally.

    "So" the Earl continued "what to do with you now? Throwing you to the transom alligators might be useful. You look like the kind of food they'd enjoy playing with, eh, eh?"

    The Grebe quaffled agreement.

    "On the other hand, if they were hungrier, you might not have gotten past them at all. It is a dilemma."

    Clarse continued to not move and not quite scream, although a bit of a whimper seemed to be trying to make his acquaintance.

    "On the other hand," the Earl mused "You might be worth something to someone. I wonder if anyone has a reward out for you. Owe anybody money? A bidding war can be so amusing - especially if done a piece at a time."

    The grebe took on a speculative look. Clarse found himself wondering just how it was managing an evil leer with a rigid bill.

    "Well, no need to be hasty." The Earl got up and moved to the door. "You're not going anywhere, and my piscatorial avian friend will keep an eye on you whilst I set a few things to rights. For a lone intruder, you made more than enough of a mess getting in here."

    Clarse exerted himself to his utmost in a desperate attempt to display absolutely no reaction at all. The Earl didn't know...

    "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

    by xaxnar on Thu Feb 28, 2013 at 05:55:08 PM PST

  •  I don't think I often have a passive protag (8+ / 0-)

    I like delving into their motivations, provoking them to the limit. However, I'm quite sure I am guilty of not letting them have the last line. I never thought of it, but it makes sense when your trying to keep a reader engaged with the protag. I shall keep that in mind.

    I dunno about the exercise. My callous youth has a default setting of "kill them all", which keeps her from being very passive. Unless forced to, like being nailed to the floor.

        Alarm charged up Honra’s spine, jolting her to awareness. Voices were arguing but that paled next to her inability to move. Not even to turn her head from the slow spin of the floor below.
        Hadn’t that been the ceiling last night? The intricate mosaic of pastoral pastimes? And a particular large, fine bottle of wine. That didn’t explain why she couldn’t move.
        “She’s awake, you two bit snake oil flim flam shyster,” the Least Grebe quacked out, wings fluttering him out of range.
        “Ya’ll think ya so smart, do ya? She ain’t good fer nuthin’ but Transom Tree bait. Get a right fine ally-gator,” Earl spat out a gob of chew.
        “Ummf,” Honra tried to speak but even her mouth wouldn’t obey. What was holding her down? Nails and rope? All she could do was stare at the ceiling, fuming while visions of torturing Earl, the Mechanical Magician of Awkinsaws.
        “Takes one million gold to free you from the Tower of Doom,” cackled the Grebe, “And you let it walk right on out!”
        “Whut in Santana’s hecklage are ya on about now?” Earl snapped. Honra could hear something thrown and miss the Grebe. Pity.
        “The men you let escape in the night. One was Prince Whelk, rumored to be the prophesized Togwogmagog Jewel,” the Grebe’s laugher echoed nastily off the walls.
        There was silence. Honra could just imaging Earl’s face turning purple with rage, his tartan shirt popping buttons, his weird, duckbill hat flying off. Ah, flying off with his head-
        “Naw,” Earl did not sound enraged, “If’n was him, they’ll be back. Left half tha’ prophesy right here.”
        Honra dully felt her foot kicked.
        “Yeaup. Think Ahl keep her a few more days, then.”
        Something else was thrown. The Grebe squawked as it hit.
        “Right Bastard! My wing- put me down!”
        “Ah ain’t getten’ alligator, then Ahl have me some Grebe!”
        Honra listened to Earl stomp off, the Grebe screeching incoherently. Served that traitorous bird right. But Whelk and Ray left? Without her? Unable to move, she could only her wonder why.

    I am much too liberal to be a Democrat.

    by WiseFerret on Thu Feb 28, 2013 at 06:17:39 PM PST

  •  Take Two. (9+ / 0-)

    I spent about half an hour drafting it, and it somehow got eaten in the process of posting.  So I'm trying it again:

    "I say just kill him."

    The thin, reedy voice of the Least Grebe warned Cal that his captors were returning.  He ceased struggling to tear free from the nails in his tunic that held him fast against the floor.  With luck, they wouldn't notice that he'd regained consciousness.

    "That would be imprudent at this juncture," the Earl of Ashwaubenon drawled as he and the Grebe entered the dungeon cell.  "Maldeve has expressed an interest in this one.  If we were to kill him, I doubt she would be pleased."

    "She has the hots for him, does she?" the Grebe fluttered over to where Cal lay pinned and lit on his chest.  "All the more reason to kill him.  He's a hero.  Letting heroes live is always a bad idea."

