Thursday, 14 June 2012

The Stranger as Protagonist

Today we have the pleasure of another wonderful guest post, once again by a fellow Crooked Cat Publishing author, Mark Patton. Mark introduces us to the concept of...

The Stranger as Protagonist

One of the challenges of writing historical fiction (but which can apply equally to science fiction and fantasy, or to any stories with unfamiliar settings) is how to explain to the reader those things that the characters would take for granted. The writer of a contemporary novel, for example, can take his or her readers into a Christian church along with one of the characters, without having to explain what Christianity is, who Jesus was, or why a baby might be baptised. The reader may or may not be a Christian, but will be familiar with the religion as an element of modern western culture. If, on the other hand, I write a novel set in ancient Rome, and have a character walking into a Temple of Mithras, I will need to explain far more in order not to lose the reader along the way.

My novel, Undreamed Shores, is set in the familiar landscape of Southern England, but it is set in 2400 BC, in the context of a culture that, for most readers, will be profoundly unfamiliar. The prospect of visiting Stonehenge whilst it is in use, and meeting its architect, is hopefully one of the things that will attract readers to the book, but I inevitably have a good deal of explaining to do, and not just when it comes to the religion, but many aspects of daily life as well. It was partly for this reason that I chose a protagonist (a young man, Amzai) who is himself, a stranger to this land and culture. The entire novel is narrated from his point of view, and the reader discovers it along with him.

In one sense, this is a tried and tested formula. Homer’s Odyssey and Dante’s Divine Comedy, as well as Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels and, more recently, David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, all have protagonists who discover and explore worlds that are unfamiliar to them, taking the reader on that journey with them as they progress. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jonathan Harker travels to, and reports back from, the heart of Dracula’s world before the vampire arrives in England to begin his reign of terror here.

In most cases, however, these discoverers of unfamiliar worlds come from backgrounds that gave them much in common with the readers for whom the works were written. Robinson Crusoe and Lemuel Gulliver are fairly typical eighteenth century Englishmen; Jonathan Harker is a London solicitor; Dante even places himself centre-stage, since it is he who travels, with the poet Virgil as his guide, through the infernal regions, describing them for the reader in terms so memorable as to have informed almost all subsequent imaginings of “Hell” in art and literature (far more so than anything in the Bible). Jacob de Zoet is a different sort of protagonist: an eighteenth century Dutchman in a 21st Century English novel, his own world is only marginally more familiar to the reader than the Japanese milieu that he explores. Here we come face to face with one of the specific challenges of writing historical fiction: our protagonists are always, to a greater or lesser extent, unlike our readers (or ourselves) simply by virtue of living in a remote time period.
My protagonist, Amzai, is quite an extreme example of this. He comes (as I do) from the Channel Islands, and the culture and society of Early Bronze Age Dorset and Wiltshire are strange to him. He has to learn the languages; figure out the customs and manners; understand the religion; much in the same way as Gulliver has to find his way around Brogdingnag. He has a guide (a young woman, Nanti, with whom he falls in love) to help him in this, much as Dante has Virgil.

Both Amzai and Nanti, however, belong to their own time period, which is very remote from ours. Theirs is a world without the written word, without maps, without the wheel. In trying to interpret such a world for the reader, it suited my narrative purpose to imagine Amzai and Nanti as coming from very different backgrounds (not only in terms of where they come from), and to give them different sorts of knowledge, which they share with one another in a way that hopefully seems natural to the reader in the context of the story. As an islander, Amzai has an intimacy with, and an understanding of, the sea that Nanti cannot begin to approach. She, however, has a particular gift for languages, and is also a respected healer, with a vast knowledge of medicinal herbs.  

Part of the joy of writing the book lay in the opportunities it created to mix up the very familiar (the landscape, birds, trees, flowers, animals) with the profoundly unfamiliar (the society, customs, mythology and religion - partly reconstructed from the archaeological evidence, but largely imagined); to generate sparks of connection between our own world and that of our remote ancestors.

