Whose story?

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.

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SEPTEMBER QUESTION: What genre would be the worst one for you to tackle and why?

MY ANSWER: That is simple. Horror. I don’t read it. I don’t watch it. I don’t like it. Of course, I’d suck at writing it.

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I wanted to talk about my latest writing project, about story structure, to be precise. As some of you might already know, I’m a long-time participant in the WEP blog hop. Every two months, we write flash fiction on the theme provided by the WEP admin team. I usually write series – six flash stories a year, all about the same protagonist, but each story using a different WEP theme as an inspiration.

This year, all my stories are set in a fantasy world. My protagonist Altenay is a Finder. She finds things or people with her magic. Her clients hire her to find something or someone for them. And here lies my conundrum.

Usually, most story patterns – from ancient myths to modern science fiction – adhere to the same simplified blueprint. The protagonist’s world is in turmoil, for one reason or another. She needs to bring order back into her world, and for that, she must reach a goal: find a sword, kill a dictator, tame a dragon, etc. But of course, there are obstacles and problems in her way. As she solves her problems and overcomes the obstacles, her actions and her emotional upheavals become the meat of the story. The moment she achieves her goal, the story ends.     

In the case of my Finder flash fiction, no problem is her own. Her world is not in turmoil. The problems all belong to her clients. When someone hires her to Find a stolen goat or a lost child or a misplaced book, the gist of the story is focused on the client: why they need that object or person Found? What is at stake for them? Altenay only does it for the money. It is her job. So, each story, each journey of hers in pursuit of what was lost, is actually not about her at all but about her clients. Altenay, the Finder, is tangential to their stories, a tool, so to speak. Her travails and emotions are unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

I find this revelation disturbing. I didn’t plan it. I wanted my Altenay to be a real protagonist. I wanted the stories to rotate around her, but the entire series came out differently. Maybe if the stories were longer, I could’ve come up with some problems Altenay had to solve for herself, found some connections between her and the objects she seeks, some stakes of her own. But the very brevity of the stories forced me to concentrate on their most important aspects: why those objects must be Found. And those are all her clients’ stories. 

After giving it some thought, I decided that I’m not alone in using this particular format. It is often used in mystery novels: a sleuth is a tool too – a tool of justice. Agatha Christie’s Poirot rarely knows the murder victims, when he investigates the murders, so the stories that unfold are more about the murderer and his victim than about Poirot himself.

I suppose my Finder is a sleuth too, of a sort, even though I didn’t set out to write her that way. What about you? Has anything like that ever happened to you: the story formula you had conceived disintegrated during the writing process, and another one emerged unexpectedly?     

 

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31 Responses to Whose story?

  1. What an interesting (albeit disturbing) discovery. Speaking for myself I would love to read a longer work about Altenay – one that is not prescribed by the limits of flash fiction.

    • Olga Godim says:

      There are 2 published longer stories about Altenay. One, Taxidermist’s Riddle, was published online in the magazine The Lorelei Signal. I have to say that in this story, Altenay is not the protagonist, even though she plays an important role. The magazine is free, but sadly, the stories published more than a couple years ago are no longer available, so you can’t read it.
      The second short story about Altenay, Captain Bulat, with her as the protagonist, was included in the anthology Hero Lost. The anthology is available everywhere books are sold online.
      I have one more longer story about her, but that one hasn’t been published yet.

  2. denizb33 says:

    Ooh, that format sounds interesting. You’re right, there are a few Agatha Christie stories like that, and they’re all intriguing!
    I hadn’t thought of horror. Depending on the type, I would *still* find that easier than anything involving too much action, ha ha!

  3. It happens. Someone yesterday mentioned Forrest Gump and how his character doesn’t change throughout the story but he changes everyone around him. Sometimes that’s the point.
    Thanks for co-hosting today!

  4. I see your Finder as a sleuth. You can still show her character growth in a longer story. Thanks for co-hosting with me this month.

  5. I have written a couple of YA spooky, paranormal books. I wouldn’t call them horror, but some readers say they’re eerie. I like a spooky thriller with a touch of romance. LOL.
    Thanks for co-hosting this month!!!

  6. spunkonastick says:

    I think a lot of mysteries unfold that way, so she is a sleuth.

    • Janet Alcorn says:

      Exactly, Sherlock Holmes being the most famous example. His personal stakes are often the excitement of solving the problem, though occasionally his investigations put him in danger.

  7. Lynn La Vita says:

    In answer to your question, I haven’t experienced the change in story formula as you described. However, this week two people reached out to me seeking help. I poured my heart into assisting them only to discover both were not honest with me. Life and fiction have a way of surprising all the characters involved.
    Thank you for co-hosting our September IWSG blog hop.
    Lynn La Vita @ http://la-vita.us/

  8. patgarcia says:

    Hi,
    Sometimes I experience a character going in a different direction, and I confess I check his or her direction to see where it will lead me.
    Thank you for co-hosting.

    Shalom aleichem,
    Pat G @ EverythingMustChange

  9. Loni Townsend says:

    When I was reading your post, I immediately thought of murder mysteries, because yeah, the detective isn’t the one in danger most of the time, but the story is still them figuring out whodunit. I don’t have any grand insights on how to handle that on a small scale in short fiction, though. I sympathize with your struggle. I had something similar happen with my companion novel, that I get what kind of shocker it is to start wondering about protagonist stakes.

  10. Jemi Fraser says:

    I was thinking of Agatha Christie as I was reading your post. Altenay is an intriguing character. Through the stories, we know her well – her morality, her sense of justice, her kindness…

  11. J.S. Pailly says:

    As I was reading about your protagonist, my thoughts immediately went to Sherlock Holmes. Christie’s Inspector Poirot and Miss Marple are also great examples of that archetype. I think your character is in good company!

