Just as real people want to be accepted by others, either into various communities or accepted by one special person, so too do our characters wish to be accepted in one way or another. Most people want that sense of belonging. Depending on our genre, as writers, we either make that sense of belonging happen for our characters or show why it does not. Of course, it can never be easy for our protagonists, whichever outcome we choose. The protagonist needs to struggle to make it happen or be forced to accept that it was never meant to be. And the reader wants to see that struggle.
So how do we show our protagonists longing for acceptance and receiving it or not? It’s all in the specific details we provide through story or memoir, both internally and externally.
Let’s briefly look at two classic characters who long to be included.
Harry Potter wants to belong to a family, to be loved, to have friends. Through the story, the reader [or viewer] comes to realize why he doesn’t have these connections and through thoughts and actions [events] how he comes to gain them.
Luke Skywalker longs to join his friends, to move on with his own life, to be accepted into the rebellion as a person who matters. And as the story unfolds, the viewer comes to understand why and how he obtains what he wants.
In memoir, remember, you are looking for real life details to tell the story. In my memoir about attending college as a mother of five, Victoria looks for acceptance in the academic conversation at Penn. She yearns for a sense of belonging, not the feeling of being an outsider with nothing intelligent to say. She is a non-traditional, older student attending a school of highly intelligent students. She gets in, but constantly feels the need to prove herself in class. To show this struggle unfolding for the reader, I include thoughts and actions, events that demonstrate how Victoria fails, and how she feels about it, and eventually how she succeeds at her task.
More importantly, Victoria wishes to be accepted by the writers’ community at Kelly Writers House on campus. She wants her writing topics to be important, to make a statement about her experiences. Yet obstacles, both internal and external, hold her back. She has children; she doesn’t have the time the younger students have. For the story to move forward, she needs to take action. Victoria attends lectures and seminars at the House. She submits poetry in a university-wide contest and receives honorable mention for it. But she feels ignored during the celebration. A setback. She submits again to a larger writing community, the West Chester Poetry Contest, and wins second place with a haiku. This community welcomes her into its fold, if only for a short while.
In memoir the story is told through the lens of the narrator. The reader can only be in the head of Victoria. It is she who interprets the reasons for what other characters do in the memoir. Writers cannot get into the head of other characters in memoir because it is truth—not fiction.
Of course, writers can’t dramatize every scene of struggle in a story. However, writers should choose larger scenes that show the most challenge to our protagonist and summarize the lesser scenes or actions. Writers need to remember to show the outcome—good or bad—to any action or scene. These outcomes do not need to be lengthy, but rather precise. I am still learning which scenes to dramatize or summarize and which scenes appear to repeat the same feelings or outcomes and are not necessary in my manuscript.
As writers we need to show progression in our characters. If the story is all struggle with no change in the protagonist, no change in the character’s mindset, readers could feel cheated. I still think that readers are looking to see how our characters handle challenge to perhaps learn how they might handle a particular situation. Readers want to learn something new even while being entertained by your story. At least this is why I read.
Please feel free to offer any insight or ask any questions regarding Victoria’s struggles in finding acceptance at the University of Pennsylvania. It would be truly appreciated.
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Please note that I will not post in August of 2019. I have many writing projects I desperately need to address. Thanks for always reading my Adventures in Writing blog posts and sharing your insight. It means the world to me. Enjoy your summer!