This, however, is just how I have done it. Who are your favourite protagonists in stories with unfamiliar settings, and why? How do you go about the process of creating a protagonist in your own writing? What characteristics should a great protagonist have?


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Jane said...

A very interesting piece, Mark.
But perhaps I should take issue with you over your first paragraph.
When I described my Main Character's conversion to Christianity in my forthcoming book, BREATH OF AFRICA using a vision, I was taken to task by a fellow Authonomy author for not explaing more fully what had happened, as the author was not familiar with the faith!
A similar thing occurred when I read the passage to my writers' club a few years ago.
So even nowadays, one has to explain...

Cathie Dunn said...

Very interesting post, Mark.

When I first created Geoffrey de Mortagne, the male protagonist (and under-sheriff of Gloucester) in Dark Deceit, I delved into the history of that part of Normandy (actually the semi-independent county of Perche). Not that much is known in English history notes, and the only tome going into detail costs £50 and isn't widely available. But I found plenty of references in a French history book about this particular era, the 1100s. Having a smidgeon of school French does pay off...

I discovered information about Geoffrey's liege lord, and Perche itself in relation to Normandy and the kingdom of France. It took me a long time to gather all the data together, including getting my hands on a rare book about sheriffs in that era. Fortunately, many accounts exist for the England-based part, so I could plot accordingly, simply filling the gaps with my fictional story. Part 2 of the trilogy will be trickier, as Geoffrey spends most of his time in Normandy & Perche, and perhaps even travels with his liege lord to Spain.

If you are - like me - hugely interested in the era, you don't mind delving extensively, spending much time discovering the tiniest details. That's what I love about writing historicals.

Kimm Walker said...

Fascinating post, Mark. I also had to do a great deal of research into self-harm in order to get inside the skin of my characters. It was through meeting a self-harmer and later being surprised that Princess Diana self-harmed that sparked my curiosity. I wanted to know the whys & hows and from my studies Once Removed grew.

Nancy Jardine said...

I love historical research and want to include everything I know. Unfortunately not a good idea. It seems to me that the skill in learning how much detail to leave out is as important as how much to keep in. The genre also seems to be important. If the work is more historical romance editors of historical seem to want a bare minimum of detail- to avoid slowing the pace.

Mark Patton said...

Like Cathie and Nancy, I love doing the research. Very little new research went into Undreamed Shores - I already had the material from the 25 years of research I did for the various non-fiction books I have written. I would certainly have enough for a sequel, and may well write one some day, but I was keen to get back to research, so my next novel will be set in oman times.

Mark Patton said...

Sorry, Jane, I tried to respond to you yesterday, but it must have got lost in the ether. I look forward to reading BREATH OF AFRICA. To explain or not to explain is a question almost as troubling as Hamlet's. On the one hand, if we don't explain something, we risk losing those readers who are unfamiliar with what we are writing about. On the other hand, if we do explain, those readers who are familiar may feel patronised, or simply be bored. It's always a judgement call. I imagine Kimm must face something of the same problem, because self-harm is a subject some people know a great deal about (from direct or indirect personal experience) and others know absolutely nothing about.

Cathie Dunn said...

Mark, it must be fascinating to feed your life's work, your research, into fiction. You have all the details in your notes already.

As for details in historicals, I recently reviewed a historical novel by a well-known author for the HNS (under my real name). Her book read often like a history book, 'telling' the readers what happened (and a lot did happen). I found this tiring at times. Yes, I know the era well, although not every little detail, but I wouldn't want to approach a novel like a history book. Still a good read, but I did flick through sections.

Mark Patton said...

Not only do I have the notes, I have actually written the history books (for the period in which Undreamed Shores is set), making it less of a temptation to dump everything in the novel. Knowing what to leave out is a real challenge, though, and I guess it becomes easier with experience. I love all of Hilary Mantel's historicals, for example, but looking from "A Place of Greater Safety" to "Wolf Hall" and now "Bring Up The Bodies," I can really see how she has honed this art.