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Drop Your Protagonist In The Shit, Fast
With the clothes he stood up in, a halfpenny in his pocket, and no single friend or acquaintance to turn to, with no prospect either of a bed for the night or a meal for the morrow, Martin Stoner trudged stolidly forward, between moist hedgerows and beneath dripping trees, his mind almost a blank, except that he was subconsciously aware that somewhere in front of him lay the sea.
– The Hounds Of Fate, Saki
The business of the writer is dropping made-up people in deep shit. If your novel features a cast of plausible, nuanced characters going about their business with only minor frustrations, then it may be fiction, but it’s not a story.
Shit assumes more forms than you might have supposed. Its most obvious guise is physical peril. Think of the beginning of The 39 Steps (and not its four sequels, which descend into increasingly paranoid, racist screeds) – Richard Hannay immediately finding himself implicated in a murder, pursued both by the police and the true assassins.
But physical peril in and of itself isn’t necessarily compelling. For a start, the reader may very reasonably conclude that the protagonist is unlikely to be killed off right at the start of the book (TV Tropes calls this ‘Plot Armour’). It doesn’t matter how many ‘he felt his strength fading – it seemed he wouldn’t make it, and then’ fake outs you put in, how very close to death you insist the main character comes – unless we believe that they really might die, these high-action sequences can feel surprisingly low stakes.
This is the paradoxical thing about shit. The deepest shit – death – is also the washing away of all shit. If your character dies, they’re free from suffering and the game’s over. Think about ways of upping the stakes without killing them. What does your protagonist care about? What does he/she need? What can’t your protagonist afford to believe? What are they very bad at?
Perhaps, for you, the idea of standing in front of roomful of strangers with the expectation that you will make them laugh, is enough to make your throat go dry and your rectum wink closed. For me, most of the time, it’s one of my favourite things to do. On the other hand, I have had panic attacks sitting at home, in bed, because I think my wife’s annoyed with me. Work out what your characters dread, then force them to face it.
Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is a great example of a narrative where the author immediately throws his viewpoint characters in the shit, and every move they make to try to dig themselves out only makes them sink deeper. Anderson Lake is a calorie-company shill whose factory provides cover for his true mission – agricultural espionage. Straight away, an accident at the factory throws him into physical peril and puts his whole mission in jeopardy. Meanwhile, his Chinese manager, Hock Seng, plots to break into the company safe and steal valuable patents, but the accident disrupts his plans too. Emiko, a ‘windup girl’, is trapped working as a slave in a sex club, and will be executed if she tries to escape. Finally, Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, captain of the Environment Ministry, stages the seizure and destruction of contraband goods at the airship dock, provoking his corrupt enemies and putting not just his life, but the lives of his wife and children at risk.
I’ve got misgivings about the frequency with which female characters in SF end up as sex workers, sexy assassins, or sex worker assassins, but I think The Windup Girl is a cracking read – a real page-turner. This is mainly because Bacigalupi puts his characters in shit right from the off, then keeps ratcheting up the pressure. Sure, we might not believe that Jaidee is going to get killed, but it’s absolutely possible that his family might, so his blithe provocations make us anxious, even as we admire his courage. Sure, stealing patents might not feel obviously high-stakes, but as Hock Seng brokers uneasy bargains with various unsavoury crime lords, we realise that not just his lifestyle, but his life are on the line. The knot winds tighter and tighter – the goals of the various viewpoint characters often clearly at odds – and we read on, desperate to know how on earth the thing will unravel without everyone getting throttled.
I can hear the faintly wet susurrus of literary authors pursuing their lips, who find all this talk of plot a little vulgar. Life, after all, isn’t all fist fights on the deck of a burning zeppelin and the spackle of automatic gunfire.
More’s the pity, I say. But as I acknowledged before, shit comes in many flavours. In Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying, (which I mentioned in last Thursday’s In The Barber’s Chair) embittered poet manqué Gordon Comstock is in deep shit from page one – the shit of his own snobbery and cynicism, mixed with the shit of the vulgar, advertisement-strewn modern world. He clearly cannot go on like this – it’s killing him. He is in a bind, and as the novel progresses, every move he makes to extricate himself from the world of money only ties him tighter. I found reading the book glorious, compelling agony.
True, some books don’t hurl the protagonist into peril on page one. You might find that type of reticence charming. Perhaps you frown at excitement and find it a little try-hard. For my part, I happen to think there’s a reason why Kafka’s Metamorphosis remains one of the most famous short stories of all time. It’s that first line, one that has been translated in a variety of ways, that unceremonious dunking into some of the freakiest, most pungent shit imaginable: ‘Gregor Samsa woke from uneasy dreams to discover he had been transformed into a monstrous insect.
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