In the old days, Dear Reader, before the world went electronic and digital, clocks were run by mechanisms. To move all gears, pinions, and escapements, there was a big metal spring right in the middle of the works. It was called the mainspring. You would wind a small knob or turn a key to compress the mainspring. The gradual release of that compression furnished all the energy required to make the clock run.
The mainspring of my novel, The Maelstrom, is Anders Gunstensen, a 23-year-old Norwegian farmhand.
A story needs a protagonist to make it go. In The Maelstrom’s braided narrative, each of the three main characters—Anders, Maria, and Daniel—is protagonist of his or her own story. But Anders is the overall protagonist of the book. He is the one who drives the whole plot forward to its conclusion.
The protagonist makes key decisions and takes actions based on those decisions, driving the story forward. If a tale seems vague, meandering, or inconsequential, maybe the protagonist is indecisive. A good story usually has an active protagonist.
Above my desk is a bit of folk wisdom I picked up somewhere along the way:
The Protagonist must PROTAG.
The original manuscript, Freedom’s Purchase, did not stir readers much, because Anders did not protag enough.
In the new version, The Maelstrom, Anders drives the narrative at every key turning point. His decision to emigrate to America starts the flow of action in the book and also motivates Maria to create her own future as a fellow emigrant.
On a steamboat to his planned destination in Central Illlinois, Anders leaps into action to defend the escaping slave Daniel. This futile gesture gets him in trouble but also brings him to the attention of abolitionist farmer Benjamin Lake, who becomes his American mentor.
Anders, indecisive when it comes to love and marriage, is saved by the protagonistic presence of Maria, who has followed him to America. She recruits him into a marriage and farming partnership, to which he commits himself.
But his commitment to farm and family is challenged by another commitment, this one to the cause of freedom. Anders’s idealism drives him to help fugitive slaves—including Daniel, when he makes a new escape. Ultimately, Anders will join the Union Army after the Civil War starts.
When Anders works in Underground Railroad operations, that poses challenges for farm wife Maria. Later, when he joins the Union Army, Maria is left to save the farm and preserve her own virtue all by herself.
In helping Daniel make his second escape good, Anders unleashes a third strong actor in our story—the liberated slave, who takes strong actions to help himself and his fellow slaves.
The Protagonist’s Arc
Major characters in stories are said to have arcs. “Arc” in this case meaning some kind of forward progress. A character who learns new things and becomes a better or more capable person has an arc.
But not every protagonist has a strong character arc. Think of Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, which you may have read in high school. Caesar, at the play’s opening, is already a triumphant leader, emerging as dictator of Rome. His character never changes. He is denied an opportunity for significant character growth by his fellow senators when they kill him.
Yet Caesar’s ambition drives all the other characters in the play. Brutus, for example, is forced to shed his native caution and strike the fatal blow against Caesar. This change or galvanizing of his personality is a character arc. Brutus has one; Caesar doesn’t.
So it is with Anders. Maria has an arc. We see her grow as she masters challenge after challenge. Daniel has a huge arc. He goes from an oppressed slave with a yen for freedom to a free man and an accomplished fighter for the freedom of others. But Anders remains largely what he always was—a bluff, confident man, and one capable of swift decisions.
Some readers may call Anders impulsive. But from Anders’s point of view, he only acts out of his true nature and the logic of the situation. He does what seems to be called for.
Whether he is impulsive or logical, the key thing about Anders is that he protags. He is the mainspring. He calls the tune to which the others dance.
The result is an entertaining and informative book. I hope to bring it to you in print before long, because you really ought to read it.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer