The Armchair Protagonist

I am an armchair protagonist. I watch a lot of movies, TV shows, and read a lot of fiction. I’m usually able to put myself in the characters’ minds, empathize with their feelings. But sometimes I can’t. Recently my husband, John, and I watched a detective story. The hero was trying to track down a serial killer who was hiding out in victims’ homes before pouncing on them unexpectedly and committing murder. A couple was in bed, turning out the lights, when they heard a noise upstairs. The husband got out of bed, went upstairs, met the killer who proceeded to kill the guy and push his head through the floor. The victim’s wife, still in bed, listened to the rumbling sounds upstairs, and screamed when her husband’s head came crashing through the ceiling. This whole time I was thinking, Why doesn’t she run out of the house and/or call the police? Instead the woman was frozen in fear.

Time and again, especially with horror movies, I watch characters fail to take appropriate, practical steps to save their lives. They’ll run the wrong direction or freeze and wait as the killer (or sometimes a ghost) approaches and ultimately takes them out. In the meantime, I’m saying, Do something!! The truth is, I don’t know what I would do if pursued by a ghost or a killer. I like to think I would be brave and act quickly, but how can I be sure of that? We all react differently to stress. I think it’s up to the writer to put the reader in the character’s head, to understand her reactions and motivations, so we’re not surprised with the actions she ultimately takes.

I just read my first JoJo Moyes novel, The Last Letter for Your Lover. It’s a very entertaining story of star-crossed lovers who somehow keep narrowly missing their connection and can never seem to be in the right place at the right time.. There is another character who appears in the second half of the book who is romantically involved with a married man. At first I had difficulty understanding why she would waste her time with a guy I considered a complete jerk, but eventually I came to understand her motivations. The author did a good job of helping me “get” the character and why she was letting herself be used by the jerk. That’s how a reader ultimately comes to care for the protagonist. You can’t really empathize with a character if you don’t understand what motivates her.

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