Introducing your Protagonist

A post at Kill Zone Blog: How to properly introduce your protagonist

Good post.

Recommendations: clue the reader in about the protagonist’s name as soon as you can. Also gender. Also race, if that is a factor. A hint about physical appearance, but not too much. A hint about backstory, but not too much. I think that’s a summary of the recommendations at the post, which is worth reading through.

The post also points out, of course, that all the above is easy in third person, which is largely true; and considerably more difficult in first, which is definitely true.

I want to address a particular difficulty that applies to the Tuyo series and no doubt to some fraction of other secondary world fantasies:

Adding physical description when everyone in the entire story shares a specific physical trait, so there’s no reason for anyone to ever think about it.

In Tuyo, the Ugaro look like Inuit, only somewhat more so. That means they all have black, straight hair. The Lau look like Maasai, only somewhat more so. That means they all have tightly curled or kinky black hair. I’ve said that here. But it’s hard for me to say that in the actual books.

There is very seldom any reason for Ryo to think something like: “She has beautiful straight black hair.” All Ugaro have hair like that. It makes sense for Ryo to notice length of hair, the style in which it is worn — things like that. It doesn’t make sense for him to think about color or straightness when he’s looking at another Ugaro. There’s exactly one moment in Tarashana where he does think that, when he’s with Darra, very close to the end. That’s it. That only happens because he’s so physically aware of Darra, much more so or in a different way than he is of other Ugaro.

Besides that moment, I think the first, or nearly the first, time I ever have Ryo think directly that all Ugaro have black, straight hair is when he contrasts that with Inhejeriel. This is also one reason I gave Elaro, the poet from the east, a reddish tinge to his hair — this contrasts with the Ugaro of Ryo’s region, so that I can say that all the Ugaro in this region have pitch-black hair.

I realize any reader must have gained a general impression that the Ugaro are culturally uniform. This is not actually true. The reader simply has not had any way to see cultural variation among the Ugaro. *I* know about cultural variation that exists in this world, but Ryo does not, or has not had any reason to think about it — both, probably. Elaro opens a gateway to at least mention that kind of variation. That’s one useful role he plays for me as the author, though this isn’t going to be important in story terms (as far as I know).

Ditto for the novels told from the pov of a Lau. Neither Nikoles nor Esau ever thinks about hair color or type. All Lau have the same kind of hair — at least all we ever see. Style is noticeable. Color and type, not so much. That shuts the door on some kinds of easy physical description that I really can’t use, or at least not very easily. That’s why some Lau shave their beards in patterns or shave patterns into their hair. That gives me something else to describe.

Eventually, if we return to the starlit lands, that’ll be one useful function of the tattoo-like patterns many of the Tarashana wear. I’ll have to figure out what those actually mean, but, especially if we’re seeing the Tarashana through the eyes of an Ugaro protagonist — very likely — those patterns will be useful for for both the protagonist and the reader to tell different Tarashana people apart.

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7 thoughts on “Introducing your Protagonist”

  1. Randall Garrett dealt with this in one of his series that had a protagonist whose consciousness was transported into the body of a humanoid but slightly different race in a different world–he had a few moments of cognitive dissonance before settling in, and that gave the author an excuse to do a one-time explanation of the basic visual differences.

  2. There was another one that had a crocodilian “demon” getting summoned that I remember also did something similar. Basically, introducing an “outsider” gives a chance to do such introductions.

    This might apply in the Tuyo series when you get to the animal-headed region–people might reflect how the radically different race might view them, a two-way reflection.

  3. I bounced hard off the recent Sherwood Smith Asian inspired thing because she played coy with Mouse’s sex. Put me off, in the prologue and the first chapter which was written in a different style didn’t do enough to pull me back.

    OTOH, I’ve also read books and never realized characters’ sex wasn’t directly specified. I remember one when NO character’s sex was specified, the narrator – it was 1st person – used names or subtly worked around it. Oh, there was one description of one of the terrors of the earth (immortal sorcerer type) looking like someone’s grandma to normal sight, but that’s all I recall. It got across anyway.

    What made the difference, I dunno. The Smith seemed to be obviously avoiding that sort of cue – which is what I found irritating – the other didn’t come across that way when I read it a few years back. Why the one was coming across that way I’d have to sit down to analyze and I don’t feel like doing that right now.

    It’s acceptable (to me) to have things like the POV character describing blowing hair out of eyes, say, and mentioning hair color. Or a “crap, I can’t see the red for the mud in it, or something.

  4. Allan, yes, that’s the Gandalara trilogy, which I like a lot. I read it before I got tired of giant telepathic cats, and anyway, Garrett did an unusually good job with his giant telepathic cats.

    Someone who spoke very kindly of Tuyo pointed out that the reader learns about the Ugaro because of what strikes Ryo as surprising or unusual or worth comment in any way about the Lau. This is true. I’m sure that a lot about the Lakasha will seem very surprising and worthy of comment.

    I’m not sure which book you have in mind, Elaine, but Emma Bull, in Bone Dance, hides the fact that the protagonist is sexless for an amazingly long time. Bull manages to make this work, which certainly must have been difficult. As a side note, when I first read this book, I thought the protagonist was female until the truth was revealed, while my brother thought the protagonist was male. I’m sure the reading experience is different if you go in without knowing this, and now I’ve given it away here, but if any of you haven’t read this and want to see if you think Bull pulls it off, you can take a look.

  5. Yes on teh person who pointed out how it worked in Tuyo. That was very well done. I don’t think anyone else here has read the book I was thinking of,which is The March North< and not available on Amazon. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21801573-the-march-north. The writing style is unique. The top reviewer on the goodreads link probably describes it pretty well. It’s worth reading, IMO.

    Melissa Scott as well as Emma Bull has done at least one book wherein the protaganist’s sex is unstated. I did notice in the Scott eventually, but not upfront. TMN is the only book I can recall where the narrator doesn’t notice or make a big deal out of it for any of the characters.

  6. p.s. Ancillary Justice et seq don’t count. The narrator made a point of not understanding or caring. Not the same thing at all.

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