What to do when the Protagonist is Floundering?

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CMBright

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I stalled out approximately a quarter of the way through a novel. My protagonist is a self-aware gmo who has successfully escaped the lab only to be relocated by two of the employees. She is a naive "Orphan" archetype. Naive in the "lack of exposure/knowledge" sense.

She has to escape again, this time it will be easy once she manages to actually find the door. Then a fateful encounter with a human child. Once that happens, I am floundering as much as she is.

Character (and new species) trait includes an innate anxious nature countered by need for dopamine rewards. Those rewards can come from accomplishments as easily as from sugar. Self aware, close to humans, if not equal. Size constraints might make this a bit of poetic license, but it is fiction.

Is the inner conflict between her innate fearful/anxious nature and her "greed" enough? She wants a LOT. Mostly knowledge, but to gain that, she needs to learn to communicate. She trusts the child because she does not recognize her as human (naive about the environment/world) but initially sees all adults as "bad". The child is young enough to be learning written language herself, so she learns by first watching, then the pair find a way using written language along with gestures (point at tree, write tree) or drawings. The Protagonist will slowly learn to trust the humans in the community close to where the group was released.

How the heck did my Hero's Journey turn into a Coming of Age Story where the Protagonist is creating her own culture from the ground up while establishing diplomatic relations with another species? All within a dystopian society about a century in the future.

I have her general "Earth shattering" goal. I don't quite understand her personal goals after the transition. I think I am uneasy because there is no obvious consequence if she fails. If she fails, she doesn't get some things she needs, but that is the only downside she is seeing.
 

ironmikezero

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It seems pacing is going to be at issue; you'll need to accelerate the MC's adaptation abilities (e.g., observation, mimicry, etc.) and personal development.
For that, make something happen; put the MC (or the child - or even better, both) in jeopardy. Make it serious, dangerous, and critical; have them work together to adapt and overcome - but just barely - make it a near thing to keep the tension and interest high.
Never let the reader get bored; that's a real risk if the characters aren't fully engaged in something. Keep the pace moving,
Best of luck!
 

CMBright

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It seems pacing is going to be at issue; you'll need to accelerate the MC's adaptation abilities (e.g., observation, mimicry, etc.) and personal development.
For that, make something happen; put the MC (or the child - or even better, both) in jeopardy. Make it serious, dangerous, and critical; have them work together to adapt and overcome - but just barely - make it a near thing to keep the tension and interest high.
Never let the reader get bored; that's a real risk if the characters aren't fully engaged in something. Keep the pace moving,
Best of luck!

Jeopardy is how they meet. The child gets lost, MC finds child. But it is trivial for the MC to follow the scent trail the child lost.

Of course, she bolts when she sees the adults farming by the village.

Irony of trying to make boredom interesting at the beginning, then when the protagonist transitions from the safe world to the dangerous world, I have trouble avoiding boring writing.

Thank you. I am starting to see a vague path. Not clear yet, but a bit better.
 

ChaseJxyz

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Reading this reminds me of Splice. Maybe check that film out?

Anyways, she's a GMO. And since she escaped a lab, I presume that the average person isn't aware that something like her exists? She's probably weird or scary looking, right? What is the average person going to think seeing a little kid playing with a monster in the woods? Probably going to shoot her or otherwise kill her, because we can't have weird things out in the woods that are going to eat the local kids.

Maybe some other (older?) kids are bullying the Nice Kid and the MC intervenes, scaring (or lightly injuring) them, which now has the locals on alert for the monster. Or maybe the Nice Kid is telling everyone about their friend in the woods and is drawing pictures of them together. One of those pictures is hung up in the local day care....and one of the parents works at the lab and recognizes that the "imaginary friend" is that super-secret experiment that has gone missing (or maybe this parent is not high level enough to know that the GMO is missing. Maybe they're just a janitor and have seen it before (like the MC in The Shape of Water) and they put 2 and 2 together).

idk what to do with the plot after that, but hey, there's some conflict and consequences for failure!
 

Chris P

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Whenever I get stuck, I up the stakes. What can happen to your character to make her life go from bad to worse? Make that happen. Bring her step by step toward hopelessness. Then, get her out of it in a way only she can get out of it.

For the stakes, it doesn't have to be "the sun explodes and everyone dies" if she fails. Sometimes, just getting through life Ali's all the stakes a character needs.

And finally, there is nothing mutually exclusive about hero's journey and coming of age. Some of the best journey novels, be they Lord of The Rings, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, On the Road, or Homer's Oddessey, have the protag's journey as a person mirror the physical journey they take through the land, on in the "just getting through life."

So, no direct help on your plot, sorry, but perhaps a way to frame how you might view your story.
 
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CMBright

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Reading this reminds me of Splice. Maybe check that film out?

Anyways, she's a GMO. And since she escaped a lab, I presume that the average person isn't aware that something like her exists? She's probably weird or scary looking, right? What is the average person going to think seeing a little kid playing with a monster in the woods? Probably going to shoot her or otherwise kill her, because we can't have weird things out in the woods that are going to eat the local kids.

Maybe some other (older?) kids are bullying the Nice Kid and the MC intervenes, scaring (or lightly injuring) them, which now has the locals on alert for the monster. Or maybe the Nice Kid is telling everyone about their friend in the woods and is drawing pictures of them together. One of those pictures is hung up in the local day care....and one of the parents works at the lab and recognizes that the "imaginary friend" is that super-secret experiment that has gone missing (or maybe this parent is not high level enough to know that the GMO is missing. Maybe they're just a janitor and have seen it before (like the MC in The Shape of Water) and they put 2 and 2 together).

idk what to do with the plot after that, but hey, there's some conflict and consequences for failure!

Weird little bipedal lab mouse. Between 5-6 inches tall.

The imaginary friend is a good angle, but I am trying to keep this from the MC's POV. She might not know what a dog is, but if she had a run in with a fox, she would avoid anything that looked similar.

Would domestic dogs/cats see her as a mini person are a weird mouse?

There is an ex-employee running around in the background, but she was fired for "stealing research assets" after the escape. The ex-employee was the night shift caretaker, cleaned cages, kept an eye on food and water levels, etc. She is keeping an eye on the main population to keep them safe, but is not tracking any explorers. Not sure at this point if she will make an official appearance.

Secrets are good. MC is not going to willingly make an appearance to any adults. Either kid wanders again and MC has to interact because she feels protective or MC becomes sick and Child takes MC to the village Vet.
 

CMBright

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Whenever I get stuck, I up the stakes. What can happen to your character to make her life go from bad to worse? Make that happen. Bring her step by step toward hopelessness. Then, get her out of it in a way only she can get out of it.

For the stakes, it doesn't have to be "the sun explodes and everyone dies" if she fails. Sometimes, just getting through life Ali's all the stakes a character needs.

And finally, there is nothing mutually exclusive about hero's journey and coming of age. Some of the best journey novels, be they Lord of The Rings, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, On the Road, or Homer's Oddessey, have the protag's journey as a person mirror the physical journey they take through the land, on in the "just getting through life."

So, no direct help on your plot, sorry, but perhaps a way to frame how you might view your story.

Thanks for the thoughts. I can see glimpses of her journey. Still murky, but its getting clearer.
 

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Yep. Basically, when I get stuck, I drop my character in the shit and watch her desperately try to claw her way out. It's not always a part of the plot that stays in the final version, but it helps me get to know her: what's her worst nightmare, and what are her strengths to allow her to beat it.
 

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Whenever I get stuck, I usually try to introduce a new element to the story. Or... I delete and rewrite it, taking it to a different direction where I'll have more material to work with.
 

CathleenT

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The above solutions are good--dropping a character into the thick of it can really show you what they're made of. For an even more character-driven approach, maybe you could try writing some backstory for you MC, to nail down their "core wound" if they have one, or something similar. Perhaps that would help guide you. : )
 
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CMBright

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The above solutions are good--dropping a character into the thick of it can really show you what they're made of. For an even more character-driven approach, maybe you could try writing some backstory for you MC, to nail down their "core wound" if they have one, or something similar. Perhaps that would help guide you. : )

Thank you. I am taking notes from everyone, I promise.

