PROTAGONIST – VONNEGUT – FAIRY TALES And NOVELS
AS I prepare my novel for publication, the question of novel “TYPE” comes up again and again. Where do I fit in, in the multiplicity of niches (upon which there is no agreement). What follows is part one of this conversation.
Many years ago, my husband and I had the pleasure of witnessing Kurt Vonnegut explain the structure of drama. Though an old man by then (and since deceased), he was as lively as a 20 year-old as he sketched a grid on a white board with ECSTASY at the top of the vertical line, MISERY at the vertical bottom and TIME running along the horizontal line.
Halfway between Misery and Ecstasy, he drew another horizontal line, running the width of the grid.
He then illustrated the dramatic structure of a Cinderella story and a Disaster story, tracing each story’s arc up and down, between misery and ecstasy along the continuum of time. Finally he drew his version of real life’s arc: a line that squiggled around the middle horizontal line – never nearing ecstasy or misery. He explained that while most of us live a non-dramatic life, we are drawn to the fairy tale or disaster drama with sweeping highs and lows, which is why so many books and movies follow that formula. Derek Siver has Vonnegut’s lecture nicely illustrated on his site.
I mention this because my husband recently pointed out I have not written a typical novel with a single protagonist facing an agony, experiencing dramatic ups and downs and leading to a happy conclusion. He said: “You’ve outlined a new paradigm of a novel with many protagonists and no singular dramatic issue” (such as a wicked stepmother or an earthquake).
I agree with some of his statement. I agree that my novel has several protagonists, depending on your point of view. Younger readers often identify with young Celeste while older ones gravitate to Gamma. Some spark to Jack, a seasoned man, re-awakened by Gamma’s message. Other’s to Celeste’s best friend,Ede, with her clarity of heart and get-go. Some even identify with the brothers: Ron and James, representing reverse images of a young man making his way in life. Last but not least, there are the mothers: Estelle and Myrtle, who work with what they have, to do what they think is right. A case could be made that not one of them is “the” protagonist because the story hinges on the interaction among the whole group. Each one participates and contributes (both pro and con) to the ensuing outcome.
Consider the block buster book THE HORSE WHISPERER. Who was the protagonist in that novel? The Girl? The Mother? The Horse? The Whisperer? I suggest it is an ensemble story that requires all participants, on equal footing. I consider THE HEART CODE an ensemble of protagonists – each championing their own cause while interacting and impacting each other. Isn’t that very much the way our own lives work as well?
Don’t we all have an ensemble of people who impact what happens to us? These include family, friends, teachers, the lady neighbor who was extra nice (or mean), the boy or girl friends who contributed to your understanding of love (or not), the professional mentor or someone you talked to on the train/plane/bus who really rocked your world but you never saw again. Some run with us through life and some pop in for a brief stay. But no matter the circumstance, the people of our ensemble help, hinder or challenge our progression toward whatever we seek. In real life, there is not one Fairy Godmother or Evil Witch – there can be many, at different times. If we actually charted out our lives as we do a story arc, I think we could identify those influences that led to significant events or random left hand turns.
Before I wrote the final version of THE HEART CODE, I actually graphed out the story arc of each character. I was inspired by Author/Screenwriting teacher Robert McKee in his book STORY. That’s where I realized how others become the catalyst for our own changes or ‘stuckedness’. Being unaware of these connections in our own lives can be a liability, I think. Thus, my interest in creating a novel that illuminates those realities: the who, what, when where, how and why that makes a difference in a character’s pursuit of whatever he/she is seeking.
I also agree with my husband’s statement that my book has “no singular dramatic issue” (such as a wicked stepmother or an earthquake).
He’s correct. I did not follow the strict formula because I find it boring. Boring to read and boring to write. I like exploring the subtleness of life and living. Who among us lives in a constant fairy tale or disaster movie? No one I know, yet our lives are not empty of drama. Drama is simply the tension between where you are and where you want to be – and it is where most of us live, day-to-day, be it in the form of finding one’s calling or building a family or tackling a (new) career or selecting a college or planning a garden or coalescing a community. While my novel’s plot follows the “who will she marry” storyline, the real “story” is how a person comes to understand and trust their own internal voice. That’s what I find most fascinating and seek it out in many different avenues. Like Vonnegut’s diagram of real life, my novel reflects the “stuff in the middle,” with much smaller dramatic arcs as each protagonist grapples on the hows of hearing their heart code.
Finally, I disagree with my husband’s comment about it being a new paradigm.
My favorite authors also write about issues and ideas with multiple protagonists and without a single, defining plotline – which is why they are my favorite authors. INCLUDING:
Tracy Chavelier’s REMARKABLE CREATURES about two 18th century women who were fossil hunters.
Susan Vreeland’s PASSION OF ARTEMISIA, about a woman painter in the 14th century
Kathryn Stockett’s THE HELP about the secret life of black maids in the 60’s.
Edith Pargeter’s HEAVEN TREE TRILOGY about 12th century love and stone masonry (with the best ending ever)
Anne Tyler’s ACCIDENTIAL TOURIST documenting the steps behind a man making a significant change in his life (with an inspiring ending tableau)
Frances De Pontes Peebles THE SEAMSTRESS about two sisters who take very different paths from poverty in Brazil.
Paulo Coelho THE ALCHEMIST about a young man’s search.
Nancy Horan’s LOVING FRANK about the first mistress of Frank Lloyd Wright.
And many other thoughtful, intelligent authors – not only female – who write books about everyday people, trying to make their way home, wherever home is in their heart. Some have labeled this type of fiction as WOMEN’S FICTION – but naming the GENRE CATEGORY is a whole ‘nother post.
Thanks for checking in. xo Laura email: firstname.lastname@example.org