Sunday, October 12

Real Life Diagnostics: Writing a Protagonist Who Doesn't Understand Emotions

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Four 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through November 1. To catch up after my hiatus, I'll be doubling up with Sunday diagnostics for the rest of the month.

This week’s questions:

1. Is this page interesting enough to keep the reader turning the page?

2. This protagonist does not understand emotions, though that will change the longer she stays in Liberty. Does she come off as flat?


Market/Genre: Adult science fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

She knew if she walked out the door, things would never be the same. It would be an admission of humanity. A bow to the ordinary. An accusation of debasement.

It had been a few hours since she arrived, sent to inform and invigorate the people of Liberty so they could stand up to the coming onslaught of violence. Even as she arrived the enemy grew as it traveled, dragging able-bodied men from villages as they passed and forcing them into servitude. Time was against her. To bring an entire village together and equip its people to do battle was a monumental task, one no mere mortal could hope to accomplish. That’s why she was here. That’s why the Council saw fit to send her to this place. It wasn’t a question of her ability, nor of her knowledge. It was a question of birthright. Her father was Leader of the Council. It was an incontrovertible fact that his heirs, children of his loins, would step into his role when he relinquished it. It had always been that way. It would always be. Such was the way of her kind.

She stepped into the heart of Liberty, the center of the village, and slowly turned to record everything around her. The courthouse sat nearly vacant—the laws of the land, as well as much of the building, long ago turned to dust. A tattered flag sagged on a pole in front of a tall brick garage with a rusted fire truck inside. Useless, as there was little left to burn and no running water. Then she saw it. The old gray-stoned library, heavily pasted with vines rooted to the mortar, bundling the building itself into a green-wrapped package.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[She knew if she walked out the door, things would never be the same.] Makes me curious why not [It would be an admission of humanity.] Makes me think she's not human [A bow to the ordinary. An accusation of debasement.] Interesting views on being human. Makes me curious who she is and what kind of world this is

It had been a few hours since she arrived, sent to inform and invigorate the people of Liberty so they could stand up to the coming [onslaught of violence.] Perhaps a little clue as to what from? Even as she arrived the enemy grew as it traveled, dragging able-bodied men from villages as they passed and forcing them into servitude. [Time was against her.] What does she think about this? To bring an entire village together and equip its people to do battle was a monumental task, one [no mere mortal] this makes me wonder if there are immortals in her world could hope to accomplish. [That’s why she was here. That’s why the Council saw fit to send her to this place. It wasn’t a question of her ability, nor of her knowledge. It was a question of birthright. Her father was Leader of the Council. It was an incontrovertible fact that his heirs, children of his loins, would step into his role when he relinquished it. It had always been that way. It would always be. Such was the way of her kind.] This all feels a little infodumpy. Perhaps rephrase in her voice? Or give a sense of who's telling the story? I'm not sure of the narrator yet, though it feels third omniscient.

She stepped into the heart of Liberty, the center of the [village, and slowly turned to record] I'm getting an alien tech in a low-tech world vibe. Is that the case? everything around her. The courthouse sat nearly vacant—the laws of the land, as well as much of the building, long ago turned to dust. A tattered flag sagged on a pole in front of a tall brick garage with a rusted fire truck inside. Useless, as there was little left to burn and no running water. Then she saw it. The old gray-stoned library, heavily pasted with vines rooted to the mortar, bundling the building itself into a green-wrapped package.

1. Is this page interesting enough to keep the reader turning the page?

Yes and no (readers chime in here). I'm intrigued by the opening paragraph, as someone who views humanity as a bad thing and is afraid of it is compelling. I'm curious about this woman and who and what she is. She's also going to protect a village from invaders, so she has a worthy cause to root for. It sounds like this might be a lost cause, which makes her task harder and more interesting. Can she do it? I'm also curious about the setting, as it feels low-tech due to her views, but I suspect it's our world in a post-apocalyptic time.

The detachment is making it tough for me to connect to her however, so I feel like I'm getting background from a distant narrator.

I suspect having a character with no emotion is going to be a challenge here, because emotion is a big part of hooking a reader and making them care about the protagonist. Since she doesn't understand emotions, you'll have to work harder to make her interesting and draw readers in. Does she not have emotions at all or just not understand them? Because that could help tip the balance between emotionless and just someone who feels but doesn't understand it. She can "feel" and the reader can see it, she just doesn't understand it.

