Teachers Write 7.21.15 Tuesday Quick-Write with Sarah Prineas

Good morning, Teachers-Write campers! Today’s Tuesday Quick-Write is courtesy of guest author Sarah Prineas.

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Sarah’s the author of the Magic Thief series, which has been published in 20 languages around the world, and the Winterling trilogy, which has not. Her next book, Ash & Bramble is a YA and is out in September. She does free Skype visits with classes/library groups that have read one of her books! When not writing (or Skyping) she’s wrangling goats, dogs, cats, chickens, bees, and gardens, and working to restore the native woodland habitat on the 40 acres she lives on in rural Iowa. Today, she joins us to talk about main characters…

The Protagonist Must Protag: Character and Action

As you know, protagonist is another term for the main character of your novel. But it means more than that. It comes from the ancient Greek word πρωταγωνιστής which basically means main actor.

The protagonist is one who acts. Especially in YA and MG books, the protagonists are not people who sit around passively, waiting for things to happen. Nope, they analyze and question. They’re troublemakers. They are not always nice and not always good. They are adventurous. Sometimes they’re unhappy or angry or stubborn. They are seeking something or need something or want something. They are incomplete. A protagonist is a person who has the capacity for heroism—sometimes unexpectedly. His heroism is not always loud or vigorous—some protagonists might act in more quiet, personal ways. But because the protagonist has the power to act, he often does what he thinks needs to be done.

The protagonist is often alone and forced to become her own agent in the world. By ‘agency’ I mean she has to act on her own behalf; she has nobody to act for her. That’s why, in children’s literature, we have so many absent, inept, or, sadly, dead parents. The child, thereby, is left alone and is forced to act on her own behalf—to become a protagonist. The protagonist acts, and out of that action plot arises: things happen.

Here’s an example of a protagonist who protags. Laurie Halse Anderson’s MG novel Chains is about a girl named Isabel who is a slave in revolutionary era New York. Slavery would not seem to permit protagging—a slave is supposed to be obedient, and not act out on her own. The cool thing about Isabel as a character is that she insists on protagging despite her situation. Other people seek to control her destiny, but they cannot—only she can. So when Isabel is branded on the face with the letter I for Insolence, she refuses to be labeled. I stands for Isabel, she insists, for herself.

Later, a kind woman says to Isabel that she should have bought Isabel to save her from a cruel master. Now Isabel could have reacted by being grateful for a kind gesture, but she isn’t. Isabel protests, I am not a thing to be bought and sold. Even as a slave, she is her own agent. In the end, she makes the decision to protag herself right out of slavery—and into a new life.

Here are some other great main characters who protag:

Laura Ingalls (not a good girl, like her sister Mary)

Frances the (very bad) Badger

(bratty) Mary Lennox (from The Secret Garden)

Claudia and Jamie from The Mixed up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler (these are not nice children)

Anne Shirley (orphan protags herself into new family)

Alec (stranded on an island: tames a wild black stallion!)

Pippi Longstocking (amiright?)

Charlotte (spins webs to save her friend’s life)

Who are some of your favorite, memorable characters in children’s literature? In what ways are they protagonists who protag?

Now look at your own work. In what ways are your characters protagonists? In what ways do they act in the world?

Note from Kate: Feel free to share your reflections – on both favorite protagonists and on those in your own work – in today’s comments!

 

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72 Comments

  1. Jennifer
    Posted July 21, 2015 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    Hi Sarah, thanks for this post! I’m struggling with a protagonist issue in my WIP – I have two of them and I’m not sure which one is my MAIN main character or whether I even need to choose. Your post has made me realize that one definitely protags more than the other, so I think I have my answer!

    • Posted July 21, 2015 at 8:47 am | Permalink

      Hello!! Jennifer, I’m so glad this post helped with your protaga-problem! It’s great that you’ve got a better line on your main characters, though do remember that not all protagonists protag in the same way. We need the “quiet characters” to do their more quiet thing, too.

