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Faulkner's Six and the Placeholder Protagonist

 

This post has the band name I’ve been looking for all my life. If I ever start my own YA band like Libba Bray and the folks in Tiger Beat (awesome band name), I’m calling it “Faulkner’s Six and the Placeholder Protagonist.” Anyway…

When discussing revisions to one of my works in progress, my agent told me to keep in mind Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech when crafting that oh-so-important first chapter (not to mention the rest of the novel). We’ll talk about the speech in a sec. Though I have a lot of revision ahead of me, I needed to hear my agent’s wise words, born from years of experience as both a writer and an editor herself. This is why you need an agent who knows what makes a great book, not just how to sell one. In my draft, I’d committed one of the biggest sins you can as a novelist: I didn’t give the reader an opportunity to care about my protagonist. I think this can happen with any genre, but for me it’s most likely to happen in early drafts of my fantasies, when I’m so occupied building a world that never existed before, a magic system that doesn’t reek of every fantasy that came before it, and an ensemble cast of fascinating characters with magical powers and sinister or altruistic motives of their own, that I create a placeholder protagonist. You just hang out on this street corner and wait a few minutes, honey, I tell her. Imma be right back.

The Placeholder Protagonist is a danger to your plot, especially when you’re creating a submission that includes a synopsis for three novels, none of which you’ve written. As a writer who firmly believes that all plot comes from character, I couldn’t believe I’d made such a rookie mistake. You’re looking at the girl who makes collages while listening to music her protagonist would like in order to figure out what happens in the next chapter. The girl who interviews her proto, the writer who, when she sees something said character would love out in the real world, can’t help but say, “Oh, that is so (fill in character’s name).” Yet somehow, in the frenzy of playing God in my new fantasyverse, I’d left my protagonist out in the cold. Here she was, a brand new character, totally abandoned by the writer in search of shiny new things (“squirrel!”).

So, how does Faulkner fit into this? I’m not gonna lie, I’m not a raging Faulkner fan. He’s brilliant, of course, but my head hurts reading him. Still, the man can craft some fantastic characters, can’t he? When Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he had some wonderful things to say about the point of writing and what a writer needs to do for their work to matter. Incidentally, he was saying all of this during the early days of the atom bomb, a shout into the void of those terror-filled days when the world changed forever and it could never go back.

He said:

“…the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”

Oh, the agony. You know what I’m talking about. The problems of the human heart in conflict with itself. This is it, folks, this is what you’re doing when you put letters on your screen. Now, that’s not to say there isn’t quite a bit more that goes into the making of a novel. Readers don’t only read because they want that essential conflict that will then speak to them in the universal language of our most beloved organ. Fantasy readers (all readers, I’d argue) are looking for escape, for opportunities to experience wonder and awe through world building and magic. A reader might be looking for humor, insightful observations of our world and our place in it, or perhaps a balm—something to protect them a little bit against the cold hardness of the universe. But none of that will matter if they don’t have a character they can love and root for and worry for. Our protagonist is how our reader can enter into the world of the story and get swept away, deeper into it, floating along that river of words we’ve created.

How do we do this, then? How do we ensure that we have not created a placeholder protagonist and a first chapter that makes it impossible for the reader to get swept away? This is where Faulkner’s Six come in. During his speech he said that there are six things all stories need – “the old universal truths” that a writer must write about. Faulkner believes that until the writer touches on these universal truths, “he labors under a curse.”

Faulkner’s Six Essentials To Writing The Good Story

Love

Honor

Pity

Compassion

Pride

Sacrifice

My agent said that she really admires The Hunger Games because that first chapter connects us to Katniss and makes us feel or observe Faulkner’s Six. We see the love she has for her family, particularly her sister, Prim. We know that Katniss is honorable: not only does she endanger her life by hunting to feed her family, but we will see in the next chapter that she places her sister’s life above her own when she volunteers in Prim’s place as tribute. We also see her kindness toward the mayor’s daughter, an empathy that Gale cannot feel. We feel pity—and this, I think, might be best thought of as empathy, as pity had a more positive connotation in Faulkner’s time. We feel terrible for the plight of this girl, who we’ve already seen (through Collins’ efficient, effective world building) that her life is beyond difficult—and now she might die in the Hunger Games. We feel pride for her, but also see the pride of her community as they witness a human rise above the petty day-to-day of life to sacrifice her life for her sister’s own.

I re-read that first chapter, as it’d been years since I picked up the trilogy, and my agent was right. It’s a superb example of how, in one chapter, an author can get their reader to care deeply for the protagonist she just met while at the same time feeling totally grounded in a world we’ve never encountered before and has very little resemblance to our own.

I have a little assignment for you. Go grab The Hunger Games off your shelf (it is on your shelf, isn’t it?). Read the first chapter. Think about it in terms of Faulkner’s Six, then come back and read the rest of this blog post.

Did you read it? Okay, let’s do this:

Look at the end of the first paragraph: She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping.

Hot damn. In just a few sentences, Collins has already managed to fill us with fear for this girl we just met, and her sweet little sister. Also, notice how the entire series starts with Katniss observing Prim. It’s such an elegant beginning because everything that happens—from participating in the Hunger Games to fighting President Snow and falling in love with Peeta—all of it happens because this girl adores her sister and would do absolutely anything for her. We see love in this chapter and we immediately pity them—their life is clearly hard. Just two pages in and I have a sense of this dystopian world and the hard living it requires of its citizens. I also get a very clear idea of who Katniss is: she’s resourceful, brave, rough around the edges. She takes care of her family. She does what needs to be done. I absolutely love that she wanted to drown Buttercup and only resisted the urge of eliminating “another mouth to feed” because Prim loved him. Brilliant. This one moment shows us loads about our protagonist. Brevity is the soul of wit, no?

The first chapter is engrossing—a lot happens in it. But what makes it such a great example of fine craft is that above all of it, there’s foreboding, an uneasy feeling that settles over everything, a metronome ticking in the background, setting the rhythm of the series: This is the day of the reaping. And throughout, we know how much this girl cares for her family and how brave she is. We are afraid for Katniss the moment she wakes up and introduces herself to us.

Katniss Everdeen is no placeholder protagonist. And when reading this book, it’s clear that if she ever was in an early draft, she would have only been able to remain so for a few chapters. Everything in this novel comes out of who Katniss is as a person (loving, honorable, brave, resourceful, rough around the edges). I wonder what the plot looked like before Collins knew Katniss. Or maybe she only knew Katniss and wanted to tell her story, whatever it was, and waited for Katniss to speak through her. However the novel came to be, it’s a perfect example of plot coming out of character, especially in the action-adventure genre that often has paper-thin characterization.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a band to start and a protagonist to hang out with on a lonely street corner. Tell me your story, I’ll say to her. I’m all ears.


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Tags: craft, character, lessons, revision, plot

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