Few (if any) core wounds, other than an accidental fall into an aquarium leading to a fear of water. She is small enough it would be like a desert dweller falling into a whale tank at an aquarium.
 

CathleenT

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Then there's this to consider: why this protagonist? A core wound is something that writers use a LOT to develop empathy with a character. Practically everyone wants something they can't have, even if it was a pony when they were eleven. If you pass this up, you're disregarding a powerful weapon in your arsenal. Unique world building is great. But it's not going to take you anywhere without a compelling MC, IMO.
 

CMBright

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Then there's this to consider: why this protagonist? A core wound is something that writers use a LOT to develop empathy with a character. Practically everyone wants something they can't have, even if it was a pony when they were eleven. If you pass this up, you're disregarding a powerful weapon in your arsenal. Unique world building is great. But it's not going to take you anywhere without a compelling MC, IMO.

She doesn't realize she wants family and freedom until it slaps her in the face that she doesn't have either because she doesn't have freedom. Unless that is a core wound that she is not aware she has?
 
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CathleenT

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Yeah, a frustrated longing for family and freedom can definitely be a core wound--if you write your story that way. : )
 

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I think your story and premise is intriguing. I remember loving Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH as a kid. Different kind of story (no human character ally), but there was a similar concept behind it--rodents that were very intelligent who had escaped their lab.

Is recapture a threat for this being? It seems like her creators would be desperately trying to find her, especially if she was one of a kind. And of course the escape (or even the creation) of a GMO animal that was of similar intelligence to a human child would be a secret they might not want discovered by the public. If laboratory employees, or even federal agents (if it's a classified project) combing the area in search of our protagonist, this could be a constant threat. Finding a way to permanently avoid return to the lab is certainly high enough stakes for this story.

Now if something bad is happening to the human girl, and she's got a secret fear or wound of her own, that might be an extra basis for empathy between them. Working out how to get to that happy, safe, ending for both of them is certainly high enough stakes, imo.

Or hmmm, learning that there is another being like her still prisoner at the lab?

I'll shut up about stakes now. It's your story :)

People were talking about psychic wounds and so on. It seems as if her innate mistrust of (adult) humans would stem from some kind of psychological trauma imposed on her by the scientists when she was still in the lab. Even if they did their best to be kind, it's no fun being experimented on without one's consent (at least for a fully sapient being who understands consent and agency at some level), and even if the experiments they did weren't painful, they might have been scary, frustrating, or demeaning in some way. Say she had to solve puzzles or run mazes to be fed, or was put in situations that felt dangerous, even if they were actually safe.

Many scientists do get attached to research subjects, and there are laws about how research animals can be treated. Few scientists are deliberately cruel or indifferent to suffering (though I've known a few who managed to convince themselves that their subjects had no consciousness at all, which is a troubling way to deal with cognitive dissonance). But even the kindest of them an also be blind to what another being is truly experiencing (or rationalize that any discomfort or pain is for their own good), much as parents can with their kids.

Perhaps her affinity for the human child would be based partially on this experience. Human children tend to be frustrated by their lack of autonomy and agency, at least sometimes, and (depending on where the story takes place) it can be legal for caregivers to use harsh punishments "for the kid's own good" etc. Adults can be scary and unfathomable, and for many kids, unpredictable. Of course kids gain more freedom and autonomy as they mature, but it's normal for kids with even the most loving parents to be angry, scared, or hurt at times.
 
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CMBright

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I think your story and premise is intriguing. I remember loving Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH as a kid. Different kind of story (no human character ally), but there was a similar concept behind it--rodents that were very intelligent who had escaped their lab.
There is an element of a nod to that, loved it.
Is recapture a threat for this being? It seems like her creators would be desperately trying to find her, especially if she was one of a kind. And of course the escape (or even the creation) of a GMO animal that was of similar intelligence to a human child would be a secret they might not want discovered by the public. If laboratory employees, or even federal agents (if it's a classified project) combing the area in search of our protagonist, this could be a constant threat. Finding a way to permanently avoid return to the lab is certainly high enough stakes for this story.
Yes and maybe. She is not unique, but the group who escape are captured at roughly the quarter mark. But it is by the lab employees who were beginning to think that the subjects just might be smarter than the head and other scientists think.

