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?
Critique Service for Writers
Flash 500 Flash Fiction Competition
Flash 500 Humour Verse Competition