It’s All in a Name — Finding Your Protagonist

I’d had trouble with my protagonist, Katya, all through the long nights last winter. My fellow Incubees puzzled over her motivations. Worse, I had a hard time seeing her clearly. I’d call her by her nicknames, Katka, Katyoosha, and Katenka, but she’d just take  her place on the page, arms folded across her chest, lips tight. I opened writing books, did one exercise after another to find out about her, and even discovered her hidden desires, but when I put her in a scene where she could act on those desires, she went back to the folded arms position.

If only I’d been superstitious, I would have written with a lucky pen or a particular pencil in a special notebook. I could have written only at dawn or dusk, or ordered my study according to the principles of Fung Shui. But I wasn’t superstitious.

I tried putting on my Russian fur hat before I sat down to write, clasped a Baltic amber necklace around my neck, played Russian ballads, read Tolstoy, and transcribed Russian poetry, but Katya gave me zilch. What was I going to do? I knew the pain of killing your darlings, but it wasn’t even the imagined remorse that stopped me from dropping Katya as a character. The book was all about her going to Russia to mourn the death of her Russian father. If I didn’t have her, I didn’t have the novel.

It wasn’t that I lacked sitzfleisch. I knew all about putting my butt in the chair, and much came from those hours at my desk. But nothing about Katya. I kept doing the exercises in the Incubator, kept reading writing books. Anne Lamott suggested I give things I couldn’t solve to God–to write the problems down on paper and put them in His inbox. I took out a lacquered Russian box, with a picture of St. George killing the dragon, which I thought was apt, and filled it with notes. As I went along, I had to make the papers shorter and shorter because they wouldn’t all fit in the box.

On June 21, the solstice, I remembered being in Leningrad during White Nights, when the sun never sets, and no one sleeps. For Leningraders, it’s a time of personal redemption. I went to bed that night, and when I woke up, I was in that half state between sleeping and dreaming, and I saw my protagonist sitting on the train from Helsinki. Her name was not Katya, but Sonia. I was dreaming in Russian, and her name came out of that dream, that son (the Russian word for dream). She’d cut her blond wavy hair into a bob. The custom’s guard approached, his breath smelling of onions and cabbage soup as he checked her passport. He asked her to follow him. She had to leave her seat, walk down the long corridor in the train compartment, cross into yet another compartment where a Soviet general sat waiting to question her.

The day I discovered Sonia, I walked my dogs in the Middlesex Fells as usual and came across a woman giving commands to her dog in Russian. When we spoke, I found out her name was Sonia.

Not that I’m superstitious or anything.


  1. Cynthia Johnson

    Whoever has the audacity to think s/he composes this work by sheer will and talent doesn’t know the first thing about writing. Pat, your lovely essay is a gorgeous reminder that if we’re lucky grace sits beside us, whispering into our ear, singing into our dreams and placing crumbs beneath our feet. Bravo!!!!

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