Here you’ll find musings about writing, reading, science fiction and more:
Protagonist, hero, main character, point of view character and narrator — these terms are often used interchangeably in fiction. This is because in many stories they’re all the same person. But that is not always the case.
Read on to learn the difference.
All fiction stories need a protagonist. This character drives the plot and pursues the main goal of the story. Usually they change or grow while they’re at it. Their decisions impact where the story goes. The protagonist’s arc is defined by the pursuit of the goal, whether they achieve it in the end, or not.
Can a book have more than one protagonist? Yes. But they’ll usually need their own arcs. A book with multiple protagonists is usually not one, but several stories that are intertwined. In The Song Of Ice and Fire several characters drive their stories and have their own distinct arcs. The Cloud Atlas is an example where the stories and protagonists are tangentially connected but have a unifying theme.
A hero is a type of character. They tend to be virtuous and put others before themselves. Typically the reader is rooting for them to win. All stories must have a protagonist, but not all stories need a hero.
Often, the protagonist is a hero but they don’t have to be. Protagonists can be anti-heros, sidekicks, villains (e.g. villain origin stories), or anyone else.
A main character (MC) is a central player of the plot, but they don’t necessarily drive it. The MC is often defined as the character “closest” to the reader, so the reader is getting their perspective. They’re often the same character as the protagonist, but not always.
For example, The Moon and Sixpence is about the artist Strickland and he is driving the plot as its protagonist. The story, however, is told from the perspective of an unnamed journalist who is trying to understand Strickland’s journey.
Other examples where the protag and MC are different people include Sherlock and Watson and Gadsby and Nick Carraway.
Any character whose point of view (POV) the story is told from. It doesn’t have to be a main character. One of the scenes in Lord of The Rings is written from the perspective of a fox. Authors may include minor character’s POVs to offer distance, objectivity or a different perspective.
With a first person narrative, the POV character is telling their own story, as themselves. With a third person limited narrative, it’s as though the narrator is standing where the POV character is and is describing what that character is seeing and experiencing, in some cases, including their internal dialogue.
A narrator is anyone who tells the story. They can be a character from inside the story, such as a POV character, or outside the story, e.g. a granny telling the story to her grandkids.
Sometimes, the author is the narrator and they can choose how “visible” they want to be. In the third person deep POV, the author is almost invisible. They’re reporting the narrative as the POV character is experiencing it. With a more distant POV, the author may interject with their own thoughts and opinions.
I often compare this to the concept of “the artist’s hand” in painting analysis. Is there evidence of the creative process like texture and brushstroke? Or is it smooth and polished like it’s come out of a printer (or painted by a renaissance master)?
Stay tuned for Part 2
Exciting news! My post-apocalyptic short story, Windy Wellington, will be published in the SpecFicNZ Anthology later this month, along with (I think) 24 other stories from Kiwi authors of speculative fiction.
Note: The interview below was first published on the SpecFicNZ blog.
Aftermath: Tales of Survival in Aotearoa New Zealand is SpecFicNZ’s new anthology, due for release in early April.
The anthology explores Aotearoa in a post-apocalyptic world. Disasters have occurred around the country and the world. New Zealand, in our isolation down under, may have escaped most of what happened around the world, but it was pretty bad out there. As Kiwis are apt to do, though, we’re “getting over it”. You know, she’ll be right …
This is not just an anthology of disaster stories. The pages are filled with hope in the form of short stories, poems, flash fiction and artwork about what comes afterwards. The contributions are exclusively from SpecFicNZ members and reflect the diversity and breadth of this country we love to call home … even if the edges are a bit torn and tattered.
We’re interviewing all the contributors to the anthology so you can get to know the brave souls who’ve battled zombies, aliens, earthquakes, volcanoes and more to bring you the stories you’ll find between its covers.
Today, we’re chatting with Alla Zaykova
- Aftermath includes a variety of disasters set all around Aotearoa New Zealand. What disaster / location combination did you write about and why?