      In my first (unpublishable) novel, the main character did not protag at ALL (he was a mathematician who did not want to have adventures, just to be left alone), and it took me the longest time to figure out why the book wasn’t working.

      Onward!

    • Maureen Riordan
      Posted July 21, 2015 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      I’m in the same situation! Can you have two protagonists? I think you can if you think about Jack and Annie in the Magic Tree House series.

      • Andrea Lorenz
        Posted July 21, 2015 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

        I want to say yes, but when I think of it, I’m always having my students study one as the main actor of the story and the other as a foil to the main actor. Very interesting point you bring up!

  2. Posted July 21, 2015 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    The main character in my WIP, which takes place in the 70s is a reader. Shocking that! I’ve decided that other than the comics she’s quite addicted to, she also loves reading Nancy Drew mysteries. I remembered Nancy Drew being kidnapped in every book, but I didn’t remember how she was saved, so I’ve starting reading Nancy Drew so that I’ve got greater awareness of the character that could inspire my character. (Read that ten times fast!) I was hoping it wasn’t always Ned Nickerson getting her out of trouble, and I was right!
    Other than the fact that the writing is so different from today’s writing & my dad certainly didn’t give me a blue convertible when I turned 18, I love Nancy Drew. Under that perfect nice girl exterior, she takes chances. She makes a decision and sticks to it. She might be frightened, but she tries goes ahead and does it anyways and she never gives up. She’s a perfect protagonist to inspire my protagonist and, maybe, just maybe, reading her books repeatedly for years may have influenced my attitude to life more than I thought!

    Researching your protagonist can by fun!

  3. Posted July 21, 2015 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Wish I could go back & edit that! Dang it!

  4. Susan MacKay-Logue
    Posted July 21, 2015 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    You comments took me right back to summers at our lake house where we had piles of dust Nancy Drew mysteries. We read those over and over every year. Thanks for the memory.

  5. Susan MacKay-Logue
    Posted July 21, 2015 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    So far in my writing, I have written everything from an unseen narrative perspective. Today, I tried to put a face to her voice, thanks to your post. It’s a shitty first draft, as most are, but I think I might get to like her. Tell me what you think,
    The sun was rising in the sky, the temperature rising with her anxiety. She was leaving in a few days and she had accomplished nothing but to upset all of those around her. Why couldn’t she just get along, or at least, just go along? Why must she always make people uncomfortable? She always had, she reflected, from the time she was a kid. She spoke her mind regardless of the situation and feathers were often ruffled. It was a curse. It was a gift. It was confusing.

    Sarah pushed away the notebook in front of her and took a deep breath. It was meant to be a cleansing breath, but it was shaggy and sputtered on its way in and out. She had been at the lake house for over a week. During that time she had managed to alienate her mother, argue with her older sister, and frustrate her sister’s husband. She may still be on speaking terms with her aunt, but she couldn’t be sure because she had been taken to the hospital just the other day, further proof that old age is not for sissies. Her father was blissfully unaware of the wake of havoc that followed Sarah everywhere she went. This was quite possibly an advantage of old age, that every day is literally a brand new day, with no carry over from the day before. People frequently commented to Sarah that she said what others were thinking and that they appreciated that. It was meant as a compliment, but it always bothered Sarah. Why do I have to jump on that grenade? Why can’t you mewling simps stand up for yourselves. Ungracious? Yes. True? She thought so.

    • Posted July 21, 2015 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      “It was a curse. It was a gift. It was confusing.”

      This is SO TRUE about protagonists! It’s like that (fake) “Ancient Chinese curse” that goes “May you live in interesting times.” Protagonists *always* live in interesting times, and that can be both exciting and exhausting, as your protag has discovered.

