f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 1 of Free Bird – Hero or Protagonist?

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Day 1 of Free Bird – Hero or Protagonist?

I’d like to spend a moment introducing Greg Garrett and his novel Free Bird to you since we’ll be spending the better part of two weeks with him.

Greg Garrett is the published author of two novels (Free Bird and Cycling), two non-fiction books (Holy Superheroes and The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in The Matrix with Chris Seay), and a variety of short stories and other works. He is a professor of English at Baylor University where he teaches creative writing and a number of other classes. And he was one of the driving forces behind creating the Art and Soul festival…which is where I first came across him and his work.

Free Bird accepts a number of qualifiers. It can be called a “road-trip” novel. A “Christian” novel. A “Southern” novel. You’d most likely call it “literary fiction.” Lining them up into one description becomes unwieldy however so we’ll just call it contemporary fiction—a story of a man searching for redemption on the road because home seems offer no space for it.

We’ll get into the sub-genre of “journey” fiction or (the American variant) “road-trip fiction” tomorrow. Today I want to spend some time thinking through the notion of our lead character.

I have heard, too often, writers or readers describe the main character in a book as the “hero.” Now there’s going to be times where such a description is accurate, particularly in genre fiction. And I don’t want to insinuate that heroes can’t be three-dimensional. But the word “hero” for most of us conjures up a specific notion of behavior and actions—criteria not every lead character will or should live up to.

Protagonist is the common term for the central character in a story. It’s not new to you. It’s useful however when you run into a character like Greg Garrett’s Clay Forester. Clay is not a hero. Clay Forester is a man.

Another thing I’ve heard a lot is that: “Readers have to like your main character.”

Garrett’s book (and books like Nobody’s Fool and Wonder Boys and others) turns that on its side a bit. Readers don’t have to like your main character…but they do have to care. Liking, to me, seems to be about surface. Caring goes deeper.

The line is hard to peg. In much of the fiction I’ve read there are three things that seem to mark a character who we may not always like, but whom we care about.

1. Self-awareness – Someone who knows they’re going bad, but can’t help themselves—well, that’s most of us if we’re honest.

2. Charm – We’re always suckers for a laugh, so a rascal with a quick quip (™ Richard Russo) gets many of his sins overlooked. To a point.

3. Reason – Is there an understandable excuse (often emotional pain) that makes us understand the character’s behavior.

Those three things pretty well describe Clay Forester. It’s the last one on which Garrett really hangs his hat. But to find out what causes a formerly successful lawyer to become a cover band rock star singing Lynyrd Skynrd to drunk rednecks…that’s the heart of the novel.
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Go to Day 2 of our discussion of Free Bird.