I got the idea for my short story from re-reading Dune last year and the harrowing desert wind described there. I transposed that wind to New Zealand’s capital, where I have lived and worked for the past decade, to see what happens — a speculative twist on the “Windy Wellington” adage.
- How do you think the Kiwi approach to life after disaster is unique?
The pandemic proved Kiwis are pretty sensible in a crisis and look after one another.
- What are your most valuable post-apocalyptic skills?
I hope to never find out but I’d like to think I can spin a pretty kick-ass tale. It may not seem like much, but stories are vital for the survival of civilisation.
- They say the pen is mightier than the sword. Being a writer, you must have lots of pens. What creative use would you put them to in a post-apocalyptic New Zealand?
I lose pens, so I prefer to write digitally. However, in the most recent sci-fi book I’ve read, a metal pen was used to perform an emergency tracheotomy. So there you go.
- What are you working on now?
I’m currently revising a gritty space opera novel called Blackjack Interstellar. It’s a bit of a modern take on old-timey pulp fiction like The Stainless Steel Rat.
- Where can readers find out more about you and your writing?
I post about my writing journey on instagram under @azaykovawriter
I can also be found at www.azaykova.com
Please visit https://specfic.nz for more info.
In part one, we established the meaning of and difference between the following terms: protagonist, hero, main character, point of view character and narrator.
Now, let’s look at other character terms.
Last time we established that a protagonist is the character that drives the story by pursuing a goal. Following this, the antagonist is someone who tries to prevent the protagonist from reaching their goal and creating conflict. Every story needs conflict, so every story needs an antagonist. A story can have several antagonists or a main antagonist and supporting antagonistic characters or forces.
An antagonist is defined by their relationship to the protagonist and their goal, not their moral alignment. They don’t have to be the “bad guy.” They don’t even have to be a person.
The terms “antagonist” and “anti-hero” are sometimes confused but mean different things. An anti-hero is basically a morally flawed hero, or a hero without the traditional heroic traits. They may act out of self-interest or revenge and do morally grey things, but usually still choose the greater good (e.g. Jack Sparrow). Anti-heros often play the part of protagonists or allies, but they can be antagonists allies too.
Types of antagonists
The terms “villain” and “antagonist are sometimes used interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing. A villain is a type of character who is intentionally malicious or criminal, they aim to hurt others with their actions and the readers will generally agree that they’re the bad guy/girl. Villains often play the role of an antagonist, but not every villain is, and not every story needs a villain. Memorable villains are usually complex, can possess likeable traits and/or convictions that there are valid reasons for their actions.
- Authority figures
Parents and guardians, teachers, bosses, law enforcers — authority figures often make effective antagonists because they can exercise real power over the protagonist, making the conflict difficult to overcome. They may not be evil or ill-intentioned, they may even think they’re acting in the protagonist’s interests, but they stand between the protagonist and their goal. E.g. The Capulet and Montague families don’t intend to harm Romeo and Juliette, but their feud prevents the lovers’ from being together. Javert, a police inspector in Les Mis, is obsessed with upholding the law at any cost.
Someone competing with the protagonist for the same goal. E.g. in Ender’s Game, Ender and Bonzo Madrid are on the same team, but they compete for leadership. Bonzo, threatened by Ender, tries to get rid of him, which makes Bonzo an antagonistic character. In in the Queen’s Gambit, Vasily ‘The Russian’ Borgov is not a bad person and has no ill feelings towards the protagonist Elizabeth Harmon. However, he is competing for the same world chess champion title as she is and can be seen as an antagonistic character when he repeatedly wins against her.
- Internal conflict
This when the protagonist is also the antagonist. They don’t need to have a split personality like Tyler Durden in Fight Club (although this is a valid example), but their internal conflict prevents them from reaching their goal. I would argue that Beth Harmon, or rather her trauma, is the main antagonist of the aforementioned Queen’s Gambit. Her trauma fuels her addictions and self-sabotage. Once Beth is able to confront her traumatic memories, give up substance abuse, stop pushing people away and accept help from friends, she is able to reap the boon.
