Every Character a Protagonist

Standard disclaimer: This post looks at the text of a short story for educational purposes, and does not shy away from spoilers. If you don’t want the story spoiled. read the original story first.

The Language of Flowers

Ian Creasey

Analog Science Fiction and Fact, May 2016. Available at newsstands and online retailers.

Everything I know about the historical Language of Flowers is embodied in a few Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple stories and it apparently served up a big freaking clue in Harry Potter that nobody thought to look for until book seven came out. In other words, I don’t know much about it at all. It is an interesting idea. Using flowers to convey emotions aid secret messages. It is not part of the American vernacular, and I am always amazed when I do buy flowers for my wife that I need to think beyond “I Love You”.

Creasey gives us artificial pheromones in flowers, which does  not exist in the real world as far as I know but it is not unrealistic. I’m sure we can do it if the right people think about the problem. Of course, it is not the science fiction writer’s job to explain the How and only touch briefly on the Why but serve up a story of So What.

So What here means using these specialized flowers for two purposes. The first is a silent protest by Vanessa at the memorial service for her grandfather, which causes a few people (Daniel and Peter) some grief, and those grieved persons try to use the same idea not for revenge but to advance their own ideals, which are a veneer noble over a racist and xenophobic core. The narrator, Travis,  has chosen a side and does not refuse this request, but uses it to his own purposes.

One would think the business ideal of “whatever it takes to earn a buck” would override the danger of potentially losing his business. That threat is made loud and clear, but our narrator is a salesman, and turns thing on their ear. He gives the nasty customers just what they want. Of course, the racist xenophobes are portrayed in a slight caricature. I suppose people who are absolutely convinced that they are morally and factually right all the time wouldn’t do much to mask their intentions.

The lesson for this story is not in narrative style or plot, but in the generative idea. Starting from the idea of artificial pheromone-exuding plants, I can start to think about how the new technology will be abused.  Being a cynic about human nature, I would think of people using the flowers as a date rape drug, or some kind of truth serum or even a … what’s the word that makes you forget things? These are all tried and true tropes in science fiction.

I don’t know squat about the Victorian Flower language rules, even though Shakespeare used a form of flower language in Hamlet. I can imagine these coded messages were generally positive in nature. Love, fidelity, regret, lust. To ask the hero of the story to use his special flowers for more insidious purposes is a great challenge. I think what I’m honing in on is the idea of scope. For some reason when I start new stories I get memories of advice. One bit that always trips me up and probably accounts for more of my writer’s block than anything else, is the idea that This Story Must Be The MOST IMPORTANT Story in the Characters’ Lives. I don’t believe this one myself, but it trips me up nonetheless. The scale of this story does not change the world. The world is not threatened nor is anyone’s life. I’ve been working on crime stories for so long that everything I write has to involve murder. The only threat in this story is from a bully who may not even be able to back it up.

The other lesson here comes in the construction phase of the story. This lesson is important and also trips me up when I plot things out. One of the standard rules is Every Character is the Hero of Their Own Story and “The Language of Flowers” follows this rule.  Travis is the narrator and protagonist, but it is also possible to see Vanessa as a protagonist in her own right. The story could be re-written from her point of view. She wants something, gets it, it causes a problem, she deals with the problem and has a learning experience of her own. Even Harriet has a problem that needs solving. There are three problems here: Vanessa wants to expose her racist grandfather, Travis wants to keep his business, Harriet wants to be taken seriously. We can also say that Daniel and Peter want to whitewash their friend and their movement.

Here is a scene-by-scene breakdown of the story (if you missed the spoiler warning, go back and re-read it!):

  1. Travis meets Vanessa and is challenged to create the flower that exudes Racism
  2. Travis takes the problem to Harriet
  3. Vanessa picks up the flowers and is tempted with not going through with it
  4. Travis updates the website, provides some back story, presages things going wrong
  5. Post-memorial service. Travis is visited by Daniel and Peter, two racist bullies, who make threats but Travis turns them into customers
  6. Travis takes the new request to Harriet
  7. The launch of the Miles Jelbert Foundation and continued whitewashing of the patriotic movement. Threats are renewed. Vanessa is there and Travis advises her to take the moral high ground, but she is unsure of how to do that. Vanessa figures it out and manages to lie convincingly using the flowers. Daniel and Peter succumb to the plan Travis created as a sort of revenge, and have a massive jingoism fueled fight in front of a reporter. His reflections on the situation lead him to a possible solution to Harriet’s problem as well.

That last scene is a long one with several parts, wrapping up each individual story line.

This is the important lesson for me. I can review my stories and see how the other characters are not co-protagonists at all.

Travis is an expert, not in everything, but in one thing, and that expertise is never really challenged. The threat to his business is an existential threat but practically laughable in context. Not every scene has to show the protagonist struggling through. Travis is not Sisyphus and doesn’t need to be.

I think I have mis-learned that every scene is a challenge the protagonist must overcome, and that leaves no room for other character’s problems. The protagonist doesn’t have to be the underdog in every sentence. In fact, if this is the case, then why–other than sympathy–would the reader care about your protagonist?

The Plan

Take a story that’s not clicking and give one or two non-narrative characters a problem that the narrator has to solve as they are solving their own problem.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a story to rewrite.

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I am a genre writer from the Great Metropolitan Rain Forest.

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Posted in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Ian Creasey, Short Story

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