An uninvited journey: active and inactive protagonists

A child's plastic sled cable-locked to a bike rack on a snow-free pavement

Lurking on Twitter (when I said I wouldn’t be) I came across this thread about inactive protagonists, and this other thread pointing out that it was an extremely Western-centric take. I think that both threads make good points, but the first one offers an extremely limited solution to a genuine problem. (When you have a hammer, etc, etc…) I rather like the way that they’ve both linked to each other, so the conversation rolls round and round forever. And this post isn’t really meant to be an answer to either of them, but more an excursion on my own train of thought.

There are many, many books that aren’t particularly engaging, and that could really do with a good editor, but shoehorning them all into the hero’s journey format isn’t necessarily going to help. In fact, I think a flat novel can be made more engaging by deepening the characterisation as much as by sharpening the plot.

And then in the replies to the second thread, someone linked this list of alternative structures, and that ate some more of my day. There are plenty to choose from, even if one is writing an action hero. I’ve been reading a lot of James Bond novels lately, and it’s really striking how adventurous Ian Fleming is in terms of structure. OK, The Spy Who Loved Me is a complete dog’s breakfast in terms of pacing, and you might argue that From Russia With Love starts a bit slow and ends a bit abruptly, but he isn’t afraid to experiment.

Back to inactive protagonists. In at least two of my novels so far I’ve spent most of the book getting my protagonist out of their own head in order for them to appreciate the world around them and make decisions based on what’s really going on rather than what they think is going on. Is that ‘active’? The author of the second thread talks about ‘radical acceptance’, which I think is an important theme in all my books: being who you are, not who you or anyone else thinks you should be. All of my protagonists could be described, to a greater or lesser extent, as inactive. The closet, depression, disillusionment, prejudice and petty politics provide quite enough of a challenge to be going on with. Sometimes they need to become active. Sometimes they need to make their peace with inaction.

And yes, sometimes during the writing process those books felt sloooooowwww. Sometimes I’ve dealt with that by growling at the entity they call the Inner Critic: what do you want, a car chase? Other times I’ve chopped out scenes, characters, chapters. I’ve added bits elsewhere. I’ve rewritten an entire book to come from a different character’s point of view. I’ve taken literal scissors to a manuscript. And the book has been better for it. An inactive protagonist might very well be a valid choice for the story that needs to be told, but that choice doesn’t exempt anyone from editing. (In fairness, I don’t think I saw anyone suggest that it did!)

I’m fascinated by the way that the individual interacts with the system, but writing about that, for me at least, has meant that those individuals have a limited amount of control. As the author, I can pull a certain number of strings, but I can’t reform student Evangelical Christianity/professional cycling/the Church of England/academia through the actions of one character. I can have them make small changes to improve matters locally. (I’ve pulled an ‘And then everybody on the bus clapped!’ precisely once. If I were writing that book now I’m not sure I’d put it in.) Or I can let them step away on their own terms.

Now I’m trying to write a Ruritanian thriller (well, not at the moment, but you know what I mean) and, while I have a good idea of how the thriller beats ought to fall, I’ve been uncomfortably aware that it’s inevitably a bit… condescending? (And I’ve felt like that since before I read Inventing Ruritania.) I want to keep writing it, because it’s fun, and because I love the genre for all its faults. What keeps tripping me up is that the ‘plucky British youngster single-handedly saves the nation of Ruritania’ narrative does not feel truthful. Even throwing in a second plucky British youngster and her Ruritanian partner hasn’t helped a lot. It may be that I’ve worked for a trade union/been a member of the Church of England/followed sports for too long, but I’m very aware of just how many people it keeps to keep even a moderate-sized organisation going, let alone a nation state. Same with stopping it. Very, very rarely does it hinge on the efforts of just one person.

And that, I think, has given me a way in, a way to save this. I’ve ended up with a structure that’s something like a zoetrope: the thriller narrative is broken up by snapshots of the ordinary people going about their ordinary business. Spin the cylinder fast enough, and you get a moving picture. The horse gallops. The country keeps on running.

Well, it might work. I’ll keep you posted. When I get back into it.

Incidentally, the consequence of lurking on Twitter (when I said I wouldn’t be) was coming across a thread in which someone was asking for recommendations for Christian fiction, and in which nobody had mentioned me. So I sulked, obviously. But then somebody recced me on another thread, so it all worked out. The moral of the story? It doesn’t really make much difference to the rest of the world whether I’m on Twitter or not, but it’s probably better for my state of mind if I’m not.

The Reader’s Gazetteer Special: Inventing Ruritania (Vesna Goldsworthy)

A paperback copy of 'Inventing Ruritania: the imperialism of the imagination' lies on a map of Europe

Something of a departure from the main scope of this series, Inventing Ruritania is, despite the title, about real places. And it’s non-fiction. However, it’s very relevant to the theme. I was very pleased to receive a copy of this for Christmas, and ambled through it a chapter at a time.

I don’t read much academic writing these days, but found this perfectly easy to follow. The main thrust of Vesna Goldsworthy’s argument is that the global understanding of the Balkans has been shaped by Anglophone, primarily British, literature about the region, arguably to the detriment of its standing. The subtitle tells the story: the imperialism of the imagination. Because our primary interaction with the Balkans is in fiction in which the public-school-educated British traveller sorts the country out – or finds the task impossible – we assume that the real thing needs sorting out by us, too. Something that of course rings particularly hollow at the moment, when the public-school-educated British men appear incapable of running their own country.

(I’m paraphrasing severely here. But this is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot as I work – or don’t – on my own Ruritanian effort.)

Goldsworthy’s examples are wide-ranging; she begins with Byron’s account of Greece and progresses through nineteenth century British political interest in Bulgaria before getting to the popular fiction from which she gets her title. The Prisoner of Zenda and Dracula are joined by a whole library’s worth of books that didn’t make it to Penguin Classics. Moving into the twentieth century, we get Buchan and Christie, the ‘comic’ literature of Durrell and Waugh, and the non-fiction of Rebecca West and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Some of these books set their action in a fictional country that is explicitly located in the Balkans. Some are set in real-life Balkan countries.

While writers all over the world are prone to appropriating other people’s cultures to make an exotic backdrop (nothing that I have heard about Red, White and Royal Blue, for example, persuades me that I would be able to read it without throwing the book at the wall), it’s true that the dominance of the English language puts what one might now call ‘own voices’ Balkan literature at a disadvantage. It’s true, too, that I know embarrassingly little about the region, and much of what I do know comes from English literature. (For years, all I knew of Romania was from Song For A Tattered Flag.) I’ve learned rather more just from reading this book.

‘Ruritania’ is perhaps a bit of a misnomer: as we established a few posts ago, and as Goldsworthy points out herself, going on the evidence that Anthony Hope gives us, the place can’t be any further south than real-life Bohemia. Still, it can’t be denied that when most people say ‘Ruritania’ they mean ‘somewhere in the Balkans’. My own feeling is that many authors, particularly contemporary ones, who use Ruritanian settings, do so to avoid appropriating real-life cultures while still having a government and maybe a monarchy to play with: the number of fictional tiny principalities squeezed in between real-life borders, I would argue, bear me out. Many seem to be borrowing Monaco or Liechtenstein rather than anywhere further south and east. But of course Goldsworthy’s talking about books that explicitly set their action either in named Balkan countries or in countries explicitly stated to be in the Balkan region: in this, the book doesn’t fit quite so well into this blog series after all.

More seriously, I do not have the author’s confidence that ‘the sort of generalised, open condescension [applied to Albanians, Croats, Serbs, Bulgarians and Romanians] would appal [the authors] if applied to Somalis or the peoples of Zaire’. In my experience, white people who are racist about other white people are perfectly capable about being racist about black people too.

However, I can’t truthfully say that either of these nitpicks undermine Goldsworthy’s point to any significant extent, and it’s left me with plenty to think about. And a few more books to add to my reading list.

Word of POD

Coloured pencil drawing of a dried-up bean pod with two mottled beige and purple beans

My Amazon sales for the month of December came through yesterday. While the numbers are nothing to shout about (the profit I make on each copy is somewhere between 6p and 40p) I’m pleased anyway.

There’s something about the concept of print-on-demand that I find absolutely thrilling. Somebody, somewhere, liked the idea of my book enough to bring a whole new copy into being. It’s like my own act of creation, in getting the wretched thing down in words, in miniature. Apart from The Real World sales, there are now two more copies of Speak Its Name (plus one I already knew about) and one more of A Spoke In The Wheel than there were at the end of November. (Incidentally, I’ve just noticed that the latter is down to £8.15 on Amazon.)

Ebook sales don’t feel quite the same, even though it’s the same principle: a person spends money to create a new copy. Even though I make more money off them. Even though I read plenty of ebooks myself. Part of it’s the fact that Smashwords notifies me of purchases immediately – always a delightful surprise, of course, but I also enjoy the anticipation of waiting for the report to come in to see how many paperbacks I’ve sold this month.

Part of it’s a (possibly unfounded) sense that a paperback purchase has a longer tail than an ebook. While it’s arguably easier to share an ebook than a hard copy (all you do is forward the email with the attachment), and while I’ve become more willing to buy books on the strength of seeing a recommendation on the internet, you don’t get that same thing of seeing a book on someone else’s shelves or table, picking it up, flicking through it or devouring it, borrowing it or buying your own…

A paperback copy might end up on a shelf in a charity shop or at a railway station, might be picked up by someone who’s never heard of me. Yes, part of it’s that intoxicating element of chance.

But mostly it’s knowing that several separate people have held in their hands, are perhaps reading at this very moment, books that didn’t physically exist six weeks ago. I hope they’re enjoying them.

Between books

Grey stone building with an arch that leads through it to another arch and a grassy space beyond.

If I were to tell you that I’m not writing anything at the moment, it would be an evident falsehood. I mean, here I am, tapping away, writing a post. I spent the afternoon writing things for work. And even when I’ve finished this post I’ll move on to the short story I’m trying to finish for an end of January deadline.

I’m not even not writing a book. Technically.

I have the Ruritanian thing, but that’s something I’m writing for fun, and when it stops being fun I stop writing it. I also stop writing it when real politics makes fictional politics feel either too depressing or too frivolous to write about. There are days when I think I can subvert the trope of the plucky English adventurer fixing other people’s countries, and there are days when it seems too far gone even to be subverted. I think I’ve worked out a way around that, but at present I don’t have the motivation for the plotting and planning and Post-It manoeuvres that it would need. I’ve written about 5000 words on it since Christmas. It’ll get done when it gets done, and if I’m happy with it I’ll publish it.

I have a couple of other semi-active projects – one on writing while keeping the day job, and one very specific and experimental anthology.

I know what comes next for Stancester, but I’m not starting on that for reasons including: a) I don’t know how it finishes; b) it feels a bit heavy; c) [monster story about how everyone who liked the first two will hate it because it won’t be lesfic]; d) I’ve only just been there.

So I’m not not writing, at all. But I am consciously playing with the idea of not writing, of seeing who I am when I’m not writing. I’m playing with the idea of being enough, of being sufficient, when I’m flopped on the sofa watching the skiing, when I’ve slept through my alarm, when I’m writing three words in half an hour, when I’m not writing anything at all. In these times when doing nothing has become the virtue that perhaps it always should have been, I’m giving myself a bit of space, and resisting the temptation to fill that space with work or guilt. Or trying to, anyway.

Perhaps what I really mean is that I’m writing when I feel like it, and writing what I feel like, and giving myself a break from the associated hustle. I am stepping away from Twitter, which (for me) seems to be the highway to fruitless rage and depression. I am dropping my expectations of when the next book will be finished and what it will be. I am going to stop chasing reviews. I might write nothing but short stories. I might write nothing at all. I might abandon the Ruritanian thing entirely, or I might get it out in time for Christmas. I might post here less, or I might post here more. You never know.

Sunday, 5pm, 3rd January

I was reading about the Herschels:

Caroline, out on the lawn, catching comets by the tail;

and William, stretching a ruler from star to star.


Across the street, my neighbour

climbed a ladder and gathered an armful of light,

wound round his elbow on invisible thread.


(Viewed with attention, like the Herschels’,

the Pleiades become a sisterhood

more inclusive than first thought.)


To see this for myself, I’d have to go out

in the dark garden, unafraid

of what I might learn, of what might

disrupt my preconceptions, require me

to expand my imagination,

and watch, and wait.

Sapphic Reading Challenge 2021

Stack of books with rainbow-coloured covers and text 'Sapphic Reading Challenge 2021'

This year Jae is running a Sapphic Reading Challenge: 50 categories, from which you can choose to read 10, 20, 50, or 100 books. There’ll be a big giveaway at the end of the year, although, as Jae says, “real prize, of course, is discovering a lot of awesome books and new favorite authors”.

My Stancester books, Speak Its Name and The Real World, fit a few of the categories:

  • Character with a disability or mental illness (7) – depression ended up being a major element of The Real World, though I don’t think I ever actually mentioned the word. I wrote a bit about that here.
  • Character is a book lover (8) – Lydia is doing an English Literature in Speak Its Name. By The Real World she’s mostly reading school stories.
  • Genre you don’t usually read (15) – well, I don’t know what you usually read, but if you don’t usually read literary fiction with overtly religious characters then these might fit.
  • Shy or socially awkward character (27) – Colette. It’s probably more obvious in The Real World, which is told from her point of view.
  • Bisexual or pansexual character (37) – Colette, again.
  • Part of a series (43) – either one would work, obviously! The Real World makes sense without having read Speak Its Name, but you do learn a couple of major plot points that you can’t then unknow.
  • Character works in STEM (48) – Colette’s studying chemistry at undergraduate level in Speak Its Name and working on her PhD in The Real World.

My short story Prima Donna appears in Supposed Crimes’ anthology Upstaged: an anthology of queer women and the performing arts, which would fit Anthology, short story collection, or novella (50).

And of course I might be a new-to-you author (45).

Jae also has a giveaway running now, so if you fancy winning a special journal in which to track your challenge progress, see this post.

Enjoy!