- Inanimate forces
As I mentioned, the antagonist doesn’t need to be a person, it can be a force of some kind. My favourite example is a short story by Jack London called To Build a Fire. In the story, a man travels alone through a Yukon forest in subzero temperatures. He is overconfident and assumes he can survive by building a fire. One by one things begin to go wrong and he is unable to build a fire and gradually freezes to death. Thus nature is the antagonist of this story. This example is also useful if you’re studying “setting as character.”
Other examples of inanimate antagonistic forces are illness, poverty, war, aspects of society as a whole, isolation (e.g. Cast Away).
Whereas an antagonist or antagonistc characters ally is somebody who helps the characters towards their goal. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good or bad
Have you figured out who’s who in your story?
Have you ever wondered what would happen if you assembled a full cast of enneagram types and sent them on an epic quest?
Here’s my take on it:
To learn more about enneagrams visit https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/type-descriptions
While learning the writing craft I found that examples of flat-arc characters, especially protagonists, are pretty hard to come by. There tends to be a belief that a protagonist must undergo a big transformation as the story progresses. I like to question this premise.
Most writing advice suggests that a protagonist must start off either with a fatal flaw or believing in a big lie. A character on a positive arc, will overcome the flaw/unravel the lie and become a better version of themselves. A character on a negative arc will fall deeper into the flaw or the lie, which will lead to their demise or corruption. A character with a flat arc will end up believing the same truth they started off with.
You may ask, is there even a story if the character doesn’t change? Good question! Yes, the story is in the conflict between the character and whatever tries to push them off their path, make them give up their truth or corrupt them. This can include their own doubt.
I believe Disney’s Moana is an example of a character with a flat arc. At the start of the film, Moana is already brave, responsible, empathetic and has leadership qualities. She already believes the sea is her friend. But her father and her community try to change her. They are the ones with the fatal flaw/lie—the fear of the sea.
Moana tries to conform, but when the villagers come to her saying there is no fish, she suggests going further out to sea (returning to her truth). The idea is shut down by her father. Moana still believes she is right and tries to cross the reef by herself, but is stopped by the big waves. Thus, her father and her environment are examples of antagonistic forces that create the conflict.
When Moana’s grandma (her ally) gives Moana new information (that her people used to be seafarers) and tools (a better boat and the heart of Te Fiti), Moana braves the reef again. Along the way she faces many obstacles that lead her to doubt and question her truth, path and identity, but she perseveres.
Once she succeeds in her quest, she returns to her island, essentially proving she had been right all along and teaching her community the seafaring ways. The Motonui community is transformed as a result of Moana’s journey, not Moana herself. (Compare this with Anna from Frozen, whose understanding of love changes as a result of her journey, i.e. a positive arc). That’s why I believe Moana’s is a flat arc, and it works great for the story.
I hope you found this helpful and it will encourage you to experiment with different types of characters and arcs.
Can you come up with other examples of characters with flat arcs?
“Where are you from?”
It’s a straightforward question, isn’t it? Not if you’re a Third Culture Kid (TCK, also known as a global nomad).
The term was coined in the 1950s by an American sociologist Dr Ruth Hill Useem, to describe people who have spent a significant part of their childhood years in two or more different countries. Useem found that, unlike people who move to a foreign country as adults, children incorporate elements of each culture they live in, but don’t fully integrate into any single one. They combine pieces of their home and host cultures to form a “third culture.”
These experiences continue to affect people throughout their lives. Studies over the past decades have identified a number of common characteristics shared by TCKs, irrespective of which countries they lived in. These include good intercultural skills and interpersonal sensitivity, open-mindedness, adaptability, fluency in multiple languages, etc. Which is handy, right? However, growing up in different worlds also poses challenges: e.g. a sense of loss and grief (especially as many children don’t choose to move, it’s decided for them), confused identity, feelings of not belonging anywhere, rootlessness and cultural homelessness.
Why am I telling you this? Because I’m a TCK. I was born and spent the first eight years in Russia, the next nine years in Namibia, and then I came to New Zealand, on my own, aged 17, and ended up staying (for more than 15 years so far). I have elements of all these cultures ingrained in me.
