The role of the protagonist

Max Adams

Image credit: Kona Macphee / RLF

In the last year I have co-facilitated two writing immersives: a five-day retreat in the Derbyshire countryside for post-doctoral science academics and a series of one-to-one tutorials sandwiched between whole-day workshops for PhD students from all disciplines at Teesside University. As a writer of fiction and non-fiction, I know that narrative structure is key to pulling off a big piece of work — 100,000 words or so. I see theses, novels and commercial non-fiction in much the same way, despite their very evident differences in terms of audience, tone and style.

One of the most successful tools for doctoral students or, indeed, post-doctoral academics, is to envisage the role and nature of the protagonist: that is to say, the character (or discipline; or theory; or interpretive paradigm) that undergoes the most profound change during the course of the work. For humanities students this often provides them with a key insight and answers that tricky question, ‘what is this about?’ On the other hand, scientists are often sceptical — at least to begin with — about the idea that a mathematical conundrum can be turned into a protagonist or that solving a problem of measuring the performance of micro-fluids can be encompassed as a narrative with a protagonist’s journey. So, we often start talking about the movies: how screenplays work to set up a challenge, map how the protagonist overcomes those challenges and emerges wiser — and changed — at the end. I managed to convince an ultra-reductionist mathematician that the Pythagorean five-bridges problem could have a protagonist. If nothing else, it forces the writer to consider if there is a potential protagonist on whom to drape the flesh of their narrative. As for my own writing, being challenged by highly intelligent academics forces me to interrogate my own approach to story: to engineer it to the highest standards. Even in fiction — perhaps especially in fiction — the rigour of the academic approach, always questioning, always scrutinising, always testing, keeps me on the straight and narrow.

28 September 2016