      I think this excerpt points out something risky, though, about writing protagonists. On the one hand, they can be edgy and difficult and even unlikeable, but if a reader is going to spend any time with them (and not set the book aside) they need to have some sort of redeeming quality. Here, your character Sarah’s ruefulness about her mayhem-causing abilities helps, and so does her personal insight, but she risks being a bit too unlikeable, especially in the “mewling simps” comment near the end.

      What do you think?

      (I swear, I have to get out a calculator for the “please do the math” thing on here…)

    • Posted July 21, 2015 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      I already love Sarah! She is definitely protagging! Your first paragraph snagged me. I can’t wait to read more!

      • Susan MacKay-Logue
        Posted July 21, 2015 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

        Thanks, Katrina. I am just getting to know her. I’m eager to see where she takes me.

    • Laurie Finkenkeller
      Posted July 21, 2015 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      I loved your first paragraph, and how Sarah was confused by the things she says. It is clear she wants to get along with everyone. I want to know how Sarah grows to be the person she wants to be.

      • Susan MacKay-Logue
        Posted July 21, 2015 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

        Laurie, I]m glad it comes off that she wants to get along. That was important to me.

    • Posted July 21, 2015 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      I like that she writes in journals to figure out how she’s feeling & what she’s thinking. This is definitely a reflective moment for her. I’d like to read about the things she did to annoy all those people.

      I had author, Richard Scrimger, in as a Writer in Residence for our Intermediates one year. He mentioned that our protagonists had to be likable, as well as have problems. (Unless you wrote Gone Girl.) I wonder what traits Sarah has that will endear her to us, other than knowing her faults.

      She’s interesting!

      Stefanie

      • Susan MacKay-Logue
        Posted July 21, 2015 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

        Good point, Stefanie. After reading your comments I went back to the whole piece (not shared here) and although I cover what she has done to annoy, I haven’t given too many endearing traits other than she is broken, confused, and doesn’t mean to be snarky. Thank you for your honest feedback. Good stuff.

  6. Posted July 21, 2015 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    I have lots of favorite protagonists! One that is very vivid to me is Sage/Jaron, from Jennifer Nielsen’s The False Prince. He is a very active protagonist and an interesting one, because some of his actions are “behind the scenes” and the reader finds out about it through the story events.

    Another great one is Katniss, from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Even though she is in a situation where she could just sit and wait for events to unfold, she takes action to find food, water, etc. and keep herself alive.

    In my own novels, I find it’s easy to fall back on “reporting” what happens. As I write this, I’m thinking that perhaps this is because it’s easy to confound the role of writer (creating and telling the story) with the main character (acting inside the story) since in a sense they are both me. I’m just learning to get better at writing an engaging and active protagonist and I have to keep reminding myself that my MC needs to actually DO something.

    • Posted July 21, 2015 at 9:33 am | Permalink

      “… it’s easy to confound the role of writer (creating and telling the story) with the main character (acting inside the story) since in a sense they are both me.”

      Wow, this is a great insight. In a way, the writer is protagging–as you say, “creating,”–but you’re exactly right that telling is not the same as acting inside the story.

      I have a challenge for you. Can you find a paragraph or two from your story that feels non-protaggy (in a writerly way) and revise it to push your protagonist forward? I’d love to see this idea at work!

    • Dean Chart
      Posted July 21, 2015 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      I had the same realization about the (very early stages) stories I have been thinking of… All of my characters are quite passive!

    • Posted July 21, 2015 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      I had the same realization too. I wrote, what I thought was a first draft last year…truly I wrote a beginning. When I was revising, I had to embed the telling into the action. It’s an interesting process.

  7. Gloria
    Posted July 21, 2015 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Each time the author of the day answers a question I have about character or story development before I ask the question directly, I get a little giddy about being a part of TW. My WIP is a historical novel so when Sarah used Chains as an example, I put aside some of my questions about how historical MC’s might be developed differently than for realistic fiction. Jody, my MC, is measuring up to this description well: “The protagonist is often alone and forced to become her own agent in the world. By ‘agency’ I mean she has to act on her own behalf; she has nobody to act for her.” Thank you, Sarah.