The whole rootlessness/confused identity issue did really bother me as a teen and in my early 20s. I felt that I was missing crucial chunks of experience to really belong anywhere and that I’d be a foreigner everywhere I go. The question “Where are you from” used to make me quite uncomfortable, especially if I didn’t want to share my entire life story.
I didn’t learn the term TCK until I was studying towards my second qualification in my mid-twenties, but I had been preoccupied with this topic long before that.
In the first space opera I wrote when I was 16, kids get plucked from different planets to be sent to an intergalactic space school (to become crime fighting space agents, obviously), and the criteria for Earth kids was that they had to have lived in a foreign country, which was meant to make them adaptable enough to cope with living in space amongst the aliens. That book never saw the light of day, but I continued researching this topic for school essays and later for uni — that’s when I discovered the term Third Culture Kids.
There’s a piece of research that suggests making this discovery can be life-changing. It was for me. It helped me understand myself and my experiences, to realise there were many people who felt the same way as me, and to feel seen and validated. It’s similar to realising you have a neurodivergence for the first time, or figuring out your sexuality — your experience in the world suddenly makes a lot more sense.
Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, a book by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken is a great resource for anyone who wants to know more about this topic. As the cover says, this book is for “anyone who wants to understand the blessings and curses of growing up multiculturally.” You’ll find it useful if you’re a TCK yourself, or if you’re a parent of one, an educator, an employer, a researcher or a policy-maker.
I’ll also include a link to my old scribblings on this matter because they have handy references to more research and articles: https://midnightmediamusings.wordpress.com/tag/third-culture-kids/
Lately, I’ve been missing appointments like crazy, even with reminders. I wondered if I have early-onset dementia, but more likely, it’s just my brain telling me I have too many tabs open.
I’ve been getting frustrated with my inability to establish a routine this year, to find a balance between work and parenting, and to write regularly. My nomadic youth has taught me how to pack a suitcase using up every bit of space, and I’ve been trying to apply it to life, assuming that if I organise things the right way, I’ll be able to fit it all in. But what if there’s just too much stuff? What if I’m at full capacity and it just won’t fit, no matter how much I try?
I found this hard to accept because a) I compare myself to others — other people are able to manage jobs, kids and side projects, so should I; and b) I compare myself to my former self who was a bit of an overachiever.
But I don’t know other people’s circumstances and my own circumstances have changed. I’m dealing with a demanding (and often unpredictable) day job, a sensitive kid who hates sleep, an invisible chronic illness, a freshly diagnosed neurodiversity with it’s sensory and executive function challenges, and cumulative stress that was bound to catch up with me at some point. I don’t have much in terms of a support network either.
So, maybe this IS my capacity. Maybe that’s why my brain has been sending me the “not enough working memory” error message every time I try to plan something.
That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t follow my dreams and finish that damn book. But given I can’t take anything off my plate at the moment, I need to accept that it’s going to be messy. There won’t be regular writing sessions, balls will be dropped and appointments will be missed. There will be tears, and that’s okay.
Maybe one day my situation will change and I will be able to find consistency again (like I did last year for a few months). Until then, progress will be sporadic and opportunistic.
In May, I took three weeks off work to edit. I might be able to do it again next year. Before then, there will be weekends where I get a few hours to myself, nights when I can afford to sacrifice more sleep to the writing gods, and bursts of focus and creativity.
Of course, writing sporadically will take more time. And that too can feel frustrating. But once the book is finished, it won’t matter how many years it took to write. It will be mine, it will be done, and it will be tangible. And I’ll have the success of a kept promise to myself to surge me forward as I write the next book and the next.
So, if the burning elephants you’re juggling prevent you from writing every day or even every month, acknowledge your limitations. But don’t give up on your dreams. Be opportunistic, snatch your sporadic chances, and remember that every little bit of progress gets you closer.
If you can’t walk towards your dream, crawl, and if you can’t crawl, lie down in your dream’s direction.
