“If I was someone else, would this all fall apart?”

Most writers have some method for character creation, even if that method is just ‘hang out a sign and see who shows up.’  How do you know, though,  if a character is the right choice for a particular story?

There’s a song by Matchbox 20 called “Real World.”  (Stop.  I know what you’re probably thinking, if you know my fondness for certain fantasy novels as well as my fondness for making bad puns… but don’t.  Really trying hard to avoid those particular jokes right now, y’know?)  In the chorus to this song is a line that goes, “If I was someone else, would this all fall apart?”

To me, this seems like a pretty good way to tell if you have the right protagonist for the story you’re writing:  Could you tell the same story with someone else as the main character?  If the answer is Yes, you probably have the wrong person for the job.

They say that a bad fit between story and main character is one of the leading reasons for the writing to stall.  It’s certainly happened to me enough times… What about you?  Have you ever started writing a story only to realize that the protagonist was the wrong character for the job?  What happened?  Did you move that character to a supporting role and give the lead to another character already in the story?  Did you scrap that story and start a different one that the character was right for?  Try to make the character fit what you were already writing?

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About Thomas Weaver

I’m a writer and editor who got into professional editing almost by accident years ago when a friend from university needed someone to copyedit his screenplay about giant stompy robots (mecha). Having discovered that I greatly enjoy this kind of work, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use ever since as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom. I'm physically disabled, and for the past several years, I’ve lived with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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6 Responses to “If I was someone else, would this all fall apart?”

  1. Laura L. says:

    I like these questions. As a total n00b I have no experience to offer but it is conversations like these that I enjoy listening to and topics like this that I like thinking about.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One of the reasons why this can turn into a crisis, is because so many writers try to write in the first person. The writer is doing the “I, me, and mine” thing, so he gets very attached to the character he starts out writing about. Then, he runs into a plot twist or other problem that the limitations of the first person POV can’t handle, and the writer is devastated because “I, me, and mine,” loses control of the situation.

    At this point, some writers fall into the data-dump-rumination habit. Others get afflicted with wandering POV syndrome, or an anonymous narrator pops up from nowhere, or the writer begins to alternate between first-person and third-person sections or chapters (a clumsy and distracting way to save face when the story gets too big for one character’s POV).

    This is why I think most writers should avoid the first person POV until they’re a lot more experienced (or unless they can afford to hire superlative professional editors who can help them untangle the mess). A third person limited POV can get around the problem of a story that stalls when the protagonist can’t deal with it, because POV can be shared with a narrator and one or two other important characters, who can divide up the heavy lifting.

    Of course, third-person gets its share of abuse, by writers who go crazy with indiscriminate, omniscient head-hopping. But usually the only problem is to decide whose POV is the best one to tell the story during a particular section, scene, or chapter. I found that to be mostly self-evident, and I changed the POV character in only one section of my first novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ‘Oh, but first-person narration is so TRENDY right now, especially first person, present tense — all the cool kids are doing it…’ *shakes head*

      I’ve only written a couple of short stories in first person, and although I like the protagonist for those (and antagonist for the first of them), I cannot say I’m in any real way attached to that character. My novels are always in third person; if nothing else, it’s the best way to deal with a reticent main character. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Short stories have a different dynamic, which may affect the writer’s “relationship” with the protagonist, as well as affecting the writer’s potential for getting blocked. The only case in which I’ve even considered writing anything in the first person, has been from the POV of a less-than-likable secondary character, who, oddly enough, becomes the protagonist in a sequel (and then, the first-person sections briefly “bookend” a third-person story).

        I’ve read comments elsewhere that are passionate in their defense of the first person POV, as the “best way” to write a character that the reader will “identify with,” and I can only think, “maybe you, but not me.” That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed reading stories that were written that way. I probably own a dozen such novels, but most of them were written before I was born, so they may have had a considerable amount of editorial input to get them polished up.

        I’ve also seen a puzzling remark, attributed to some (unknown) writing teacher, to the effect that writing in the first person is easier than writing in the third person; nevertheless, most of the “aspiring writer” sample chapters I’ve read that use the first person POV are mighty lame.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I figure in this situation that I’d change the character. I mean, characters aren’t set in stone, yeah? Your character can change gender, appearance, motivation, all kinds of stuff, without actually swapping them out for a totally new person. It just means an uber buttload of re-jigging when you go back through the manuscript and change everything 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. nancyrae4 says:

    My first POV character always stays the same. That’s the onlything I know for sure about the novel before I begin:) Everything else is subject to change. I have written the first few chapters using 1st person, then tried them in 3rd:) By the time I’m done messing around with that, I’ve made my decision.

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