#32: Cannibalizing Your Work

Dear Story Nurse,

I have been meaning to rewrite my thesis for a year and make it suitable for publication as a monograph or as separate articles and I am struggling. It is not as much the writing but the rewriting that is giving me nightmares. I’m avoiding it because I don’t know how to do it. I can plan writing and am good with the process, but going from one text to another… I don’t know how to plan a new text out of a previous one. How to rewrite text that took forever to write?

—karmaku (she/her)

Dear karmaku,

I can completely understand that you’re reluctant to take apart something that took so much time and effort to put together. Fortunately, the original thesis will always be there, and will always be a testament to your hard work.

Continue reading

#31: The Myth of the Everyperson

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m about to start writing the next volume of a fantasy series and find myself-second-guessing my choice of 1st person protagonist. In the usual way of fantasy novels, all of my previous protagonists (multiple per book) have been exceptional in some way: magical talents, physical skills, social status, etc. Because I want to write a wide diversity of characters, for this one I deliberately designed a character who is not “special”. A young working-class woman with no magical talents, no money, limited economic expectations, and only tentative aspirations with regard to the skill she has her sights on (dressmaking). But she gets drawn into adventures because of the friends she makes and because she chooses to support the skills and aspirations of those friends with her own more everyday abilities. (The book is planned to be YA.)

That circle of friends is itself fairly diverse, including people with physical disability, marginalized ethnic and religious background, trans identity, as well as some with more privileged backgrounds. But now I’m second-guessing the reasons I chose a “default settings” protagonist. (She’s lesbian, but in my series that pretty much counts as a default character setting, though it does make her life more precarious.)

I keep thinking of stories I’ve read or viewed where my reaction was, “Why wasn’t this the black girl’s story—she’s the more interesting character? Why doesn’t the disabled character get to be the hero?” And yet, as the story is designed, all those other characters intersect the story and are brought together through her. Her story arc is to learn how to value her friendships for what they are, and not in how they relate to her, and to choose to support those friends in their triumphs specifically because they have talents she lacks, rather than choosing the path of self-benefit. (I know this is sort of vague without giving the whole plot.)

Am I overthinking this? Can an everywoman of a poor non-magical queer white laundry maid be a worthy protagonist?

—heatherrosejones (she/her)

Dear heatherrosejones,

You’ve actually got two questions here, cleverly disguised as one. The first is whether an ordinary person—in the sense of non-extraordinary, someone lacking in special powers or status—can be a successful protagonist. The second is whether a “default settings” person, someone who is not significantly marginalized in their setting, can be a successful protagonist. The answer to both questions is yes. You just have to pick the right kind of story for her, and understand who you’re telling that story for.

1. Ordinary protagonists

Off the top of my head, here’s a short list of positive, inspiring media that center ordinary people:

  • The song “Somebody Will” by Sassafrass
  • Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series of books
  • Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
  • Sesame Street
  • Bob Ross’s painting videos
  • Jane Austen’s novels
  • This video from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee of interviews with civil rights activists

Stories about extraordinary people doing extraordinary things are escapist fantasies: “Wouldn’t it be cool if my life were like that?” Stories about ordinary people doing ordinary (but still important and valuable) things are very different. They encourage us to think, “I can do that right now.”

The television shows I mentioned basically teach that message over and over and over. You can manage your feelings! You can learn to count! You can paint! And gradually viewers absorb the greater lesson: whatever it is you think you can’t do, you probably actually can.

Austen’s novels have a more specific focus: even if you think you can’t find love, you probably actually can. And the activists and “Somebody Will” say that even if you think you can’t contribute significantly to efforts to make the world better, you probably actually can. And Pierce’s books, like your story, say that even if you think you can’t have adventures because you’re too ordinary, you probably actually can. But the gist is the same.

So let’s recast your story in those terms:

Her story arc is to learn how to value her friendships for what they are, and not in how they relate to her, and to choose to support those friends in their triumphs specifically because they have talents she lacks, rather than choosing the path of self-benefit.

That sounds to me like “Even if you think you can’t be a good friend without uncomfortable amounts of self-sacrifice or self-denial, you probably actually can.” And that’s a lesson many people could stand to learn, especially many people who, like your protagonist, are marginalized in some ways but privileged in others, and are trying to figure out how to balance what they need (or feel they are owed) with what they can give.

You’re absolutely right that many stories with ordinary protagonists also have boring protagonists, but that’s a story craft issue. We’re swimming in the narrative conceit that what makes extraordinary characters interesting is their extraordinariness and what makes protagonists interesting is that they’re protagonists. Stories built on those premises tend to keep the action and adventure coming so quickly that they can kind of get away with it for a bit. (They also tend to have sequels that fall flat as pancakes because the initial excitement has worn off and readers realize there was nothing underneath it.) So if you take away the crutch of extraordinariness, many writers fail to realize that they now have to put in actual protagonist character development work to compensate.

