Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Protagony and the Ecstasy

When it comes to protagonists, I'm like a duckling fresh out of the egg. The first name I see is where I lay my loyalty and if the author does a change up, even in the next paragraph, I get grumpy. I'm so recalcitrant in this attitude that in Gary Corby's debut, The Pericles Commission, which begins with:

A dead man fell from the sky, landing at my feet with a thud. I stopped and stood there like a fool, astonished to see him lying where I was about to step.

I'd have imprinted on the dead guy if the second clause hadn't referenced "my feet" and the next sentence hadn't begun with "I". I'm so stodgy and stubborn, were it not for those facts, I'd have clamped onto that dead guy and insisted on following him, relegating every other character in the story to a subordinate position, which would have made for a short read, being as the guy was dead and all.

In The Man in the Empty Suit, Sean Ferrell makes it easy ,for me: "It is unfortunate for me, that I am, by most any objective measure, a genius."

I am happy. The unfortunate genius is my protag. Now let's see what happens to him.

The Kite Runner: "I became what I am today at the age of twelve on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975"

I have no idea yet what the protag became, but it started at the age of twelve and I'm happy to move to the next sentence and find out more.

My Sister's Keeper:  "When I was little, the great mystery to me wasn't how babies were made, but why."

The Handmaid's Tale: "We slept in what had once been a gymnasium."

The Baron in the Trees: "It was on the fifteenth of June 1767, that Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo, my brother, sat among us for the last time. And it might have been today, I remember it so clearly."

Mr. Calvino's story is a toss-up for a few paragraphs, but I know for sure that the protag is going to be either Cosimo, or the narrator, who is Cosimo's brother. I'm good with that.

Obviously, I have a penchant for first-person narratives. Anyone who has read my work knows it's what I typically write. But look how easy a good first-person narrative makes it for me, the reader. I'm invited to inhabit the narrator's skin. There's no worry for determining point of view, wondering whose head I'm in and determining the protag and where I'm supposed to imprint is easy.

Here's the thing, all stories read like first-person narratives to me, no matter what the actual person it is written in, so long as I have a clear and early protag upon which to imprint and the quality of the actual writing is adequate.

A Confederacy of Dunces begins with a description of Ignatius J. Reilly's hat and what his face looks like. It doesn't matter that the story has a cast of thousands and moves from one POV to the other in an ever spiraling narrative with a fluidity that would make Jean Shepherd proud, I know the protag is Ignatius and I know that the entire narrative, no matter which member of the cast assumes it, serves to tell me his story.

Look at the work of any of the greats: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein and so on. By and large, no matter what the person or POV of the work, I am handed a protagonist in the first line or two.

That makes me a happy. No little duckling wants to spend chapter after chapter asking, "Are you my protag?"


JamesO said...

Good point, very well made. Nice to see you back, too, MG!

M. G. Tarquini said...

Thanks, James! Nice to be back.