Is there anything more annoying than a whiny protagonist? I mean, maybe you shouldn’t have taken on this “hero” bit if you didn’t think you could handle a little hardship now and again!
Oh sure, every protagonist hits rock bottom at one point. It’s part of the story arc. All has to look hopeless before the hero rises out of the dark valley of crisis into the climax of the plot. But too much “why me” can get old fast.
I tried my darndest when writing my novel, Moonburner, to ensure that my protagonist, Kai, was not whiny, mopey, or full of self-pity. Sure her parents die, but welcome to young adult literature, folks. It kinda goes with the territory.
In particular, I didn’t want her to cry very much. Sure, she cries when she is sentenced to death, but even then, not until she’s all alone, and has been sufficiently stoic when the bad guys are around. Maybe I was projecting my own internalized beliefs about how to be taken seriously as a woman in a man’s world. Rule number one: you don’t cry.
I also tried to avoid too much inner monologue. I have read that newer authors frequently include too much inner monologue because it is easier to write than dialogue or action. How do young authors explain how the character is feeling? Tell! Because showing is hard. Anyway, I wasn’t going to make that mistake.
Because of these efforts at the drafting stage, I was both surprised and not surprised when I got feedback from my beta readers. I had a couple of readers tell me that Kai felt cold and impersonal. I got comments along the lines of: “her parents die and she just keeps going on. Doesn’t she even care?” Clearly, in my effort to avoid a whiny, sobbing, inner-monologue ridden protagonist, the pendulum swung too far. My protagonist now seems like a heartless bitch. Also not good.
I’ve been thinking about how to address this without running afoul of my prior concerns. How do you show a character is grieving without going into sappy inner monologue? (Although I know, sometimes inner monologue is ok). The first example that came to mind was the Hunger Games. When Prim dies, Katniss takes the time to decorate her body with flowers and sing her a song. The author clearly could have said: “we’re in a fight for survival here, no time to dilly dally playing with flowers…” and cut that scene out. But that would have been a huge loss. The scene is very powerful in how it shows Katniss’s sorrow.
Clearly, the trick is to go back to the handy writer’s motto: show, don’t tell. Show the character’s immediate reaction to grief through physical sensations, immediate action, and more long-term reactions. Sure, it takes more brain cells as a writer, but that’s why it’s so much more effective. I will be thinking hard about ways to show Kai’s sorrow over her parents, without going into whiny inner monologue. Hopefully I’ll come up with something brilliant!