One potential climax is the head sends out trackers who figure out the connection between one who helped them and where she spent a significant period of her childhood. While trespassing on the property (private, owned by either a trust or collectively by the residents), the trackers abduct the child.
My amoral little protagonist figures out a way to cut their throats to rescue the child. She was not raised with any morality or ethics and does not see it as a problem after all.
Now if something bad is happening to the human girl, and she's got a secret fear or wound of her own, that might be an extra basis for empathy between them. Working out how to get to that happy, safe, ending for both of them is certainly high enough stakes, imo.
Girl gets lost, mouse rescues her, ends up bonding with her. Curiosity combined with maternal instinct.
But does the girl have a core wound? Does it reflect the MC? Very young but strong sense of obligation and responsibility. Mouse saved her, she needs to help the mouse? Something else?
Or hmmm, learning that there is another being like her still prisoner at the lab?

I'll shut up about stakes now. It's your story :)

People were talking about psychic wounds and so on. It seems as if her innate mistrust of (adult) humans would stem from some kind of psychological trauma imposed on her by the scientists when she was still in the lab. Even if they did their best to be kind, it's no fun being experimented on without one's consent (at least for a fully sapient being who understands consent and agency at some level), and even if the experiments they did weren't painful, they might have been scary, frustrating, or demeaning in some way. Say she had to solve puzzles or run mazes to be fed, or was put in situations that felt dangerous, even if they were actually safe.

And of course if some of the procedures were physically uncomfortable, or painful, or if punishment was used for wrong responses, that could be even worse.

Perhaps her affinity for the human child would be based partially on this experience. Human children tend to be frustrated by their lack of autonomy and agency, at least sometimes, and (depending on where the story takes place) it can be legal for them to use harsh punishments "for the kid's own good" etc. Of course kids gain more freedom and autonomy as they mature, but it's normal for kids with even the most loving parents to be angry or hurt at times.

Sapience is not intentional. Original GMO pushed them a bit closer, functional analogues such as a biped would react different than a quadruped. Brain size is smaller, but anatomically the same, the skull is a hybrid of human skull traits like a high dome and mouse traits such as the long mouth/nose with whiskers.

Selective breeding has pushed them further toward sapient. Not intentional, but when the scientist breeds for human analogue responses, he accidentally breeds for more human attributes.

The worst is a minor electric shock through the floor of the test to mold the behavior.

Otherwise, the biggest negative in her life before the inciting incident is, well, nothing. What is the point of running on a mouse wheel, it doesn't go anywhere and she is smart enough and aware enough to know that.
 

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AFAIK, all living beings experience the drive to survive, first as an individual and second as a species. Social species experience the need for others of their kind. Those are the bare basics.

It'll really depend on your character's balance between mouse instinct and human forward thinking. Her inciting incident could be something as small as getting attached to an article of environmental enrichment in her cage and then having it removed. Frex, a mouse would notice that its toy or wheel was gone, and this would have a negative ethical impact on the animal, but the mouse wouldn't refuse to eat, pine away, and die of melancholy (although you may notice aberrant changes such as excessive barbering or porphyrin staining). On the other hand, if you take away a toddler's blankie or teddy that is their only toy or source of entertainment or imaginary friend (or if you take away the average white American man's arsenal of guns), the shrieking and wailing could probably be heard on Mars.
 

Kat M

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She doesn't realize she wants family and freedom until it slaps her in the face that she doesn't have either because she doesn't have freedom. Unless that is a core wound that she is not aware she has?
Maybe look into attachment research? I'm not talking whatever it was that led to children being subjected to traumatic "attachment therapy," but research into the effect of early parent-child bonding on infant psychological development and its repercussions later in life. Being raised in an institutional environment could be a core wound which leads to a number of coping mechanisms and survival skills. It's your story, of course, but that's what jumped out to me when I read it. You could even parallel the child if the child is being raised in an emotionally neglectful home. Or not. Your story. Good luck! :)
 

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