Aggravating our Protagonist’s Weaknesses

Our house has been The House of Plague since the end of January. My preschooler has had 2 colds and a double ear infection. She shared both the colds with me and one with her father as well. So it’s been a bad month all around, health-wise.

My daughter’s double ear infection severely impacted her hearing. She has profound hearing loss in one ear anyway, and the infection in the normal ear (then another in the bad ear) really hit her hearing hard. Lots of “what?” and simply not reacting to what we’re saying because she doesn’t hear us.

Additionally, I lost my voice, and once I regained it I couldn’t talk loudly without coughing violently. So communication became difficult (thankfully we know some sign language!). I couldn’t talk and she couldn’t hear. It was like some sort of comedy of errors.

Which made me wonder about my characters. Of course, when we create friends and allies for our protagonist, we usually concentrate on providing our protagonist with people who “fill in the gaps”—people who strengthen him by having the skills or knowledge he lacks. Thus, with their help, he can grow into who he needs to be to finish his character arc.

But wouldn’t it be interesting to have a friend or ally who enhances our protagonist’s weaknesses instead? A protagonist who doesn’t hear well can be hampered by a friend who cannot speak, for instance. Or someone who is lazy can be enabled by a friend who is afraid of confrontation. Not every friend or ally could do this, of course, or the protagonist would probably fail the “quest”. But having one or two who hinder even as they try to help can add some tension and conflict to what might otherwise be “chummy” scenes with the protagonist and allies.

So next time I think about the allies I have surrounding my protagonist, I’ll think about having some that bring out the worst in him, as well as the best. Someone who complicates rather than facilitates. It should bring more depth and realism to the story and the relationships.

It will be fun to try.

How about you? Do you add people who aggravate a weakness to your protagonist’s circle of friends?

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The Premise in Fiction

I recently got my manuscript The Egyptian Enigma back from developmental editor Kathryn Craft. Her 20-page evaluation highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript. Luckily, much of it was good!

The main problem with the manuscript was that it lacked enough focus to really pull everything together. The plot wandered into odd places, and the characters didn’t always seem to have purpose behind their actions. As soon as I read this, I agreed—it was something that had bothered me but I couldn’t explain it.

Kathryn’s solution was 2-part:

1) clarify my protagonist’s goal so I could trim away the scenes that did not directly forward or obstruct his reaching that goal

I can do that!

2) stay true to the underlying premise of the book.

Excuse me, the what?

The Premise.

Now I’m in trouble, because I have no clue what that is.

Luckily, Kathryn is awesome, and she explains in great detail in her evaluation what a premise is and why it’s important: “A premise is kind of like a moral but not as didactic—it is your story’s raison d’etre. The structure of your premise will suggest story movement. That structure is typically:____________ leads to ___________.”

I have two co-authors whom I will have to talk to before crafting a final premise, but for the purposes of this post I will state the premise as: “Digging up information from the past leads to solutions for a better future.”

Having an underlying premise will help guide what plot points are needed to move the story forward. All plot points will show the protagonist “digging” into things, all of which will lead him into deeper trouble. But since we have a premise in place, we will be able to identify any scenes or plot points that are irrelevant and therefore can be cut.

Having an underlying premise also allows you to use your characters to deepen or to refute that premise, thus giving the characters more purpose and stronger arcs. My protag believes the past holds the key to a better future, and so digs at things perhaps best left buried. His brother believes that digging into the past is fruitless and painful and therefore should be avoided. You can also have characters with related premises, such as a woman digging into the past to try to understand and come to terms with her husband’s murder, or a girl digging in the past to gain the attention and favor of her mother in the present.

So having a strong underlying premise helps bring your plot into focus and helps you find new and deeper emotional roles for your supporting characters. A premise is, as Kathryn stated, a moral, but it is also a worldview held by the main character. This will shape the main character’s actions (and thus the plot) and bring him into conflict with people who do not hold the same worldview.

Now that we know what a premise is, and what the function is, my co-authors and I can hammer out a premise to act as the underpinning of our novel. Once we have that and our character’s goal, knowing what to cut or rearrange or rewrite should become much clearer.

Kathryn said that the character’s goal should be like a strung arrow pointing the way to the climactic ending.

If that is the case, then the premise is the bow holding the arrow up.

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