    • Posted July 21, 2015 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      Thanks for your comment, Gloria!

      In some ways, I think historical fiction really lends itself to protagging. If you think about it, history–what we remember of it, anyway–is almost by definition “when stuff happened”. And the people associated are the ones who made it happen–protagonists. I’d love to see a snippet of your historical protagonist!

    • Posted July 21, 2015 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

      I’m also working on a historical fiction piece and got really excited when I saw that reference also! I am very thankful for this experience! The wealth of information we receive through TW from posts and comments are truly priceless.

  8. Posted July 21, 2015 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    My protagonist is loosely based on my MIL. The WIP will be a historical novel set in West Texas during the 1930’s and 40’s. Because of the severe racism and oppression my MIL endured, I want to give her a voice to protest, while being true to the times and surroundings. I’m finding this quite tricky. On one hand she must find a way to speak out. On the other hand an unschooled Hispanic girl speaking out during these times would be in grave danger. I plan to interview a woman in my community who was living during this era (my MIL has passed away), and ask her about some of my quandaries.

    • Posted July 21, 2015 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      Actually, you make a great point, Katrina, which is that the protagonist–simply by virtue of who she is–can put herself in danger. Isabel, the protagonist of Chains, has the scars to prove it. And danger is a great way to increase the stakes/tension in your plot.

      It sounds like you’ve got a lot to think about here!

    • Posted July 21, 2015 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

      I’m learning that’s the most challenging thing about writing a historical fiction piece, is keeping things true to the time period. I am working on a story that takes place in the period leading up to the Civil War that’s a blend of facts from my family tree and my imagination. I constantly have to rein in my imagination to check my facts regarding the details I am using. I believe I’m having more fun researching about the story, than I am just writing the narrative. Everything is so very interesting! Good luck!

      • Posted July 21, 2015 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

        This is so true, isn’t it? I have to stop myself from researching sometimes, and just get my story down. I make notes in in the ms where I’m not certain about something. I can always go back later after I’ve done the requisite research and fix things.

      • Posted July 21, 2015 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

        Ditto! The thing is that the research becomes so fun that I can kinda get lost for hours….which keeps me away from creating. It feels like a see saw. Great time period for writing. Have fun!

  9. Posted July 21, 2015 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    What a wonderful and thought-provoking post! I realized that I often simplify the definition of a protagonist by calling him/her “the good guy” – but after reading your post, I see that “the good guy” isn’t helpful for my students at all. You’re right – protagonists can be full of mischief, rebellion, sarcasm, resentment, etc. – all traits that aren’t considered “good.” My favorite protagonist is probably Harry Potter because he’s fighting his own dark side as well as the dark outside himself. He can be broody, anti-social, and angry. However, Harry is David to Voldemort’s Goliath, and like the Bible story, Harry ultimately triumphs due to sheer will and a belief in a higher calling (for David, God – for Harry, the love of his family).

    As for my protagonist, I can think of her as not only having a main conflict, but I can give her vices that may seem like a detriment, but serve her well in the end. She needs to actively solve her problem in spite of, or instead of, her parents. Thank you for this thought-provoking lesson today!!

    • Posted July 21, 2015 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      You’re very welcome, Holly! Great analysis of Harry P as a protagonist (who is totally enabled by his fellow protagonists, too). I really like your idea that seemingly negative characteristics can turn out to be a protagonist’s greatest strengths. Like stubbornness, for example. Or prickliness.

      If you can think of other protaganistics (protagonists’ negative/positive characteristics, add them here!)

    • Dean Chart
      Posted July 21, 2015 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      I was reflecting on Harry as well! Was there ever a character that was “busier” in a story? So often I would wish he wouldn’t do something, knowing he was getting himself into trouble yet again.

