I named my author blog, The Writing Life, for good reason–I love writing about my writing journey with its’ challenges, joys, and the confusing world of writing, marketing and publishing. Yes, the writing life can be confusing, and last week, I was confused in a big way with my second book, my work-in-progress.
These are the type of questions that kept coming to mind. Perhaps you can relate to the writerly predicament I found myself in.
What should you do when your protagonist and secondary character begin vying for first place in a story–the protagonist seat–and you’re swaying toward the secondary character? And then back to the main character you’ve chosen. Do you stick with your initial storyline, keeping it as is or do you take this new development seriously? You’ve already worked so hard on the story, dear writer. The manuscript might be finished, or you might be a third of the way through, but still!
Should your characters switch places, which will undoubtedly mean a rewrite and most probably, a bit more research, or do you stubbornly hold your ground in favor of the original story? You know this character musical chairs game will mean a lot more work on your part. Is this a wise move worthy of the time you’ve already spent on the story?
YES! Take the nagging feelings seriously. Here’s what happened to me last week.
I’d written nearly twenty chapters of my work-in-progress when my muse whispered, “Whose story is this?” I quickly recognized the situation. Oh, no. After I finished my very first manuscript in 2006, the second leading lady, ‘spoke’ loud and clear–clear enough for me to stop and take her seriously. I couldn’t deny she’d become the more interesting character to write as she was a feisty, wise, complicated older woman with a mysterious, tumultuous past versus a beautiful, young widow and mother with limited life experience.
Despite realizing the enormity of the task ahead–rewriting my story and adding new chapters–I forged ahead. It was the right move for me. Yes, it required many months of rewrites and writing new chapters, but I listened to my characters and my inner voice, who pointed to Ana, my secondary character. She’d been the leading lady all along, with Serafina playing the role as Ana’s long-time, loyal friend and supporter.
This past weekend, I gave this recurring theme (and nagging throughts) a good long look. I’d outlined book #2; thought the storyline out from beginning to end; I’d done a substancial amount of research; I understand my characters and their roles in the story; and I have a good story with unique, complex characters in a unique and complex setting. Okay, done. I was very pleased with the story and felt pretty confident in my main character’s ability to pull the story off. Yet I still had a nagging suspicion that wouldn’t let go–the supporting lady, also called the supporting protagonist, was speaking louder than the protagonist–was it her story? Are you kidding me? Again? All that writing and research down the drain!
Each character is important and integral to the story. I had to remind myself:
The protagonist is the main character and the principal figure in a literary work. It is her story to tell because it’s about her and her goal. The secondary characters must be chosen carefully and should contribute to the story and support the protagonist in her goal. The antagonist is equally as important as the protagonist as she will go against the protagonist at every step, causing the leading lady to act, suffer, make mistakes, work things out (or not), and help move the story forward. If a minor character doesn’t support the protagonist, it might be necessary to cut them from the story.
Then, I wrote to my mentor, master-storyteller Jack Remick, who graciously responded to my email full of confusion. He replied, “It’s good to be in chaos at this stage of the story. First question, of course, is: whose story is it? Keep going. You’ll solve the problems now that you’re worrying about them.” He was right. It was a great reminder. I’d lost the plot with so many characters in my head! (Check out Jack and Bob’s superb writing blog – bobandjackswritingblog.com)
So, the former protagonist in my WIP will have her own book on down the line. Her story is already firm in my mind, and I’ve done most of the research. I’ve put her aside for now. Who did I choose as my leading lady for book #2? The secondary character. She is complex and vulnerable, intelligent and clueless, and at times, she’s haughty. She is perfectly flawed.
I immediately felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders when I’d decided. Once again, I’m writing with a huge smile on my face. It’s going to be an awesome story, now that I know whose story it is to tell. I think the former protagonist is somewhat relieved, as she was out of her element in this particular story. She was just waiting for me to realize what she already knew. Yes, writers speak to their characters and they answer us!
Sometimes you must get completely lost, almost in a state of chaos, to find your way. Writing good stories is like that: one foot in front of another, paying attention to the shady detours and dark corners which just might lead you to Shangri-La.
Happy writing to you!
About Eleanor Parker Sapia
Puerto Rican-born novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s careers as an artist, counselor, alternative health practitioner, Spanish language social worker and a refugee case worker inspire her stories. She is a member of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, PEN America, and Historical Novel Society. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups, reads, and tells herself she is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time.
A Decent Woman is Eleanor’s debut novel, set in turn of the nineteenth century Puerto Rico. The book was selected as 2015 July Book of the Month for Las Comadres & Friends Latino Book Club, and book clubs in many states have enjoyed the book. Eleanor is the mother of two adult children and currently lives in West Virginia, where she is happily writing her second novel, The Island of Goats.