My primary work in progress was born out of a late night conversation with my wife. I was frustrated with my waning ability to create original characters from whole cloth, something I had reveled in throughout my teens and early twenties. These days I was spending too much time reading about and building worlds and not enough time filling them with anything alive. World building is great and fun, but world building on its own is essentially like building a museum diorama. It only comes to life if exposed to ancient Egyptian magic and turns into dust if outside the museum after sunrise.
As such, I set out to create a protagonist first. In building the world around him and developing the cast I wanted to move in concentric circles, spiraling outward. Character was to be the center of it all. After all, no character no story. Is this the right way to create a story? I have no idea. I’m making this up as a go along. Isn’t that how you write?
All of that said, before one can even begin to create a protagonist, you have to at least know what genre you’re working in. Genre gives us a sense of familiarity and streamlines the storytelling process. Ghost stories are mostly scary because you know they are supposed to be scary and you’re sitting around a campfire. Comedians are very often funny because we expect them to be funny.
Further, for the writer, defining the genre helps you know what you absolutely need in your story. Romance needs some form of attraction and a reasonable amount of relational intrigue. Historical drama is going to require some historical context and a few useful facts. Science fiction needs science.
I knew from the start that I wanted to write something in the urban fantasy genre.
Urban fantasy is basically what happened when Detective Fiction with his three day stubble and trench coat and burnt out world view ran into the raven haired femme fatale that is pulp fiction Horror. Turns out they lived on the same street, drank at the same bars, and kicked the same dogs when they stumbled home at dawn. She was intriguing and dangerous and wore a dress the color of blood in dark alleys. There was something otherworldly about her and Detective Fiction couldn’t stay away if he wanted to.
But they weren’t good for each other. Not at all. Detective Fiction always wanted an explanation, something neat and clean, something scientific where he could hang his hat every night. Horror wasn’t that kind of girl. She didn’t settle down. She didn’t have any explanations and she didn’t care. Take it or leave it, jack. What you see is what you get and you’ll never see enough.
It was a short, torrid thing, and nine months later, there was a little screaming thing left on some authors back step. They called him Urban Fantasy. The name didn’t really fit that well. He didn’t look much like his Uncle Fantasy at all and there was a general lack of elves and dwarves and poetry. But he was something special. How did you explain the inexplicable? Nobody knew, but Urban Fantasy did it and it was different every time. People ate it with a spoon. Pretty soon one day, Fantasy put down his lute, Detective Fiction looked up from his cards, and Horror licked her lips and there he was, standing there in a hat too big for him, silver bullets in an old revolver.
Short version? Urban fantasy combines mysterious supernatural elements with the classic tropes of detective fiction. Imagine the dark forest of classical fantasy, full of spiders and evil wizards and make it any big city since the Industrial revolution. Throw in a slightly rumpled but good hearted rogue, some shady deals, a bar, and boom. Genre.
(This is not meant to be comprehensive discussion of the genre or genre’s in general. In fact, I think probably the best writers start with a genre and end up somewhere in between genres. It’s not a bad place to start however.)
While I wanted to write urban fantasy, I didn’t want it to be like everything I was already seeing. I didn’t want the protagonist to be a capable, yet sexy female. I don’t have anything against these kinds of characters per se. I married one. It’s simply been done and for purposes of a central character, I wanted something different. The world doesn’t necessarily need another Anita Blake or Rachel Morgan or Charlie Madigan or Buffy Summers.
I also knew I didn’t want the character to be “chosen” or prophesied or part of some pre-existing secret society. I didn’t want to tell a story where the hero has to decide to embrace his destiny or wallow in angst ridden recrimination and self-loathing. I didn’t want to write a story where the new comer overcomes the ancient unstoppable villain who has thrashed all the older and more experienced people by sheer luck or pluck or unique perspective. The character needed to be able to contribute in a meaningful way beyond serving as a cipher for the audience.
Some of those tropes annoy me. Some of them only really worked that one time when none other than J.R.R Tolkien did it. Sometimes, it’s simply that those stories have been told and infinitely better than anything I can expect to create.
With all those things in mind, I knew my protagonist would not be young, or female, or a vampire/werewolf/wizard. While this means I’ve probably murdered any possibility of capturing a “Young Adult” category on Amazon, and a huge segment of potential readership, I’m going to be okay with that. Most of us aren’t six to eight year old girls, and yet somehow we all love and relate to Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Most of us alive today didn’t survive the horrors of the Second World War, and yet we empathize with Captain America’s sense of displacement and cultural whiplash. All of our Hollywood stars look better on screen than we ever did at our prime and yet in every decent movie we project, making their adventures ours. In the end, it comes down to that classic admonition from Neil Gaiman: make good art. Make it good and people will read it.
So who is my protagonist? Can you just tell us? Next time, good readers. Stay tuned. We’re getting there.