    • Posted July 21, 2015 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      I’m not sure where, but I came across the description of the protagonist as “the character who changes” and the antagonist “as the one who causes the change.” I like this because it makes it easier for my students to figure out which was which. The good guy/bad guy definition wasn’t clear enough, especially when you have an annoying protagonist like Ambrose, in Susin Nielsen’s Word Nerd. Hilarious book, great for Intermediates if you haven’t read it. One of the best intros ever!

      • Posted July 21, 2015 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

        I love this definition of protagonist even more though. Another layer to what a main character truly is! Might Pin this in Reader’s Workshop so I can find it again!

  10. Posted July 21, 2015 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Sarah! Thank you for being here. I’m kinda blown away by the teaching that we TW campers get from visiting authors. The words in your mini-lesson that really struck me were: ” capacity for heroism—sometimes unexpectedly” .

    I went back to my WIP and made a chart of two characters that get to know each other in the story. They are two protagonists that work against each other until they learn that they can help each other. It was so good for me to not only list their differences but then circle their similarities!

    From those lists I worked out a part of the story (always in verse for me) in which Irene is faced with moving to a new place…she has an unexpected chance to be a hero here….and that is the spark I needed. Thank you! I am off to check out your books and put Ash & Bramble on the wish list for my school library.

    Thanks again for being here. It means so much to us campers trying our hands at this writing life in our summer time.

    The formatting gets all messed up in a blog comment. So, I have posted it on my blog if anyone would like to see this draft—I’ll poke around at refining it later.

    If I figure right,
    I’ve walked in and out of
    ten thousand doors in my life.

    Everyone does.
    It’s just a matter of
    which doors invite us.

    My first was the finely
    planed, green painted door
    of the mountain house Dad
    built for Mama.
    That door fairly kissed me
    in my comings and goings.

    When Mama died I left the
    green door and walked
    down the mountain to
    Aunt Ruth and Uncle Lew’s
    weather beaten board door
    always leaning my head and hip leaning
    against the spot that always
    seemed to stick in the jam.

    The door to the farm-truck
    that drove us to Daniels in Albany
    was wide-open-friendly, dusty and
    worn from work and wear.
    That door squeaked and closed
    with a bang that said I was going
    somewhere.

    Unlike the taxi Mrs. Lesley called
    to take us to my first job at Guilder House.
    Those taxi doors were all business
    of hush and quick out of the
    city and up the hill for a fare.

    Guilder House door looks down on me
    with indifference
    There is no friendliness or welcome
    in it’s black paint and brass knob.
    I am nothing to this door.
    But to me, this is door
    ten thousand and one.

    This is a link to where the verse formatting is how I like it. My blog: http://ow.ly/PTpS4

    • Posted July 21, 2015 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      This is lovely, Linda! I really get a sense of who your protag is. And maybe it gives us another good definition of a protagonist: “She who walks through the doors.” Actually “She who opens the doors,” too.

    • Dean Chart
      Posted July 21, 2015 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      That is powerful, and so intriguing. I really want to know all about this character and her story. Not to mention this snippet of writing made me reflect on my own doors in life. Thanks for sharing!

    • Elizabeth Muster
      Posted July 22, 2015 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

      This reminds me of George Ella Lyon’s “Many Storied House”

  11. Laurie Finkenkeller
    Posted July 21, 2015 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    I love your door image. I like that the door symbolizes both love and indifference. I have used fences, borders and boundaries as barriers to help my students see how main characters in the books they are reading overcome obstacles to become better people. I am interested in reading more of this work to see how you will sustain the image of the door to help your character move forward.

  12. Dean Chart
    Posted July 21, 2015 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    This got me thinking about one of my favorite characters – Rob Horton from the Tiger Rising. He doesn’t act in the traditional sense at all. At first, his whole persona is him trying not to engage with or react to the outside world. It takes a powerful character, Sistine Bailey, to finally cause him to “protag” in a more aggressive, outward way. Love that book, and this made me think about it again from a slightly different angle.

