Today I say goodbye to a very special man in my life: my protagonist, Frank. This afternoon I handed my approval on the final copyedit of my novel to my publishers at Random House, so from this moment on the words are set in stone. Frank, the women he hopelessly tries to understand, the partner he has no clue is an incredible danger to him, the killer he’s trying to save the people of Sydney from: they are out of my hands now, born and grown and out on their own, and I am sad.
Frank was a friend to me, one of the only men in my world I was certain I understood.
I could predict Frank. I trusted him. I fell in love with his inherent goodness, and there was goodness in there after all, deep underneath the misogyny and vanity and the serial marrying. I think even those writers whose protagonists aren’t meant to be loved, writers like John Fowles with his vile Freddie Clegg, feel some attachment to their main guys no matter their shortcomings. Face it, we all felt a bit sad when Tolkein’s Smeagol died, didn’t we? That hairless, annoying little freak. The world was one monster short when Mordor swallowed him. And the world needs monsters, failures, sickos and beasts. They make the rest of us look good.
Who is your protagonist? Why have you given him or her so much of your imagination? Do they do something, believe something, live some way that you imagine without the restrictions of family pressure, monetary strain, or something as fundamental as your gender, you would? I’ve admitted to many a creative writing student that a lot of Frank is me. I don’t like girls, and I have no real desire to be a man, but stepping into Frank is very much something I enjoy because I think we share a sense of humour and I’m characteristically bad at writing ‘normal’ women. I felt Frank’s bewilderment at the mechanics of flirting with women when a gay friend of a friend tried to pick me up at an engagement party for an hour and a half and I was clueless to what she was attempting the entire time. I know the skin-tingling rush that Frank feels at a live NRL match when the ball flies seemingly without restraint from one to another to another runner on the field toward the overlap, the unconscious desire to rise slowly out of my plastic seat, my hotdog forgotten. I feel his quiet terror when someone special comes into my life, the pulsating panic at the idea of losing some part of myself in order to give someone else what they need, the joy and tragedy of becoming half of a partnership. If things had gone a different way in my life and academia hadn’t ended up my calling, I would certainly have been a cop, and in fact made it into the training scheme twice but backed out each time. I don’t think these aspects of my personality make me any more a man or any less a woman, or any more Frank than Candice. But I think it does make Frank a better character to have a little of me in him.
What piece of your protagonist will be you, I wonder.
And will you be game enough to put a piece of you in every character on the page? I don’t suggest you wash the book with yourself so that your jokes flutter out of every mouth and everyone in the book is a Sex and The City fan; I mean here, a woman might be an obsessive picker of food just like you, and there, a man might hate slow walkers on the footpath like you, too. Someone might be the kind of disorganised freak who has a basket for clean clothes and a basket for dirty ones, both empty towers amid a valley of clothes, and a desk covered in a mountain of paper topped by an empty expanding file: just like you. Someone might chew their nails like you, lick their teeth like you, laugh like you in that honking way that makes people across the restaurant turn and look. I know I harp on about Stephen King a lot, but some of his best characters are writers.
What’s wrong with you, after all? You’re your own greatest muse. No one knows the taste of your mother’s lasagna like you. No one knows the stories you and your sister used to write when you were kids or how bored you got in your local church every goddamn Sunday morning, how you used to sneak books in inside your jacket and read them between your knees. It’s fine to imagine you’re someone you’re not: a king, a warrior, a witch, a billionaire, a farmer looking for a wife. But things become more real when you get inside these people, look through their eyes, pull their hands on like gloves and make them move instead of puppeteering from above, detached, godly. And you’re trying to make things are real as they can be, in the end. That’s your job.
I suppose my mission here is to remind you that the kind of characters who make people angry, who cause them to close the book in the bookstore and move on, or to rant on chat forums and bag out fans of the work are those characters who we can never hope to be. No one will ever be as beautiful, mysterious, worldly, heroic and sexually attractive as a certain teen dream vampire who’s blockbusted the genre over the last few years (I’m sure you know the one I mean. Prince Sparklepants.) This guy wouldn’t fart if you paid him. He talks about love as freely as he talks about the weather. Not once in the series was Prince Sparklepants drunk, obnoxious, rude, unable to articulate himself, a bad driver, grammatically incorrect, suffering from B.O., the instigator of a joke that no one else thought was funny. He’s never underdressed, overdressed, late, lost, too tired to pay attention to what someone else is saying, Facebooking in bed in the dark. He never accidentally calls a fat woman pregnant, tells his girlfriend to make him a sandwich, drools while he sleeps or leaves his hair all over the bathroom. Any character who did all these things across the same book would be too crude to believe of course, but when someone does them every now and then you remind the reader that your character is real.
And when real people face the dangers and challenges you set for them, readers care.
It’s with a heavy heart that I let Frank go, not knowing if I’ll get the chance to pump him with life again in book two. But I’m excited as to what and who else I can be, who will grow out of my desire, quirkiness, loneliness, greed, who will be shaved off my skin and gathered together in pieces, planted in soil, grown into something beautiful or poisonous, something that lives on its own. From here, the life that will burn in Frank will come from other people, strangers, reading him and hearing his voice. You can’t keep your people, but the loss of them is soothed by the gift you make of them to your reader. I hope you like Frank. He can be a bit of an idiot sometimes.