    The Earl ignored the small annoying waterfowl and instead examined Cal's sword.  "A fine blade.  It will go well in my collection."

    It's the Holy Sword of Hasenpfeffer, you dork! Cal thought gritting his teeth.  If only he had that sword!

    "We could say it was an accident.  Maldeve would never know!  Lads like him get run through with swords all the time; it's practically considered natural causes."

    "Don't be absurd."

    The Grebe began to waddle up and down Cal's torso, his tailfeathers brushing against Cal's face as he did so.  It took all his concentration for Cal to resist sneezing.  "Or maybe feed him to the transom alligators," the Grebe continued.  "No evidence."

    "Maldeve's daughter is fond of the lad," the Earl mused.  "She might pay a considerable ransom for his liberty."  His lip twitched in the flicker of a leer.  "Or perhaps she would be willing to pay some other price..."

    Cal's fists tightened.  Diedrie!  All thoughts of the Quest fled Cal's mind; his only thought now was to somehow escape and carve the smirk off Ashwaubenon's face.

    "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

    by quarkstomper on Thu Feb 28, 2013 at 06:44:25 PM PST

  •  Hiya SenShoes (8+ / 0-)

    I was just raving about Jinx over at Bookflurries yesterday.  Packrat and I are both anxiously awaiting the next one.  

    On to the exercise:

    Callie tried to move, but her body was stuffed neck deep into the Duffel Bag of Least Resistance, which seemed to be nailed to the floor.  she tried to move her head, which only resulted in the drawstring tightening around her neck.

    "If she really is the heir of Togwogmagog, she could be useful." The voice belonged to one of the Corpus sisters, Habea or Delectia, Callie could never keep them straight.  "We could offer her to King Yerwizeness in exchange for the spell to activate the Jewel."

    Not a bad idea, Callie mused.  The King would probably bury them in plot exposition, talking for so long that they'd probably die of old age before getting to use the spell.

    A tiny dark shape fluttered across Callie's field of vision:  Lord Baldwin Twinge, the Least Grebe who seemed to think he was the Most Grebe.  "It's too dangerous to leave her alive.   I say we beat her to death with our alligator briefcases and hide the body in the transom."  Callie still had no idea what the hell a transom was.

    "I don't think there's legal precedent for that," said the first voice.  Probably Habea; she was the less malicious of the twins.  "According to common law, we would need to throw her into a pit full of alligators after first dousing her with purple onion barbecue sauce."  maybe it was Delectia after all.  "Although recent legal decisions have favored the ransom idea instead."

    The tightness of the duffel bag made Callie feel like her lungs were being squashed.  She forced herself to take a breath.  "Could I offer an opinion here?"

    I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his payroll. - Edna St. Vincent Millay

    by Tara the Antisocial Social Worker on Thu Feb 28, 2013 at 07:40:00 PM PST

  •  This is the type of thing (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    WiseFerret, Emmet, Youffraita, cfk, Deejay Lyn

    that comes with writing, a lot. Fiction is by default a stylized reality. It might be realistic for A, B, and C to happen to three different characters, but if the story is stronger for one character to encounter A, B, and C, then you do it for the sake of the story.

    I'm living in America, and in America you're on your own. America's not a country. It's just a business.

    by CFAmick on Thu Feb 28, 2013 at 09:31:18 PM PST

  •  I'll just take mild issue with this (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    WiseFerret, Deejay Lyn

    Oliver doesn't do much except escape and whine ("oh please sir do not make me steal" is my favorite) while Sykes and Fagin have all the fun. Esther Summerson's main achievement is to survive the smallpox.  Both books work for me.  

    The worst one is Mark Twain's Joan of Arc. She is active all the time in that book and she is the most boring character he ever wrote. I wish she would recede into the backround and have a fling with the Guards captain.

    My favorite solution to the  protag-lump problem is Odysseus's solution to the hazard of the Sirens. I think that scene has everything--sexy slinky singers who would otherwise steal the show, horrible menace, roaring tides, fine noble sweaty muscular sailors, and a clever lesson in having your cake and not eating it.  


    •  And that's why you never want to draw your (0+ / 0-)

      examples from 19th century work. Expectations have changed.

      -9.0, -8.3 "Remember, a writer writes. Always." --Throw Momma from the Train

      by SensibleShoes on Sat Mar 02, 2013 at 12:41:30 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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