    • Posted July 21, 2015 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      Dean, this is just like another hesitant protagonist, Bilbo Baggins from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. At the beginning of that book, Bilbo is awfully fond of his second breakfasts and his waistcoats and his quiet evenings at home. It takes Gandalf–a catalyst character–to help Bilbo to realize that he’s actually yearning for adventure. And off he goes!

  13. Carrie
    Posted July 21, 2015 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much for the post. My daughter and I have been reading the Roald Dahl books over this past year and I see a stark difference between his main characters that fit this definition of protagonist. Matilda, our favorite, definitely does. From the very beginning she fights to be herself and live life the way it is meant to be lived. She even helps others take their own lives into their own hands. Compare this with Charlie who sort of lets things happen to him. Sure he is a stand up kid and deserves to win next to all those horrible children, but I don’t see him fighting to take his life into his own hands.

    • Posted July 21, 2015 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      Carrie, this is such an interesting comparison. I wonder if we should call Charlie the “main character” while letting Willy Wonka be the “protagonist”? They’re definitely not always the same person!! It’s been so long since I’ve read the book–what do you think?

      • Carrie
        Posted July 22, 2015 at 8:32 am | Permalink

        Interesting. I’ve always assumed Charlie was considered the main character; however, I can see where one could argue that Willy Wonka is the main character. I don’t think he fits the definition either. Although he is looking for someone to take over the factory, he is pretty passive in the way he lets them fall to their own flaws.

    • Posted July 21, 2015 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      That is hilarious & could be a cool end-of-year activity. We could hypothetically place our favourite Protagonists on an island and then defend each protagonist based on which fits this definition of “Protagonist” best? We could vote each main character off the Island! Hmm?

  14. Andrea Lorenz
    Posted July 21, 2015 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Well, the first person who comes to mind is Miss Nelson/Miss Viola Swamp from Miss Nelson is Missing! She is a “main actor” of the story who splits herself in two and she definitely protags! I am also thinking of Mo Willems’ Leonardo Was a Terrible Monster – i’ve had to analyze that book a couple of times for a class of mine and Leonardo is certainly the monster who is not good at being a monster – nonetheless taking action to allow himself to be good at something – being a great friend. As for my own children’s book WIP, I want my main character to be a young boy who is a bit clueless to the world around him (he fears bugs and therefore wants to do them harm), but I also want him to be humorous and lovable at the same time. He’ll essentially be “educated” by the insects around him and become somewhat of a hero. All of this needs to be inserted into an amusing picture book for younger audiences and their parents.

    • Posted July 21, 2015 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

      Oh, Andrea, I hadn’t thought about picture book protagonists before! I don’t know a whole lot about how picture books work (I’m newly a bookseller, though, and am trying to learn more!), but it seems like picture books allow a particularly pure kind of protagging–a clear main arc of action from beginning to end. Do you think this is the case?

      The act of learning is definitely a protagly thing. Protags are always learning, always willing to change.

      • Andrea Lorenz
        Posted July 22, 2015 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

        I do agree with that point, Sarah. Especially with young readers/listeners, the arc of their main character needs to be clear, not basic, but definitely clear. Thanks for today’s words!

  15. Posted July 21, 2015 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    Hello campers and presenters! My most memorable characters in children literature were the kids from the boxcar children series. I was completely lost in their adventures when my teacher would share it through her read alouds. Their resilience and ability to remain together against all odds fascinated me.

    In my WIP, which I didn’t realize was in me until day 3 of TW, my character is a lot like Isabel. Her name is Liberty and she lives during the period leading into the Civil War.

