For a while now I have wondered what it is that makes me like a book or a story. This surfaced again recently while I was reading “The Note” by Zoë Folbigg. The description of the story seemed to be similar to the stories in Jill Mansell books, which I love. The Note has also received critical acclaim. Yet while reading it I couldn’t get into it and I didn’t understand why.
What I was able to distill based on earlier experiences is that I need to be able to identify with the protagonist to feel that I can get into the story. This doesn’t mean that she has to be a 38-year-old white woman who works for an IT company. I have been able to connect with protagonists that were different in many different ways. Even protagonists that weren’t human. But what does allow me to identify with a protagonist? Why do I feel like I’m living the story while reading some books and feel detached from others?
The book that I’m currently reading has helped me resolve this mystery. The book is called “Story Genius” and the author is Lisa Cron. Story Genius is one of many books that claim to explain how you can become a better writer. Its angle is different from most others in its genre though. The book explains the science behind what your brain needs to get pulled into a story.
For us to connect with a protagonist we need to understand what drives this person. We need to understand who the protagonist is before the story starts. Unless the protagonist is a baby and the story starts on the day of her birth, she will have a back story. She will have experienced things that have shaped her believes and her feelings. Understanding these experiences, the things she learned and how she has been hurt and celebrated in the past will help us to see inside our protagonist.
Throughout the story, the protagonist will try to learn something or gain something. The misbeliefs that she picked up throughout her life might get in the way of getting what she wants. By understanding what drives our protagonist from the inside, we can connect to her. We are experiencing the story as if we are part of it. Even if our own lives are very different and if we would take different decisions in similar situations. We all have the same basic needs. We want to be loved, accepted, appreciated, recognized for our efforts and be part of something. If we feel that our basic needs are at risk we experience one of four basic emotions; happiness, sadness, anger or fear. Because the basics are very similar for all of us, it’s easy to understand a protagonist’s reaction when their core beliefs are at stake.
With the help of an MRI scientists have been able to prove that when you read a story that allows you to connect with a protagonist, your brain reacts in the same way it would when you experience the situation yourself. That is why it’s so hard to put a good book down and why you feel sad when you finish it. You become part of the narrative and it feels like everything that is happening to the protagonist is actually happening to you. When the story ends it feels like having to say goodbye to close friends.
I tested the theory against a couple of books that I like and so far it is holding up. As long as I can understand what drives the protagonist and why he or she makes certain choices I can connect to him or her. These books are also the ones that are very hard to put down.
In the books that I can’t quite get into, the backstory of the protagonist is missing, or the decisions that he or she makes do not make sense based on what I know about their past experiences.
If I ever feel brave enough to try my hand at writing fiction I know where to start. I should start by creating the past and the beliefs and misconceptions of my protagonist.
Don’t hold your breath though. It could be a while…
That’s interesting and it makes sense, too. I sometimes have problems staying interested in a protagonist, and I will think about what you wrote here. And you should definitely try writing fiction sometime, if that is something you are interested in.
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I’m interested in it, but I don’t know what to write about yet. Some people say things like “I had this story in me and just had to write it”. I don’t feel that way at all. I need to look for a story and hope I stay interested in it long enough to write it.
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