Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Uncooperative Protagonist by KM Rockwood

Some of my short stories write themselves.

The characters involved are eager to have their stories told. Sometimes they even jostle among themselves for the role of lead protagonist. Then I have to be firm, analyzing whose story it really is. Usually I will then insist on writing it from that character’s perspective, although there can be alternatives. Dr. Watson, for example, tells stories of Sherlock Holmes from his own perspective. Very effectively.

I often find I have to assure other eager characters that their turn can come, too. They lie in the back of my mind to be resurrected and put to work at a later date. Sometimes they lose their distinct identity and meld with other characters. Sometimes they remain firmly true to the form in which they originally appeared, resistant to any modification.

There are times when I feel like a stenographer, scrambling to take down what the character is dictating. Those stories emerge fully formed and need only minor editing.

Other times I feel like a coach, demanding that the protagonist answer probing questions and examine aspects of themselves they would prefer to ignore. Those stories take multiple drafts and rewriting.

Of course, some stories of both kinds end up in my “dead” file. Deservedly so. They don’t hang together properly; the characters or the action is not credible (even if it’s based on true happenings;) or the whole story is just a self-centered rant by someone who tells a basically boring tale. These stories will never see light of day.

Then there’s the situation I’m facing now.

As many of you know, several of us on Writers Who Kill post short stories between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’m working on mine now.

But Carson, the protagonist, isn’t cooperating particularly well.

Part of it is his personality. He’s always been introverted, so the whole idea of telling his story to other people goes against his instincts. He’s had a rough life and doesn’t feel he’s handled it well, although the story is about his attempts to change that. He presents several subplots which he insists are essential if the whole thing is to make any sense. I have tried pointing out that subplots are fine in a novel. In fact, they’re pretty essential. But short stories don’t lend themselves to that type of complexity. He’s let me cut them back a bit, but insists they need to be included.

Then there’s the whole Christmas story genre. Although there are situations in which I merrily present a “watching a train wreck” story which ends badly for the characters, I don’t want that for a Christmas story. I can deal with a melancholy ending, even an ambiguous one, but there has to be hope and some personal satisfaction there for the characters. I’m as much a stickler for the satisfying ending here as any romance writer.

Carson and I have been at this for days now. I’ve had to call in my critique partners for help. The first version I submitted came back with the comment that it’s a bit sour for a Christmas story, even if the ending is acceptable. Some of the story could be left hanging—after all, much of our lives are left hanging at any particular time—but if I was going to include Carson’s main subplot, I needed at least a hint of resolution for it.

I’ve just submitted my third rewrite, and am awaiting the verdict on whether the story has progressed sufficiently to be sent to my on-line critique group, and then (hopefully) to final edits. Carson is a bit grumpy about it, but he concedes this seems to tell the tale reasonably. And it is still his story.

With any luck, in a few weeks you will be reading the results of our efforts. If it doesn’t work this time, I may inform Carson that, despite all our work, this one will have to go in the “dead” file. Which doesn’t leave me a whole lot of time to find a more cooperative character to tell a Christmas story.

I hope you will read and enjoy all the stories we present during the holiday season.




  1. Looking forward to some good reads again this year.

  2. Third re-write is the charm. I'm sure Carson will shape up. Looking forward to your story and all the others.

  3. I having issues, too, Kathleen. Reality wants to creep in, and I have to keep the ending light to keep this a more merry story for the season. Damn reality!

  4. I always enjoy these stories, Jim.

    Working on it, Margaret! Right now it looks promising.

    Ah, reality, E.B. Blending it with a feeling of Christmas magic can be a challenge.

  5. Maybe if you promise Carson more stories down the road?

  6. How true, Kathleen. I've had characters that I created for a walk-on part, and they refuse to leave. Some have ended up being readers favorite characters. I can't figure it out.

  7. I'm looking forward to reading the final story and discovering if Carson made the cut!

  8. Now I'm wondering if Carson will make the final cut! Can't wait to read it and find out.

  9. Molly, that's a real possibility. Carson is an introvert and not inclined to invite examination of his life, but a great deal of his reticence here comes from the Christmasy tone of the story.

    Grace, many of our characters have lives of their own (I know, I know, they originate in our minds and are manifestations of our imaginations and thinking, but they certainly operate quite independently) and can be quite surprising.

    Kait, it's looking good. The third version may be satisfactory to both Carson and my sense of what a Christmas story needs to be.

    Shari, I think we're going to make it, although I have started on an alternative story just in case.

  10. You'll work it out, Kathleen. I look forward to reading the upcoming stories.

  11. Marilyn, reading our Christmas offerings is always fun.

  12. Good column, and good luck with your story! I hope you get the upper hand with Carson :)

  13. It sounds like you're creating a very interesting character with depth. Best wishes.

  14. Thanks, Adam. I do feel like I'm getting back in control here after some difficult times.

    Carson's a deep character, all right, Jacqueline. I feel like I'm just beginning to know him.