    Born into slavery on a plantation in SC, it was no accident that her mother named her Liberty. Liberty held fast to an innate understanding of her “unalienable rights”. Though physically enslaved, she refused to hand over her mind, emotions, will, and spirit to those around who saw her as property to be bartered and sold. She believed that as long as those areas remained free, her physical freedom would soon follow. Though very pleasing to the eyes, small in stature, and petite, her “masters” soon learned that she was very blunt when she spoke and was not afraid to question authority, a habit that proved to cause them more issues than it did her. Liberty was known for pushing the limits and standing up for others when they weren’t able to or didn’t want to stand for themselves. The possessor of a huge heart, with an equal size temperament, and intolerance for injustice; many believed she was born before her time. Liberty, on the other hand, believed she was born right on time!

    Thank you Sarah an amazing strategy that will enable me to merge my reading and writing instruction. I can see having students analyze protagonists we read about to help them develop protagonists in their writing.

    • Posted July 21, 2015 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

      This sounds terrific, Von! It points out that one quality of the protagonist is her strength of *mind*, not just what she does, physically.

      Onward!

    • Posted July 21, 2015 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

      This is a story that needs to be told. Keep writing! Love the whole concept.

  16. Posted July 21, 2015 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Sarah, Thank you so much for bringing this opportunity for analysis to TW. This topic is timely. My daughter is reading the Twilight series, and she stops every few chapters to tell me how annoying the protagonist, Bella Swan is, and that all she ever does in whine. I remember thinking the same thing when I read those books! She’s constantly having to be rescued by either Edward or Jacob (or the Cullens) and is powerless to do anything for herself. Now I’m taking a closer look at my WIP to make sure that my MC is not following the same path.

    A synopsis of my protagonist protagging (I love that term!):

    Lily starts the novel by being a good girl and doing what she’s told to do. However, as things worsen for her, she begins to stand up for herself and take steps to turn her situation around (e.g. calling Anthony Santoro out for tripping her; speaking up against Mrs. Schmidt and calling her a liar; seeing gardening as a way to make life in the orphanage livable, and, later as a way to earn some extra money; taking action to escape her confinement and go in search of her mother).

    • Posted July 21, 2015 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

      Wendy, you describe a perfect protagonist arc! And you make a great point–not every main character is a protagonist at the beginning of his/her story. Sometimes the arc is *how* they learn to protag. 😀

      As far as Bella Swan goes, I have a theory about her: she’s so blank because she’s a kind of proxy for the reader, who can project all their own characteristics onto her. Then she’s sort-of caught up in things. It seems like one of the biggest critiques of those books–which work so well in so many ways, but not in others–is that Bella simply doesn’t protag enough.

    • Posted July 21, 2015 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

      My goodness Wendy – Your character sounds so interesting. I love to read females who find their voice. They are inspiring for adults and children both!

  17. Andy Starowicz
    Posted July 21, 2015 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    Good evening, Ms. Prineas and TWer’s!

    Thank you, Ms. Prineas, for this excellent post about the protagonist. Not only did it get me writing, but it also got me thinking. We are all so lucky to be learning such valuable lessons about reading and writing from you and all of the other wonderful authors. My own students will benefit from what I have learned this summer.

    I apologize because I am going to change the question prompt from children’s literature to literature. I think of myself as a child when I read To Kill a Mockingbird, but I was actually in high school (ninth graders today act differently than I did when I was in ninth grade – I still did “kid” stuff). Scout Finch is one of the main reasons that I am a reader today. After reading about Scout, and she was a protagonist that always found trouble, I continued to read novels in search for another protagonist like her. Even after 29 years of reading, I have not yet found a protagonist like Scout. Thank you for rekindling this memory.

    As for my protagonist, Sammy, he cheats, can’t sit still, hates school, only thinks about sports, and can’t stand his sister. But, this is Sammy on the surface. Why does he cheat? Why can’t he sit still? What makes him hate school? Are sports really the only thing that he thinks about? What bothers him about his sister? Sammy is a fourth grade boy, who loves his soccer and his teammates, and the bully, from the rival team, pushes him to his limits.

    Thank you again. Happy writing!

    • Posted July 21, 2015 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

      Andy – I’m intrigued by your character. I feel like I’ve had him in my classes. He’s sounds very relatable to many students today.

