During my editing of NaNo #1 – That which is left, is lost – I’ve been asking myself some of the ‘big’ questions about the novel, including the definition of my protagonist and antagonist. It’s led to some interesting revelations, not least about these how to approach these two simple terms in writing.
It took me a long time to realise that I had my characters the wrong way around. For a while I was so focused on the idea of Madeline that I sincerely believed that she was my protagonist. The novel was about her, it forces her to confront her past and it also summarises her life story. Yet, throughout the book Madeline’s thoughts, feelings and desires are not made apparent. The crux of the story lies, very much so, in that Madeline is a woman only seen through others’ eyes. For a reader, she is interpreted by the characters around her and judged accordingly. Perhaps she even gets what she deserves.
Despite this, Madeline is not my protagonist. It has taken me too long to understand that my protagonist is the one through which I narrate the story: Dr Christopher Whalley. I had believed that he was challenging Madeline, forcing her to admit what her life was and encouraging her to consider all those acts she committed in order to make her see some value to life – perhaps not her own, but certainly to those she had inflicted herself upon.
I, of course, had this backwards. Which, according to the quote below from John Rogers, is lucky for me.
It is instead, Dr Whalley, in his quest to understand Madeline, that is my protagonist – the main character searching for his answer. He is the one who has questions that need to be answered, that tries to ignore his fascination with this patient but can not and thus gets drawn into her web of deceit and extraordinary life. At the end of the novel he is the one left to pick up the pieces and reflect on how this experience has changed him, how it has influenced his life and why it all happened to him.
Madeline, meanwhile, is the antagonist pulling the strings in the background, encouraging Dr Whalley to jeopardise his professional conduct, waiting to see how far he will go. She is the one that lures him into contacting various individuals that will place him in an uncompromising position, that will lead to Madeline being able to interfere in his life just as he has interfered in the end of hers.
Interestingly, I have also discovered that my protagonist and antagonist want the same thing. They both want to ensure that Madeline does not die alone, that she is remembered. After all, isn’t that why Madeline – in the final weeks of her life – tempts Dr Whalley into investigating her past: so that he will contact those she herself is too afraid to face?
More importantly, however, is that the means by which they want to acheive this goal are very different. Madeline doesn’t want to admit defeat or request forgiveness: that isn’t who she is. Dr Whalley wants to ensure that Madeline doesn’t die alone because he has compassion for her, because he believes that no one should have to face death without companionship and support. Yet Madeline just wants a show: she wants to believe that she is leaving behind an interesting life, one that will not be easily forgotten. And what better way to do that than to orchestrate a pantomime that will eventually lead to the ultimate lie?
It’s an interesting concept, this protagonist-antagonist relationship. In many ways Madeline and Dr Whalley are similar, but while it is these similarities that link them, it is the means by which they communicate and interpret them that stand them apart. It’s taken me too long to realise this, but now that I have it will only serve to make the thread of my novel stronger and to heighten the opposing forces that are represented by these two characters.
All in all, it makes the story fun to write. 😉