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Creating the “Happy” Protagonist

Recently I finished listening to the audio version of “A Gentleman in Moscow” and I have to say, it was one of the best books I have read in my life!

Besides the stellar writing, the complicated plot, the big ideas that it addressed, I liked it because the main character, Count Alexander Rostov, was happy. He was happy despite his harrowing circumstances, the loss of his position and relationships, the tedium of his prison and the hopelessness of Soviet Russia in the mid-20th century.

https://www.amazon.com/A-Gentleman-in-Moscow/dp/0143110438/ref=sr_1_2?crid=XTV2ML4N238E&dchild=1&keywords=a+gentleman+in+moscow+book&qid=1612370523&sprefix=A+gentleman+in+m%2Caps%2C166&sr=8-2

Was Rostov Pollyanna-ish, a goody-two-shoes, or completely unrelatable? Not at all, despite his own confession that he was a fuddy-duddy. Instead, I was compelled to hear his story because I was hooked. I wanted to follow Count Rostov into any adventures he had (even though he was confined to a luxury hotel in Moscow for decades). I was hooked because of the combination of his appearance (the moustaches!), personality (the dignity!), drives (weekly barber visit!), habits (the luxurious meals!) and that he so rarely complained. Rather, he took his situation and made the best of it.

I think that this book, A Gentleman in Moscow, can be a great study for many reasons, but I’d like to more closely examine what we can learn about writing a happy protagonist.

Happy people are not dull.

All great protagonists, even the happy ones, have a clear and distinct hook that pulls the reader to them. If the author does their job correctly, then the reader is compelled to follow this character into whatever adventures or mishaps may come. From the first scene, this hook should be obvious, demonstrating the epitome of who they are. The reader meets Count Rostov in his trial which sentences him to house arrest. He handles the whole affair with a shocking grace and gentility, and even makes a joke about it. Then, as he wraps up his affairs and is escorted to his new quarters (a significant downgrade from the luxury suite he previously occupies) he is nonplussed and never complains. The author shows who his through these actions clearly, and I wanted to learn more about him!

Happy people often enjoy routines.

Happy people often make the most of their tasks. Without overdoing it, use the routines of your happy protagonist to reveal their tastes and desires. Maybe they always buy yellow daisies for their cheeriness. Or they habitually speak to others kindly as they pass by. Maybe, like Count Rostov, they delight in the simple pleasure of a weekly haircut at the hotel barber. Happy people often see their routines as their friendly companion, which of course means a writer should find ways to spoil them and see how the character handles the disruption. (Count Rostov’s reaction to his lost moustaches made me fall in love with him all the more!)

Happy people often have grand reasons for living.

Happy protagonists can be enthusiastic about this person, this cause, this job, or this hobby. Perhaps they are an expert and their specialty is what gets them out of bed every day. As you write their story, think about how to threaten their passions. How can you bring conflict and loss? Can you change their circumstances in such a way that they have to fight to restore their lives? How can you prevent them from ever seeing their bliss again?

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Happy people often are grounded in a value system.

A happy person’s value system is often their ballast for life. For some, it could be just daily affirmations and gratitude journals. Others may find prayer and reading helpful. For others it could be meditations. This is what they turn to when things go wrong — so, of course, as the story progresses with more and more conflict, your happy person must fall flat on their faces, their faith shaken. Count Rostov does too — and I was so grateful it happened early in the book! Whatever crisis you bring your happy protagonist (and really, they can’t be happy ALL the time, can they?) through, their foundational truths must be tested.  This struggle, if done well, will resonate with your readers because hardship is a universal. In it, we all have to wrestle with what we truly believe.

Happy people mostly surround themselves with other positive people. Mostly.

More often than not, a genuinely happy person knows that Debbie Downer is a bad BFF. Instead, they will deliberately seek out the optimistic and supportive as their closest companions. There are exceptions to this. In A Gentleman in Moscow, Count Rostov’s growing friendship with Anton the head chef and Emil the maitre-de were critical to the plot, but neither of those characters were particularly happy. They did provide a support for the Count and became an integral part of the climactic ending.

Other characters are, of course, great sources for conflict. They can bring crisis and calamity, either intentionally or accidentally. Or they can be toxic. They can flirt or seduce. (Ahem, I’m looking at you, Anna the Soviet film star!) Your happy character’s relationships will definitely stretch their joy. What will your protagonist do then?

Happy people are often mindful are often mindful and fully present, until they aren’t.

Your developing conflicts may make them space out, become disorganized, long for another time and place, disappoint others, damage their reputation, get in trouble with the boss, etc. Your antagonist may with the head of your hero and throw them completely off base. One of my favorite developments in A Gentleman in Moscow is the weaving in and out of the character Count Rostov calls “The Bishop.” At first, he’s just an annoying, incompetent waiter who doesn’t know his wine, but as the years go by, the “Bishop” gains more responsibility in the hotel (likely due to his Soviet government connections). At every turn, he is against our hero Count Rostov.

Rostov does get flustered, especially as the stakes grow higher and higher and Rostov risks the things he loves. But then during their showdown, OH! It is so satisfying!

Happy people may have few physical complaints to distract them.

We all know that pain and illness directly affects your mood. This means that in the story, you could consider making them sick and tired. Their physical ailments could come randomly, like a car accident or cancer. Or maybe it comes as a result of mistakes they have made, like not wearing a mask in 2020, driving drunk, or taking a bad fall at the gym meet. If their health suffers, then their moods and productivity suffers. You can get a lot of mileage out of physical pain if you want your protagonist to squirm. 

Your happy protagonist is worth writing about

Obviously, happy protagonists are more likeable than sadder, angrier types. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing likability as long as the character is believable and identifiable and who faces his trials consistently with his character. Now, I have never been a fallen aristocrat in mid-century Soviet Union, but I loved and liked Count Rostov because of his virtue, his gentility, his gifts, and they way he managed his long life in the Metropol Hotel. And at the end, when he made a heart-breaking decision, I was with him. I wept. His happy life resonated with me. I was so grateful, I had followed this happy character into his fascinating adventure.

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.

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