      • Andy Starowicz
        Posted July 21, 2015 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the reply, Dawn! He really is not my son (or any of his buddies), but he became the main character when I began writing a story that my son and his friends would enjoy.:)

    • Posted July 22, 2015 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      Andy, thanks for sharing your protagonist! You make a great point, that an author needs to go beyond just setting the protagonist in motion, but dig into the reasons behind their actions.

  18. Posted July 21, 2015 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    Ok – Boy is this a good prompt. We even found protag in the unban dictionary! Thank you Sarah Prineas for getting my family talking. We have often wondered why some many kids in Disney movies and YA novels have parent issues. Now we know!

    Favorite characters:
    Me – Nancy Drew, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson

    My 9 yr. old: Dusk from Darkwing by Kenneth Oppel, Matthew from Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, Kate from The Fire Chronicle and The Emerald Atlas by John Stevens, Leo from Floors by Patrick Carman, Di from The Unknowns by Benedict Carey

    My character: Aurora is fighting against her parents’ lies, and learning that she is not the first of her parents’ children. She is also fighting against the history of her people who have experienced oppression and violence in their home country and therefore immigrated to the US. Combined with that, she fights against the assumptions and stereotypes of who she is in her middle school. I’m not sure how she fight against her parents and cultural history. However, I believe she will fight against the stereotypes by defying odds and being interested in thing people assume aren’t for her. She may be the first Hispanic female astronaut – but I’m not sure yet.

    • Andy Starowicz
      Posted July 21, 2015 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

      Awesome, Dawn! Aurora sounds like just the girl that every middle school girl needs as a role model. She sounds strong, confident, and ready to create change.

      • Posted July 22, 2015 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

        Thank you Andy! Love having your feedback

    • Posted July 22, 2015 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      Wow, Dawn, your main character is protagging all over the place!! The fighting part is obvious–she’s faced with obstacles and must overcome them. But I’d argue that learning is action as well, a kind of quieter protagging that often leads to unexpected changes.

      Onward! It sounds like a great project.

      • Posted July 22, 2015 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

        Thank you Sarah – Wonderful idea about learning being protagging. I wouldn’t have thought of that but you are absolutely right!

  19. Posted July 22, 2015 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    Thinking about Protagonists in Children’s Literature:
    Hermione Granger (Harry Potter series)- Definitely a protagonist who protags. Her two closest friends are boys who often look to her for answers to their problems. Hermione has wits and smarts. She puts her sensibility and intellect to work in the most trying times, like the time Ron gets stuck in Devil’s Snare… Hermione recalls what she learned about the plan in class and uses an important spell to free her friend.

    Sam (Sources of Light by M. McMullan)- She’s not afraid to question racial injustice in her society while her mother and she are living in Jackson, Mississippi. Instead of heading home to safety with her housekeeper, Sam sums up the courage to remain at a restaurant during a sit-in and photograph the mistreatment the Freedom Riders experience. She even stands up to the boy she really likes when she wants to express how she feels about protesters and activists who are attacked by the Citizens Council. With her mother and grandmother, she turns in incriminating evidence against his father to the authorities.

    • Elizabeth Muster
      Posted July 22, 2015 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

      Margaret McMullan is very good at creating protagonists. Frank Russell in “How I Found the Strong” and Addy from “When I Crossed No-Bob”.

    • Posted July 22, 2015 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for commenting, Leslie!! I think you could make a great argument that Hermione is the real protagonist–or maybe the main protagonist–of the Harry Potter books. At any rate, the three of them–Harry, Hermione, and Ron–together function as a protagonist, too.

      I haven’t read the other book you mention, but Sam sounds like a classic protagonist, especially in her fearlessness. Maybe protagonists are, in some ways, what we readers want to be like–people who are willing to take chances and step into danger to learn something new or to overcome a challenge, or to right something that is wrong.

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