So, you’ve always wanted to be a novelist but have never been able to knock out a novel? Do you hoard hundreds of first chapters for innumerable novel ideas that you’d given up on? Or have you been working on the same story for the past decade but aren’t nearing the finish line? Then these tips are for you!
- Write like no one’s watching
Thinking about readers this early in the process can be paralysing. Don’t do it. Your first draft is meant for your eyes only. Don’t show it to anyone and don’t worry about what your mum would say, or your friends, or your English teacher.Treat it like your private diary and spill all your dirty, little secrets and your crappy, little plot holes. You’ll edit them out later.
- If #1 fails
If writing for just yourself is not motivating enough, write for one other person. Someone you know will “get you” and support you no matter what. Nabokov wrote for his wife, Vera. Stephen King initially wrote for his mother who paid him a quarter a piece.
- Embrace the terrible
Your first draft will suck. There’s no way around it. Spending years perfecting the first chapters will get you nowhere. Reading every instructional book in the world won’t make you a better writer. Writing several crappy but complete drafts definitely will.
Be prepared that you will have to rewrite your WIP almost in its entirety. Maybe several times. But you’ll be in a better position to know how it all fits together and what you need to fix once you get to the end. It’s part of the process. You can’t make coffee without grinding the beans.
- Stick to one story
Some writers work on two or more novels in parallel. But if you’ve never managed to finish one, that’s a bad idea. You probably already have more novel ideas and first chapters than you care to count, and they’ll just keep coming. You can jot the ideas down, if you want to, but don’t spend more than a few minutes.
Digging into new projects is fun. Sticking with one is discipline. It’s hard. Treat “working on a new idea” as a reward you give yourself for finishing the first.
- Pick the low hanging fruit
Don’t try to write the next Game of Thrones on your first attempt. Pick a premise with one POV character. Maybe two. Not a dozen. Stick to one key theme. Don’t try to squeeze everything you have to say to the world into your first novel. Keep it simple. Treat it as a practice round. You can increase complexity with your later works.
- Stick to a tight outline
Discovery writing is great when it works. But if you find yourself hitting dead-ends on repeat, even a one-page outline can make a difference.
Don’t overdo it either. Some people spend years on world-building, taking personality tests for their characters and drawing up massive genealogical trees. But they never actually write their story. As with tip #4, keep it simple. Layout the key plot points. Know what happens at the start, in the middle and how it ends. And stick to it.
If you’ve started writing and realised you need to change earlier plot points, make a note and keep writing as if you’ve already made the changes. You’ll fix the continuity issues in the second draft.
Do you have any tips to add? Let me know what’s keeps pushing you to the finish line.
Blackjack Interstellar (BJI), the space opera novel I’m currently working on is set in the distant future where humans have formed an alliance with alien races and colonised far corners of the galaxy. It’s by no means meant to be hard science fiction, but science and technology are still important cornerstones of my world-building.
I drew inspiration from all the science fiction I grew up on, researched technologies used in various fictional worlds and the “real” science of how these may or may not work. It’s easy to get carried away when building your own world I tried to keep explanations, short, simple, and relevant to my plot. Here are my top five futuristic technologies that are central to BJI’s plot, with the level of detail you won’t see in the book:
1. Faster Than Light (FTL) interstellar travel
Interstellar travel is very accessible in BJI. A one-man spaceship can reach distant star systems within days. This would never be possible in the real world with what we currently know about physics, so any theory I used had to be very speculative.
I chose antimatter-powered hyperdrives that propel spaceships through hyperspace, which is kind of like another dimension. I felt readers would be comfortable with this concept because of how much it was popularised by Star Wars. Exits from hyperspace, landings and departures need to be well-coordinated by spaceports to avoid accidents. Fortunately, the landing and departure queues are mostly automated, except maybe on Blackjack, the asteroid, where one perpetually drunk guy runs all ground control ops.
2. Galactic Maps
Hyperdrives present a number of limitations, particularly around navigation. Because the galaxy is in constant motion, it is not enough to plot a static space route. The calculations need to be constantly updated — that’s why they have droids in Star Wars.