This is one of those openings that would depend on the cover blurb for me to keep reading. If I liked the story idea, I'd give it another few pages to see where it goes. There are intriguing things going on here, I'm just not emotionally invested in the character yet to want to see how it turns out. It's more intellectual curiosity about the situation. That can work as a hook though if there are a few more details to show what's going on. Not a lot, as you'd want to keep the mystery going, but a little more setting to ground me in where this is and what's going on would help build curiosity.

(Here's more on grounding readers in your world)

2. This protagonist does not understand emotions, though that will change the longer she stays in Liberty. Does she come off as flat?

More detached, like she's not the narrator of this story. I don't get a sense of her in this, but someone else telling the tale. If you're doing an omniscient third, then that's how it feels. If you're doing third limited, it's not feeling centered on her yet. Part of this is because I'm not getting any thoughts from her.

I'd suggest getting in some more internalization to show her thoughts, even if she's not emotional. That would at least show her personality and give a sense of who she is and how she "feels" about being there. It might also help to let her interact with someone else who can provide the emotional connection readers look for. That would allow you to show that she's not an emotional person if people around her are very emotional and she's not. How much would depend on which POV you're going for. A tighter POV would have more, while an omniscient POV might keep more of the detached feel.

(Here's more on internalization)

Overall, I think a little more fleshing out to ground readers solidly in where they are and what's about to happen could create enough of a hook to keep readers interested until they get to know the narrator more. If the protagonist isn't the person they'll care about at first, perhaps give them someone else to worry about. When she saves them (if she does) then that "affection" might transfer to her. Plus, you'll have more time to let readers get to know her and figure out why they should care about her. Though the sooner you can do that the better, of course.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

5 comments:

  1. First paragraph was nice. Impression I got after that was of trying too hard. It ends up redundant and not quite fitting together.

    This is easier to show than explain, so here's an example juggle of the second paragraph:

    She'd arrived only a few hours ago, and time was against her. The approaching enemy was growing, conscripting able-bodied men from villages as they passed. She had been tasked to bring an entire village together and equip its people to do battle, something no mere mortal could hope to accomplish.

    The Council had sent her not because of her ability, nor her knowledge. They sent her because her father was Leader of the Council. She and her siblings were being prepared to step into his role when he relinquished it. Such was the way of her kind.


    I had to make a few assumptions, and I noticed that you said the leader of the council has "heirs", plural, so multiple children will take over in the single position of leader once he resigns.

    Hope this helps!

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  2. What if the protagonist merely didn't understand human emotion? That doesn't mean she is emotion-free, merely that she responds in a totally different way to the same stimuli. I could get into a character that was that...alien...and it would allow you to explore and share with the reader her background and personal history a bit more, exploring the disconnect between the feelings of the people she's to save and her own, distanced viewpoint.

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  3. The first para hooked me, but I lost steam after that.

    Perhaps you could hook the reader better if she is not emotionless but, as jenna suggests, experiences feelings in a different way. Also I believe underlying value systems are the trigger to emotional response (and emotional response is what a reader requires to remain interested) ... what?


    What if, rather than not having emotions, her racial type ignores and avoids them so she has no vocabulary (verbal or emotional) for the emotions she witnesses in the humans.

    What if:
    ... she sees various orders of color in response to feelings;
    ... she hears music or different vibrations?
    ... her culture's values are based upon philosophical logic?
    ... the human value system comes from the other end of a logical spectrum?

    I think the inherited obligation is a truly powerful key to making the protagonist more compelling. It could provide her with inner conflict. Why?
    ... like the musician son of an accountant father her values differ?
    ... she has some sympathy with humans when she's supposed to feel nothing in order to 'make right choices based on logic.
    ...What if she questions or resents the patrilineal obligation but would be put to death at home if she expressed that?

    Sorry about the rambling reply. I love the premise of the story.

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  4. I felt like the story started on the second paragraph. That's where I got interested, and where I felt like the character was actually becoming a character. If you started there, you'd have a bit of mystery, and could unfold all the stuff about her reason for being there, and who her father was, gradually as needed.

    I may be contradicting everyone else. I haven't read the other comments yet.

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  5. Sorry- I meant the story started for me on the third paragraph, not the second.

    ReplyDelete