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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A nameless protagonist

I have a simple, very simple, request for everyone who reads this blog. Please, please name your main character.

I recently ran a short story critique group as part of an online writers conference, and fully half the stories had a nameless main character. One of these was even a third-person narrator.

The reason given by the authors was, "I wanted the main character to be an everyman type," or "I wanted to make sure the reader would be able to step into her perspective." In addition to the lack of a name, these characters lacked history, lacked family, lacked motive -- lacked personality.

Before I begin dissuading you from taking this route, let me admit there are perfectly good stories which have nameless and extremely interesting narrators.  A. Lee Martinez does a fantastic job with a nameless first-person narrator in A Nameless Witch and Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca also has a nameless first person protagonist. 

But for the most part, every novel you pick up is going to have a protagonist with a name, and there's a reason for that. Because before your reader can identify with your protagonist, your protagonist has to have an identity. 

Leaving the character nameless is a symptom of this overall lack of identity in the main character, and rather than creating a blank slate on which the reader will write his own name, gives the reader a featureless individual who drifts rather than acts (since our actions come from our identity) and whom we instinctively distrust. In these cases, the namelessness is a symptom rather than a cause.

Do you want to write an "everyman" type of character? Check out the Harry Potter books. Not only is Harry's life detailed, but they're very specific details. They're in many ways over-the-top details, but they're all there, and yet millions of readers identify very strongly with Harry.

Now why would that be, since I can guarantee you all those millions of readers do not have magical powers, are not orphans, were not forced to bunk under the stairwell, and aren't living in boarding schools. Many aren't male and all the ones I know personally are not British. 

What we're identifying with is his core humanity. Break him down and you get:
  1. someone who's special, but the world doesn't really know it
  2. someone who faces adversity
  3. someone who has trouble making friends, although he has a few close ones
  4. someone who feels misunderstood by authority -- either people expecting too much of him or, by contrast, people expecting far more than he could possibly deliver
  5. someone who feels the rules are smothering him and keeping him from achieving his full potential. 

Everyone can identify with these traits. Either we feel those things about ourselves, or we want to believe those things. Harry evokes in the reader a sense that we can transcend our past, can prove our detractors wrong and maybe live up to the expectations of our cheerleaders. Who wouldn't want to feel that?

So to make your MC more identifiable, give him that human core which we all want. Expanding those characteristics, even if they're not specific to every one of your readers, is going to make your protagonist more accessible. He doesn't have to be "everyman" in order to be identifiable to everyone.

The reader wants to invest in the main character. That's in the author's favor. It's easier for us to do that if your MC is inhabiting a fully-fleshed-out world of his own. That means a job, clothes, flaws, needs (both met and unmet), friends, choices to be made and the process by which the character makes them. It means a personality. It means a name. And once you give us those characteristics, we'll be able to step into his place and see ourselves there too.

Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the resolute Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.


Ted Cross said...

I name my characters, but I do have one prologue I write in which I identify the POV character as a stonecarver. Since he plays no role in the rest of the story, it seemed wrong to make of him more than he is -- a person witnessing a key event. I still wonder whether it works or not, though.

Karen Lange said...

Thanks for the info. I do name my characters, and I like the books I read to name them too. :)

Angela said...

Love this post!

Jane Lebak said...

Ted, if the stone carver never appears again in the story, I'd have to ask myself (bearing in mind that I know nothing whatsoever about your book) why he'd inhabit prime page-one real estate. Every minute we spend on the nameless stone-carver is a minute we're not spending on the protagonist, learning his voice and his quirks and his problems, and learning why you loved him enough to write a novel about him.

If the event is that key, it can be unveiled later in the story; an eyewitness can recount it; the bad guy can revel in it. In my semi-professional opinion (and that's worth what you paid for it) if the events aren't viewed through the eyes of a character we love, we might as well read the police report or the newspaper account or great-great-grandma's diary entry.

The first pages of the story need to grab our heart and frame the primary conflict and who's going to solve it. An opening with a character we never meet again asks the reader to (unknowingly) begin from a clean slate twice, suspending the time when the actual story begins, and you may lose some readers in the crossover. Finally, if your reader gets attached to that narrator, he may feel cheated when that narrator doesn't show up again.

Of course there will be stories which demand this device. But I personally would be unwilling to ask that much of the reader that early in the author-reader relationship. In the end, of course, the decision belongs to the writer, but do be careful. Even if you know it's necessary, the reader going into it blindly doesn't know.

Victoria Dixon said...

Great post. Never would have considered writing a story with a nameless character. In part because even if I never named him/her in the story, they'd still have a name I would know. Also, I'm not Daphne du Maurier.

Jordan McCollum said...

I agree! Donald Maass points out that characters become everymen by being drawn with great specificity.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Ug. The girl in The Historian went without a name the whole time, which bugged me throughout the book. Ditto the father in The Road.

You could argue that with The Road it added to the tone for the characters to be nameless, but if by page 60 I'm still thinking about the fact that I don't know the MC's name, then it's more distraction than tool.

Katrina L. Lantz said...

Great article! I love the line, "before a reader can identify with your character, your character has to have an identity." I just attended a writers conference where one of the presenters said the more unique and specific your main character is, the more universally accepted they'll be because (example) even though we may not all have lost our parents in a freak lightning storm, we've all experienced loss.

We don't have to be vague with main characters to make them an everyman. Very important concept. Thanks for putting it so well!

Melissa said...

I name my characters but struggle with what to name them. Everything either sounds too generic or too out there, thus making the reader think too hard about why they have that name.

Unknown said...

I think this is becoming a newer trend among writers. Let your audience be the MC. I find it much more fulfilling if the MC is named and is relatable than letting me fill in the blanks.

always, annie said...

I have a question though. If my character is nameless because, yes, I would really like the cliche of the everyman, would I just make up a name when writing a synopsis? Please advise and thank you so much.