In BJI however, there are no droids. There is, however, the Standard Union Galactic Map, which has a limited number of main routes that are constantly updated with calculations by the Galactic Union government. Unbeknownst to most people, there is also something called the Shadow Map, but that’s it’s own plot point and I won’t go into further detail here.
2. Quantum Entanglement FTL Communication
While quantum entanglement (QE) is a real physics phenomenon, it’s use for faster than light communication is hypothetical but frequently used in science fiction. Entanglement is when two subatomic particles continue to impact one another even when separated. So, the speculative idea is that if you had two quantum computers with entangled particles on different ends of the galaxy, they’d be communicating with one another in real time. The limitation is that entanglement is a one-to-one not one-to-many. I have several pieces of technology in BJI that use QE for communication purposes, two are listed next.
3. The InStarNet
Yes, that name is “highly original”. The book doesn’t go into much detail on how the InStarNet works, but I can tell you that it uses a network of quantum satellites to transfer data to various inhabited planets. To cross the one-to-many barrier, the data from users would get transmitted to ordinary satellites, presumably via ordinary radio signal, and then to the quantum satellite, where it would be redirected to the next quantum satellite, and so on. Once it reaches the intended planet, it would again be transferred to individual user devices via ordinary satellite internet. Is this scientific? No. Is it logical? I hope so… The InStarNet works for communication between planets but not between ships in hyperspace that can’t pick up satellite signals.
4. The Ansible
The term “ansible” was coined by Le Guin in a 1966 novel and has since been used by countless others. I’d thought about changing its name, but so far, have decided against it. As a sci-fi reader, I welcome familiar references in modern sci-fi that, makes me feel like the the author and I are on the same page, geeking out about the same things.
Ansibles on BJI also use QE tech to enable communication with travelling spaceships, bypassing the satellites. Each ship needs to be “entangled” with at least one major spaceport and each spaceport is “entangled” with the other spaceports. There’s a finite number of ports and space-tech manufacturers (and production of ships is regulated), so this is technically possible. Ansibles can only be used for specific purposes. They do not enable ships to communicate with the main InStarNet network and do not allow file transfers. Their intended use is mostly for emergencies and landing requests.
Ships within close range of each other communicate using ordinary radio-waves, not entanglement. Ships also have lidars and other sensors.
5. VirtEgo personal communicators
A virtEgo (not to be confused with “Vertigo”, not a miss-spelling and also shortened to virt) is basically a smartphone on steroids. It’s super practical and it’s the last gadget you’ll ever need. You can wear it on your wrist, you can expand it to the size of a personal computer, you can project and manipulate holographic objects and exchange them with others. In addition to calls and messages, you’d use a virt for identification, security, to pay for things and to open doors. It’s the only wallet and key that you’ll ever it. Obviously if you’re an adult without a virtEgo, you’re screwed.
It took me ages to come up with a name for it. In A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine calls her wearable personal communication devices “cloud hooks”. In Five Lightyears to the Firesnake, by my friend Rayner Ye, personal devices are called airSpheres. I thought both of those sounded extremely cool, but I wanted something really short like… “phone” but not like a phone… Recently I’ve been describing it to someone, saying the gadget is like an extension of yourself, your virtual self, your… And then it hit me: “virtual ego –virtEgo”… how did I not think of this earlier?
The virt pairs with other devices like your spaceship’s onboard computer or other wearable tech. It stores data either locally, on data cards, or on “nebula servers” (get it? I’m so clever with naming things 🤣). I can’t wait to get a virtEgo in real life, although I think our distant future will be far more augmented.
That’s it. Some other futuristic tech mentioned in BJI that didn’t make it into my top 5 includes: terraformation processes, cryogenics, robots, cyborgs and an alien translation device known as “the cube”.
Do you get as excited by thinking about the future of technology as I do? Or maybe it’s magic that floats your boat? What are some of your favourite fictional gadgets, devices or artefacts?