More than a catchy title, it shows what a protagonist must do to get noticed, these days.
As we speak, the manuscript and its main man, Conrad Cameron Morris, are in New York awaiting a yea or a nay from a trio of publishers. Will they like Conrad and all this swallowing business? Need they like him? If not like, then what? Fear? Be intrigued by? Or what?
What must a fictional character bring to the opening pages of a novel so that a reader finds him compelling?
There’s that word again – “compelling”. It can drive a writer crazy!
Compelling isn’t the sum of parts, we know that. Nor a concoction derived from a recipe or formula. We can read all the textbooks we want about “character” and still fail to give birth to “compelling”. Yet there’s no question of its importance in fiction.
Let’s look at Conrad, whom I dearly love. (Love, I might add, without ever having forced “lovable” upon his character description—was that a mistake?) Look how patiently he waits at Penguin or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (or wherever my agent has dragged the poor fellow). Imagine the indignity of waiting at the gates while your life is assessed for—not its morality but for its marketability. For its brand-ability, for its “compulsion”.
Poor Conrad. What must he be thinking? His life, so full of paradox, and so courageously lived—is it possible that no one cares? Might he have conducted himself differently had he known what readers want? What publishers want? Or is saleability a function of some quality beyond anyone’s ken? Conrad wonders if it’s his fault, if perhaps he has withheld from the author some critical episodes from his past. But, no, dammit, he has been butt-naked honest.
Butt-naked! And in the first 15 pages!
We see his penis, for goodness sake. Followed hard upon by his clever evasion of ambulance attendants. After which he finds his wife with an old lover. (A wife who is dying, Conrad hastens to add.) In the face of such vulnerability Conrad remains spirited, though exhausted from shopping for her grave. But determined. With signs of growing desperation, however. And above all funny. He’s funny! What more do they want in a protagonist?
They are aware…aren’t they? That his biography is a comedy?
Conrad hears no laughing from the editorial rooms. It has never occurred to him that comedy might fail to be compelling. Do people even laugh anymore? What is funny? Is he funny?
There it is—Conrad’s lifetime quandary—Am I funny? He swallowed a saint, for goodness sake! What more does a guy have to do to draw attention to himself?
If you think there is nothing funny about that, you’d be wrong. No mission exists to which Conrad is unable to apply the logic of the absurd. I should think that that alone guarantees a compelling character. But of course fiction writing isn’t an exact science.
You can take a manuscript to The Big Apple but you can’t make them swallow.