Meanwhile, those same writers put significant effort into building up side characters because they’re more aware that side characters can’t just skate by on their extraordinariness. Side characters also often get moral complexity than the protagonist does, especially in heroic tales where the protagonist is the embodiment of goodness, and they provide conversational foils, dispensing both banter and wisdom. And if they’re more marginalized than the protagonist is, they have more real-world problems to contend with, making them more relatable to readers. Naturally, these complicated, sympathetic, well-developed characters steal every scene.

To avoid this trap, take the time to figure out what makes your protagonist interesting, to herself and to the people around her, and to learn the Mister Rogers lesson that characters can make their stories special just by being their unique selves. Think about the people in your life with whom you can happily talk for hours and never feel bored. How do they hold your interest? What makes you want to hang out with them over and over again? Use that knowledge to help your readers feel just as good about spending hours of reading time with your protagonist. And make sure you spend just as much time developing her depth and complexity as you do for any of her companions, and give her plenty of opportunities to make mistakes, wrestle with her conscience, and support other characters on their own journeys.

2. “Default settings” protagonists

You’re also right that many (many) (so many) stories fall into the trap of considering someone with tremendous social privilege to be a protagonist whom of course all readers will be able to relate to, while relegating marginalized characters to narrative support roles because they would be “unrelatable” in the central role. (“I can’t relate to this character” is a phrase often used by privileged editors and readers to reject work featuring marginalized protagonists, even though marginalized readers are expected to force themselves to relate to privileged protagonists.) To some extent, you’ve fallen into that trap too, awkwardly stretching the term everywoman to cover both the ways your character is marginalized and the ways that she’s privileged. Is she an everywoman because she’s poor and queer and low-status and therefore overlooked by the elite, or because she’s white and able-bodied and therefore the narrative default? Rather than trying to thread that needle, I recommend ditching the label altogether. No one is actually an everywoman, and you will do your story and your readers a much greater service by focusing on her as a complete and unique person.

With regard to having a protagonist who’s privileged in some respects, you’ve already taken steps in the right direction by constructing your story around her learning to genuinely value the marginalized people she knows rather than treating them as objects. Now you just have to make sure the narrative also doesn’t treat those people as objects for her to learn important life lessons from.

There’s nothing morally wrong with having a white protagonist, but you have to put some work into making her a protagonist worth reading. Some starting points:

  • Give her a distinct identity, rather than leaving her whiteness as an unmarked state. (Both those links are to posts by the marvelous and insightful Mary Anne Mohanraj. I highly recommend reading them in full.)
  • Describe her and other white characters in similar ways to how you describe nonwhite characters. If you mention race for some people, mention it for everyone.
  • Don’t define the character’s attractiveness in terms of her pale skin, light-colored eyes, or other attributes linked with whiteness. If a particular other character is attracted to her because of those qualities, be careful to distinguish that from a narrative opinion that those qualities are inherently attractive.
  • Be aware of ethnic distinctions as well as racial ones, and how identities and labels change from one situation to another. For example, someone who’s seen as white in America might be regarded as Italian in Europe and Calabrian in Italy—none of which tells you how they think of themself (which may also change depending on the situation they’re in).
  • Avoid the many clichés of white exceptionalism, such as the white savior, the white anti-racist activist who helps nonwhite people realize how oppressed they are, or the white ruler over a nation of nonwhite people. If your story looks like a million anonymous brown arms reaching out for one named blond lady, something is awry.

Likewise, for an abled protagonist:

  • Give her an explicit relationship with her embodied self. The biggest cliché of the able body and brain is that they just work; the protagonist never encounters a burden they can’t lift or forgets important information. But in reality, everyone is conscious to some degree of being embodied, and everyone encounters situations that they’re not equipped for. Showing how your protagonist works around those situations can be great for character development.
  • Mention her physical and cognitive reactions to everyday situations such as not getting enough sleep or food, being startled, catching a cold, or having period cramps. Or, since she’s a poor working-class woman and probably has never gotten enough sleep or food, mention her physical and cognitive reactions to finally having a good meal or a full night’s rest, if the narrative allows her to have those things.
  • Mention her sensory reactions to the world around her.
  • Don’t use temporary injury or disability as a plot device that affects nothing else in the character’s life and magically gets better as soon as it’s no longer needed for plot reasons.
  • Make her skills and abilities appropriate for her age and lifestyle. There’s a fine line to walk here, because one person’s “that’s unrealistic” is another person’s “that sounds just like my grandma,” but in general, any skill or ability she has should have at least a scrap of attached backstory explaining how she acquired it (for your reference even if it doesn’t make it into the narrative), and any new thing she attempts should have a learning curve. Also, expending much more effort than usual should leave her tired and sore, and her vulnerability to ailments and recovery time from exertion should be increased by age, illness, malnourishment, or chronic exhaustion.

