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A PROTAGONIST IN THEIR OWN STORY




Back in the late-80s, early 90s, I became engrossed in the campaign to free the Beirut hostages. The campaign, particularly the one to free John McCarthy, was designed to get people involved – a girlfriend (Jill Morrell) desperate for her partner to return, trendy events and eye-catching media forays all combined to make this a human story. Briefly, I joined the Friends of John McCarthy, who was promptly freed a week later, and I ambled over to Amnesty instead. I didn’t stay a campaigner in any sense, but the story still resonated with me – so much so that I bought and devoured their joint book, Some Other Rainbow.

When I was working in a bookshop, McCarthy and his fellow hostage, Brian Keenan, Belfast-born and held despite carrying an Irish passpost, came for a signing session. They were a pleasure to watch engaging with each other. They had been held together, mostly isolated from the other hostages, for the best part of 5 years and had become very close. Their banter was great, and it was a fun day. But I never read Keenan’s account of his incarceration, An Evil Cradling, thinking it might be very high-brow for me.

A few weeks ago, I was browsing the charity bookshelves (hey, with a reading habit like mine and a love for paper books I need to cut the odd corner to keep up. Just ask my local library.) I came across Keenan’s book and decided to risk all of 50p on it.

I read it from cover to cover in a few days. Literary, but raw and powerful, it was an incredible account that dealt with the psychology of being held, a determination not to be nameless and faceless combined with a ferocious courage. It could not have been more different than McCarthy’s account, which I immediately dug out from the back of the bookcase (it has survived many book culls) and began again.

Both men remember the same instances as far as the events go. But both put a different meaning on the events. One part of the tale, where Keenan receives a ferocious beating, didn’t impact me in McCarthy’s telling – but in Keenan’s it was raw and personal and unforgettable. So, too, the other way round – McCarthy’s telling of being transported, mummified, is much more horrific than Keenan’s, despite the two men being together throughout.

All very interesting, I hear you say, but what has it to do with a writing blog?

A few years ago, I was introduced (by a very clever lady who I shall refer to under her moniker The Judge) to the concept that everyone is a protagonist in their own story. I think, when writing, it’s easy to forget that. We have our protagonist, the story revolves around him/her and it’s an easy habit to fall into that our secondary characters support that storyline. But that story is not theirs.

In Some other Rainbow, Morrell describes receiving a poem about waiting* and how it impacted on her. Many years later, when I was writing Abendau’s Heir (and Legacy) that poem came back to me when I was writing Sonly’s storyline. Her role was to wait – not passively, just as Morrell did not – but, nonetheless, to wait. No news. No hope. Nothing to cling to but the waiting itself. That becomes Sonly’s history. Not Kare’s. Not Lichio’s. Just hers. And in becoming the one who waits she is the protagonist in that story; the point of view revolves around her.

Too often I read a story and feel that any of the characters could be placed in any role and the outcome would not change - but that is not the way life runs. Sure, neither McCarthy nor Keenan could free themselves, but they impacted on their guards in separate ways, and on each other. They changed the course of their own story, and those around them. And, in the end, once the outcome is delivered (and anyone who has read Abendau or, indeed, Inish Carraig will know this is a central core to my writing) each character is different in terms of how events impact on them.  That difference is created through values and beliefs and personal choice. It’s not something that can be predicted nor will any two people ever react in the same way to the same event.

McCarthy and Keenan moved me equally – but on different levels. McCarthy in how human he was facing such horror, how he was the person any of us might be facing the extraordinary. In his story, each day is faced and endured and made as light of as he can. Fears are recognised and frailties exposed. Keenan, on the other hand, applies an intelligence to every encounter and remorselessly explores what it says about him and the others impacted. They may both be telling much the same story for many hundreds of pages, but they are telling a different story, about themselves.

So, too, should your characters. I think, when writing, it’s important to delve deep within them. It’s important to know them well enough to know that, faced with the events of my story, this character would do this and they would do it because of who they are. The story may not be focused on them, the events may not surround them, but they’re still the protagonist in their own part of the story. If they’re not, they’ll never really come to life.

I suppose what I wanted to say was to take whatever story you want to tell, and let it be told meaningfully and with thought. Just as you would tell your own story.

*
The poem is Wait For Me by Konstantin Simonov, and it begins:

Wait for me, and I'll come back!
Wait with all you've got!
Wait, when dreary yellow rains
Tell you, you should not.

I highly recommend you look it up and read it. It’s incredibly moving.











Comments

Anya Kimlin said…
It always surprises me how a story changes when I change the point of view. Two characters never see the same scene the same way. It's always interesting to compare how they see themselves with how others see them. One character thinks he's a big of eye candy whereas his father describes him as a fifty year old who never grew out of the gangly teen phase.
Joanne Zebedee said…
Ha! I still think I'm 18 and skinny. :(
Anya Kimlin said…
you think therefore you are :)