    At some point when I was developing my Sci-Fi series, I realized the character I intended to be the protagonist was actually the antagonist. I mean, I (as the writer) know she’s the hero of the story, but the P.O.V. characters don’t know that, which generates conflict. It’s not what I originally intended, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Original intentions are one thing, but doing what feels right for the story is more important.

  12. Beth Camp says:

    Now I want to read those Altenay stories! I found myself wondering why Altenay works as a Finder. Does she have to work? Does she choose to work? Has anyone ever criticized her for being a Finder? doubted her? shunned her? Does helping others heal something in her own soul? Since your insight into Altenay came as a shock, perhaps it’s because you want more from her — and to know more about her. I’m looking forward to learning more about this journey.

    • Olga Godim says:

      Altenay is a Finder because that’s how her magic works. She needs an income and she has the ability. Even though she lives in a fantasy world, her situation is not much different from ours.
      But I’m wondering if I could incorporate some of your suggestions into Altenay’s future stories. Maybe someone could doubt her? Shun her? That would turn her into a true protagonist, if she has to overcome such adversity.

  13. I think of your “Finder” as a sleuth as well. Interesting premise. Thanks so much for cohosting today. All best to you. Happy IWSG Day!

  14. J.Q. Rose says:

    What an interesting conundrum. I have never experienced this. Perhaps you could have someone she helped work with Alternay to find something Alternay has lost whether physical or emotional. Writing a series of six flash fiction stories for the WEP challenge is clever. Best wishes!!

  15. cleemckenzie says:

    Very interesting, Olga. I enjoyed your process of finding what works for your MC and your stories. As to projects getting away from me…that happens more than I’d like to admit. I start with one idea and wind up with something quite different. Great job co-hosting today!

  16. mlouisebarbourfundyblue says:

    An interesting conundrum, Olga. Your Finder is a sleuth, and I think that’s okay. If you put her cases for her clients in one longer book, you’d be able to work in more about her. Projects often get away from me. It a delightful part of writing. Thanks for co-hosting today!

  17. It’s always interesting when the work takes a turn you didn’t expect. @samanthabwriter from
    Balancing Act

  18. Denise+Covey says:

    Thanks for co-hosting Olga. I see your problem with your character. But characters do take surprising turns, no matter what genre. I love it when a character jumps out of a page and demands more attention. So your Finder has elements of mystery for sure.

  19. Jenni says:

    I love mysteries and sleuths. Your story sounds really intriguing! I think that’s part of the fun of writing when things don’t go to plan. I’m finding that I need to leave space for that, so the unexpected shows up.
    So much of writing is discovery –about ourselves, our characters, and what we really want to say.
    Great post!

  20. yvettecarol says:

    I love that, Olga! Why not let your protagonist and your story dictate what happens? I always think it’s the most fascinating thing when stories take off on their own tangents and all you can do is hold on for the ride!

  21. emaginette says:

    In the world of crime stories, the protagonist doesn’t have much of an arc. Neither does 007 until the last movie. It is their commitment to correcting chaos and setting things right that the reader tends to depend on.

    Some stories have given the protagonist more of a personal life. But unless it leads back to the investigation in some way, I find them fluffy and unnecessary. But that’s just my opinion.

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  22. Kate says:

    What an interesting thing to discover about your character! But I think that often happens with characters that remain constant through a world that changes around them. Readers expect it.

  23. Damyanti Biswas says:

    Thank you for co-hosting today, Olga! I love the topic you’ve chosen. I love it when my characters tell me which direction they want to go in. I am almost always amazed by how the story continues to take an interesting turn.

  24. Love the idea of your book, Olga. I need a finder!

  25. I always saw Alternay as the main person, because it’s her integrity and dedication that carry the stories forward. She’s not just a tool of her magic ability.
    I would so like to read some of the longer stories, you wrote, and hear more of how she came to be a Finder.

  26. Elizabeth Mueller says:

    Hello, Olga! I think your Altenay’s life story has a perfect solution and that’s to weave a consistent thread throughout the *entire* series that connect–like bread crumbs. Subtle. Mysterious. Powerful. What is her drive? Why does she care so much? I’m aware that it’s her job to Find things, but there could be a fundamental reason as to what drives her, and why she’s so passionate about it? Then, before the series draws to an end, there could be a sort of “reveal” and in the last book…BOOM!

    Unplanned turns in my writing always come up. Much of the time, my characters take the lead and run but I admit the story is all the better for that!

    Also, about the sleuth not seeming to have a personal purpose: I suspect that is a common thing, even in movies. Did you notice that they never seem to find love? Are always lonely, or forlorn or listless in one way or another?

  27. Jemima Pett says:

    I don’t read horror, but I do find some horror elements in my flash fiction. I can’t see myself going for a full novel, but…
    Sorry Altenay is giving you problems. Does she have any personal problems that are getting in the way of Finding things? Finding things that she would rather not find but the client wants them? Things that cause a moral/ethical conflict, even? Just random ideas.
    Thanks for co-hosting this week. Sorry I’m late – took a short break in a quiet place.

  28. Janet Alcorn says:

    What you describe reminds me a little of Charlaine Harris’ underrated Harper Connelly series. Harper has a supernatural ability to find corpses, and she uses that ability to earn a living. But when people hire her, she ends up getting enmeshed in a mystery surrounding the corpse(s) in question. So her world starts out ordered, becomes disordered by a job she’s hired for, and must then be put right.

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