And in general:

  • If your character is aware of her privilege in certain areas, give her complex and plausible reactions to it, especially if she’s marginalized in other ways. Don’t make her a mouthpiece for endless platitudes about the importance of allyship, and be very wary of centering her story around her political awakening, which can easily turn into an exceptionalism narrative (especially if the less privileged people around her disproportionately admire or reward her awareness).
  • Regardless of whether she’s aware of her privilege, the narrative should be, and the marginalized people around her should be.
  • Her setting, whether real-world or created, should incorporate diversity of all sorts from the ground up. If it’s not, its homogeneity should clearly be due to overt or covert actions taken by one group to exclude other groups. Women-only colleges exist, but not by happenstance. Many of those colleges have majority-white student bodies, which is also not by happenstance.

Most importantly, she needs to be a real, multifaceted person. Just as you can’t assume that the protagonist is interesting by virtue of being the protagonist, you can’t assume that privileged people are interesting by virtue of being privileged. So in the end, there’s one answer to both your questions: yes, any fully developed character can be a protagonist in a story that’s written with care.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on PatreonGot a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#30: Whose Story Is It Anyway?

Dear Story Nurse,

I am a mostly-fan sometimes-original fiction author who generally has a clear idea about plot and story beats and so on, but an issue with an unfinished NaNo project has me a bit stumped. It’s original fiction, a time-travel transhumanist romance between characters whose first names conveniently start with A, B, and C.

For the first part of the story, our point-of-view character is B, a female graduate student who has been sent to the distant past and who hooks up with A, a man of some privilege there. She makes a copy of his brain pattern on her computer (with his consent) and returns to C, her genderqueer ex, who helps her load up A’s mind on a computer. Eventually, A will be restored to a physical form with science magic and they will all live happily ever after together, but before I can write that I have to figure out a very basic question: Whose point of view do I write the next section of the story in?

I’ve written everything so far from B’s POV and I intended to write the rest of the story that way, but there’s a lot going on between A and C that she won’t be witness to. On the other hand, it could be that all of C’s diagnostics aren’t actually interesting or relevant to the story. I’d almost decided to write the next section in A’s POV, but something inside me is rebelling!

What can I do to narrow down my options and figure out why I am hesitant to commit to an actor for my next few thousand words?

Thank you!

—Aris Merquoni (she/her)

Dear Aris Merquoni,

Questions about point of view are really questions about what story you’re telling. If you’re not sure whether to switch POV, you may not be sure what your story is. Is it B’s story, or is it A, B, and C’s story?

Continue reading

#29: When Creation Feels like a Chore

This question came from the priority request queue for $2+ Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

Some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life has been when revising and editing my own stories. Unfortunately, I need to produce some kind of draft before I can start polishing, and that has started to feel near impossible to me.

I’m trying to resume writing after several years hiatus due to a tumultuous life event and emotional fallout that left me with no energy to spare for creative pursuits. Now that my mental wellbeing has improved and day to day life has become much less stressful, I’d like to do something nice for myself and have fun writing again. I’ve set aside some hours at my preferred time just for that, and my partner is being wonderfully encouraging.

However, I find myself treating what’s supposed to be an opportunity for creative play as if it’s a chore I’m trying to put off long enough to forget about entirely. I feel like I have no clue what comes next, struggle to commit to what thin threads I have, and both my freewriting and outlining attempts too often turn into long agonizing sessions of tensing my imagination into immobility as I attempt to Make A Really Cool Idea Happen Right Now.

Previously, I mostly wrote romantic vignettes and notes for potential storyworlds without much for plot. I’m trying to resume writing similar short scenes as well as outlining a romantic fantasy novel very loosely based on some earlier work, though plot remains as elusive as before. I’ve considered trying to write nonfiction or a different type of fiction to attempt to get unstuck and perhaps find “what I’m really meant to be writing”, but I still end up unhappily mired early into the “what shall this specifically be about” stage and just end up feeling more directionless than ever. I’ve also spent some time trying to do stream of consciousness warm-up writing, but that has yet to help me produce anything beyond a lot of lines about “I don’t know what to write.”

Any advice for getting through the initial decision and drafting stages for those of us who feel like the fun comes after?

—Stuck at the Start

Dear Stuck at the Start,

I get the sense that you’re trying to make up for lost time by doing years’ worth of writing all at once. You’re trying to write beginnings with your head full of middles and endings and plots and “is this idea good enough” and pressure pressure pressure. You also mention that you love editing and revising, which explains why you’re critiquing your drafts before they even exist. Your brain is desperately trying to escape the pressure by retreating to the part of wordcraft that feels enjoyable and happy and safe. Alas, that part can’t happen until you have a draft, and so the pressure to create a draft increases. It’s a vicious cycle. You need to get out.

Continue reading