by | Jun 18, 2017 | The Writer's Life | 8 comments

S. Lee Manning: What’s the difference between having an imaginary friend and creating a protagonist?

Kolya, sitting in the chair next to my desk, shrugs, hands up and to the side in the universal sign of dunno. “Your age, probably.” He’s watching me try to write a post on my relationship with my protagonist, with an amused and superior expression that he knows drives me crazy.
He’s in early thirties, blond, good looking in a way that reminds me of my husband when he was about the same age. He has other traits that mirror those of my husband. He’s witty, smart, has a law degree, pretends he’s fine when he’s not, likes music, likes to read, but not Jane Austin. He differs from my husband in his background,  3/4 ethnic Russian and 1/4 Jewish, his taste in music, jazz (Jim has more eclectic taste), his ability to play professional level piano, his knowledge of languages, and his addiction to high adrenaline activities. (Jim rides a motorcycle on Vermont back roads and skis, but he does not have shootouts or break into buildings to steal secrets – that I know about, anyway.)

Kolya’s also a creation of my imagination, and I do know he’s not really in the chair next to my desk – and that he’s not really talking to me.
Armed folded, he raises an eyebrow in my direction. “You sure about that? Who were you talking to on the ride to Burlington yesterday?”
“I was working out the plot,” I tell him. “And your dialogue. I wasn’t talking to you.”
He gives me that infuriating smile. “If you say so.”
Children have imaginary friends, and nobody thinks anything of it. When an adult drives alone in a car, talking out loud, she looks a little crazy. It’s especially a little crazy when she’s talking to someone who doesn’t actually exist. Thank God for modern technology. At least these days, I can pretend to be talking on the Bluetooth.
“You’re digressing,” he says. “You’re supposed to be writing about our relationship. How you’re attracted to me. And how it’s a little weird.”
Shut up, Kolya.
“I’m not attracted to you. I created you. It’s different.”
He bats those gorgeous blue eyes at me. Okay, Jim has blue eyes, too. “You mean, you’re not attracted to Jim? Don’t I look like him?”
The truth is that creating a protagonist that you want to use for a series is complex. You have to like him enough, find him interesting enough to want to spend years with him – writing multiple books. You don’t want to be in the situation that Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, found himself in – loathing the character he’d created. Doyle killed Holmes off  because he didn’t want to write him anymore– only to be forced to bring him back to life to satisfy popular demand.
You don’t have to be in love with your protagonist, but it helps a lot to find him interesting. It helps a lot not to loathe him.
I based Kolya in great part on Jim for two reasons. Most of my knowledge of the inner workings of the male mind comes from Jim.  Then, there’s the fact that we’ve been together for thirty-five years – and we still enjoy being with each other. I doubt I’ll be writing about Kolya for the next thirty-five years, but it’s a good precedent anyway.
Jim and his motorcycle.
“Nice evade.” Kolya leans over my shoulder, reading the post. “Now that we’ve dealt with the fact that you find me devilishly attractive, you want to talk about pretending to be me?”
“I don’t pretend to be you. That would be really weird.”
“Then stay the hell out of my head.” He sees my look of shock. “You know what I’m talking about. You’ll have me hanging off a cliff by my fingernails, and then you’re writing about what I’m feeling and what I’m thinking. If that’s not pretending to be me, what is it?”
He’s got a point. We use our imagination in multiple ways as children: we have imaginary friends and we play make-believe, pretending to be characters we’ve seen in movies or read about in books. Isn’t that a bit of what we’re doing as authors? When we go into a character’s head, see a scene from a character’s viewpoint, don’t we, to some small extent, become that character?
It’s complex, and a little confusing. Maybe a little weird. But there’s nothing simple about writing novels–or creating a protagonist.
His point made, Kolya gives me a wave and leaves for now. He’ll be back tomorrow, or later tonight, when I’m working on the new novel. In the meantime, I’m back in the reality of Vermont. Jim and I are taking a run to the nearby town for local made maple cinnamon raisin bread. The bakery only delivers twice a week, and it’s in big demand. Someone could show up with guns and clear out the whole supply, so we’re getting there early, and we’re prepared. One never knows.
Happy writing.

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  1. Gayle Lynds

    Omg, love the dialog, S. Lee. Crazy maybe — but makes perfect sense to me. Way to go, Kolya! Thanks for a terrific blog, you two!

  2. Karna Bodman

    Your great post made me laugh and really think hard about an "imaginary friend" sitting there exchanging ideas with an author. I like Kolya – sounds like someone your many fans will certainly enjoy reading about! Thanks for writing this.

  3. Jenny

    Fun blog entry, Mom/Kolya! Enjoyed the read.

  4. kk

    Fantastic post, Sandy. Good on you.

  5. Jamie Freveletti

    A protagonist as an imaginary friend! Never thought of it that way. Nice post!

  6. Chris Goff

    Great post, Sandy. I remember talking with a friend on the phone one time, and I was saying "Rae (one of my characters) would never do that. She would not kill someone just for the sake of killing." We continued to argue back and forth about my character, then, when I hung up, one of my daughters looked at me, a strange expression on her face. "Who's Rae, Mommy?"

  7. S. Lee Manning

    This hits home. I was talking to a friend who'd read my novel about what Kolya would do or think, and she looked at me strangely, "You do know he's fictional?" Well, yeah, I do – kinda.

  8. Sonja Stone

    S. Lee, what a great post! I love how honest Kolya is with you. My characters constantly tell me lies!