Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bringing up the Protagonist like a Child

Writing a book is a lot like having a baby. The entire process from the conception of a story, nurturing it, feeding it with imagination, watching it grow little by little… the stage where it’s finally out is similar to pregnancy. The baby is ready to face the world. It is but natural then, that the protagonist becomes the child. Adopted or otherwise. And concern for its well being is foremost in our mind.

The time it takes for the story to unravel in our minds, an umbilical chord like attachment forms via our thoughts which constantly stray to the story, feeding it with nourishing plot structures, making the character strong and likeable, enhancing the scenes with juicy tidbits that hook readers, adding elements that propel the story forward, not only during our waking moments, but, many times during sleep too.

If my characters could talk they would definitely crib about me stalking them. I have done that for my middle grade fiction about a notorious prankster Nina. For the duration of time that it took me to write the first draft, I was obsessed with Nina. I had definitely become the overconcerned, anxious mother, constantly fretting over Nina, stifling her and seldom giving her the breathing space a ten going on eleven year old needed. I wanted my girl to be perfect, the kind of child every mother craved, the kind of child who would become a role model. But as the story progressed Nina developed a strong personality of her own, she baulked at her strict upbringing and loathed my interference.

The head strong spirited girl that I had created sat down with me to discuss her fate. She explained the injustice I had done to her, her personality had wilted instead of flowering. I had superimposed my likes and dislikes on her. “Yes, I am your creation, but not an extension of your personality,” she said, staring deep into my eyes. Her anguish and pain haunted me for days.

The moment I started the second draft, I shed the over protectiveness, dropped the strict attitude I had adopted, and allowed Nina a free rein. She had a right to decide her fate. The much deserved freedom enhanced the pre teenager’s life and she emerged not a shadow of me, but, an individual in her own right.

The process of creating a character works both ways, we learn as much from the characters as they from us. Before they set an example for the rest of the world, these literary children teach us ( their adopted parents) a lot about parenthood. The child \ protoganist does not have to move through the story carrying the enormous burden of our expectations on their shoulder. They are carrying the burden of the book’s success. Isn’t that enough?! We realize that as literary parents we can show them the different paths, but the one they choose, and the journey they undertake is their own. The mistakes and triumphs are solely their own.

How do you help your literary children  along their journey? By allowing them freedom or controlling them? Do you become the strict parent, or do you indulge your literary creation? I would love to know how the nurturing process affects you in your literary hemisphere and how you bring up your characters.


  1. Yes, our protagonists do become our literary children. Great post. Enjoyed it!

  2. Very true Rachna. Not just a book, even a small article that you write goes through the same process, though for a shorter period. A good piece of creativity would have gone through this process. Good piece, Rachna. Thanks for sharing the thought.

  3. I love this post:) I've found that has happened with me when writing my characters. I have had to let them go and see where they take me and usually I love the results when I do!

  4. When I first started writing, I was so protective of my MC I didn't let anything truly bad happen to her.
    Now I realize for there to be real drama and tension, the threats have to be real. But it's hard to do!

  5. Rachna, what a wonderful post!

    I help my literary children along their journey by learning the basic rules on how to 'rear' them, nurture them and feed them. I allow them freedom, but I also control them (especially when I edit..*ugh*)

    I really indulge my literary creation. I let the characters take control--they know where to take the story better than I do, though there were a few times where I let them and they killed themselves off and I had to rewrite from the point that I let them take control. :}

  6. Hi Rachna,

    I love this line in your post: "umbilical chord like attachment forms via our thoughts which constantly stray to the story." This is SO true for me. Now that I'm done with my most recent book, I've found that the umbilical cord is cut. And my thoughts are floundering. I'm craving another story to nurture, to think upon, to help grow. I was planning to wait to start the next one until the fall, but my thoughts are already conceiving the next! :-)

  7. Pradeep, you are right, every piece of creativity goes through this process. But, there is a deeper attachment for longer pieces as we have worked longer on them.

    Terri...our characters at times develop a mind of their own and want to take us on the journey decided by them. Many times I don't like the journey they take me on. Then its time to rewrite.

    Lydia, I too was overprotective of my MC. But now I have become a little less kind towards them. I get them into tight spots now and then.

    Elizabeth...your characters are really strong willed, if they can kill themselves off without your permission.

    Hi Jody...your situation is so like mine. I am not done with this book and there are several story ideas floating in my mind.

  8. Hi, Rachna. My first draft was all mapped out except for one character: my emperor. I had never thought about what to do with him before writing. His subplot was an afterthought. It was also the "only true" portion of the first draft. That's a quote from a beta reader. He was the only character I gave the freedom to tell ME who he was. I learned the hard way, but the other characters became individuals in later drafts. ;D However, the emperor remains a strong favorite among my readers in part because of how much of a personality swing he makes.

  9. Hi Rachna,
    Well First I think this is a story within a story. Your funny!
    Usually give them a history and a goal, create a personality through back story and bone structure. I have noticed some of this behavior in their dialogue when speaking to another character. So, This is where I allow them freedom. How they respond to each other is different than how they would respond to me. Except when I could not finish my synopsis in time, then I felt as Milly my spiritual character was becoming impatient and started poking her head in another project I had going on. She didn't seem so spiritual anymore. You have seen the picture already. As far as the level of control, that is where the bone structure comes in. To keep facts and circumstances straight. Things would get out of hand with out it in my opinion.
    Have a wonderful day today


  10. That is the cutest child ever! Me as a parent? I let my literary child rule the roost and I supervise from the sidelines. Much different from my actual parenting technique! ;)

  11. Victoria..the emperor in your book sounds truly interesting, a powerful personality who can tell you where he wants to go.

    Sytiva, each of us brings up our characters in different ways, with varying degrees of freedom. Loved your character Milly.

    Anne....I like the idea that you supervise from the sidelines. That is the ideal way, let the literary child have a blast.

  12. Very interesting post. I know that feeling of wanting to control the characters, but the more interesting ones do seem to have a will of their own. In the MG Novel I'm finishing up now, I originally thought one sister was the main character. But the other sister took the lead and more or less insisted that this was her book. So, I followed along, and sure enough, it's a much more interesting viewpoint. Consequently, I think it promises to be a more interesting book. It seems to me that my books are always teaching me new things.