Writing a Novel With a Stuck Main Character
Notes on the Structure of The Kite Runner
by Bill Johnson
One of the character types I come across in novel manuscripts is the 'stuck' main character. Typically, a stuck main character is dragged through a novel by minor characters who act with great determination to accomplish X, which is some clearly defined goal, while the main character is too stuck to act. The main character becomes reactive and reflective, while the minor characters act with power, purpose and feeling -- often anger or a desire for vengeance -- to achieve some goal no matter the obstacles. This makes the minor characters more interesting than a main character who is diffuse.
This review shows how a well-told, popular novel with a stuck main character can be dramatically defined and interesting. The opening line of The Kite Runner, 'I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.' Here, the author, Khaled Hosseini, informs his readers that his main character is stuck. This opening raises the question, can the main character of The Kite Runner become unstuck? Getting to the answer to that question will take the entire novel.
Since this is what this novel is about, this opening line suggests the promise of this story. The author continues, 'I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek.' It will take the author several chapters to get to an answer to the question, what happened in the alley? Why did it have such a powerful impact on the narrator? Readers are being drawn forward to answers.
Continuing, 'Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.' The author is creating story movement by raising question that draw readers forward – transporting readers -- even while the story's main character is emotionally stuck. When an old family character calls in the present, the narrator relates, 'I knew it wasn't just Rahim Khan on the line. It was my past of unatoned sin.' The narrator also relates something that Rahim said during the call, 'There is a way to be good again.'
What this suggests is that there will be a way for the stuck main character to gain his freedom. In a novel with structural problems, this sense of purpose and direction would be lacking. We'd be shown a stuck character, but the character's journey would not be framed as a story question, nor would there be a clear sense of purpose that the character could move to become unstuck. It simply happens at the end of the novel.
These opening two pages also mention 'Hassan the harelipped kite runner.' This suggests but isn't explicit that Hassan has something to do with the narrator's unatoned sin. This one page chapter powerfully sets this story into motion toward the fulfillment of its promise. Chapter Two introduces the narrator, Amir, and Hassan, his servant, as children. The narrator relates how deadly Hassan is with a slingshot, which foreshadows something that happens later. It also comes out that Hassan always, always takes the blame for what the narrator did when some mischief was found out. The narrator also relates how Hassan's mother, Sanaubar, led many men into sin, another issue that plays out in a powerful way later in the story.
Hassan and his father are Hazara, and Shi'a, while the narrator and his father are Sunnis. In America, the status of Hassan and his father would be comparable to being black and Native American in the deep South in the 1920's. Sanaubar disappeared five days after Hassan's birth, for reasons that only come out much later in the novel but which, in hindsight, explain much. The deeper meaning of what happens in the early chapters of The Kite Runner is in the subtext.
The second chapter ends on another suggestive note designed to draw readers forward. 'Hassan and I fed from the same breasts. We took our first steps on the same lawn in the same yard. And, under the same roof, we spoke our first words. Mine was Baba. His was Amir. My name. Looking back on it now, I think the foundation for what happened in the winter of 1975—and all that followed—was already laid in those words.'
To find out what the above means, the reader has to turn the page and keep reading. What the author has done is set out his story promise, story question, plot question before introducing his main characters. The introduction of the characters in the second chapter begins to offer the background of the story's main characters. Struggling writers often begin with this introduction to characters ahead of a dramatic introduction to a story's promise that would give character details and history a context.
In Chapter Three the father, called Baba, is introduced with these words. 'My father was a force of nature, a towering Pashtun specimen with a thick beard, a wayward crop of curly brown hair as unruly as the man himself, hands that looked capable of uprooting a willow tree, and a black glare that would “drop the devil to his knees begging for mercy,” as Rahim Khan used to say. At parties, when all six-foot-five of him thundered into the room, attention shifted to him like sunflowers turning to the sun.' These lines speak to the dramatic truth of this character, that he is powerful and dynamic. The set up here is that Amir will be the opposite of this powerful man, a bookish boy with a weak, fearful personality.
What Amir craves most in life is the recognition and affection from his father that he doubts he will ever know. In story terms, these characters have opposing dramatic truths, powerful father, weak son. And because Amir wants something from his father -- unconditional love -- that his father is unlikely to ever give, readers can share Amir's feelings and pain. As the novel continues, Amir keeps his nose in books and tells Hassan stories. His desire to write is fed by his father's business partner and friend, Rahim Khan, who praises Amir's talent.
While the boys are playing one day they run into a neighborhood tough, Assef, who goes around with brass knuckles. When Assef accuses Amir of treating Hassan like a friend, Amir has the realization that he's never treated Hassan as a friend at all, but that's not going to save him from a beating. While Assef is focused on Amir, Hassan takes out a sling shot and promises to put out Assef's eye if he doesn't back off. Hassan protects Amir, but it's clear that Assef will return.
It soon comes out that a kite tournament will be held in Kabul. In such tournaments, boys maneuver their kites to cut the strings of other kites. Hassan retrieves these cut kites and is considered the best kite runner in Kabul. The winner of this contest is held in high esteem. To Amir's great joy he wins the contest, and he knows for the first time in his life his father will approve of him. Meanwhile, Hassan goes off to retrieve the last kite and is cornered in an alley by Assef. Amir reaches the alley and knows something terrible is going to happen to Hassan, but he is paralyzed by fear. Assef rapes Hassan. Hassan, true to his nature, protects the cowardly Amir from the wrath of his father (who detests cowardice) by not saying anything.
As Amir anticipates, his father is overjoyed by his accomplishment, and for the first time in his life Baba invites Amir into his world. He accepts Amir as his son. But Amir's shame over what happened to Hassan and his role leads him to hide money in Hassan's room and claim that Hassan took the money as a way to send him into exile. To protect Amir, Hassan says he took the money, and he and his father leave the service of Baba, who is crushed.
Shortly afterwards, the Russians invade, and Baba arranges an escape for himself and Amir into Pakistan, then to America. Amir goes to college, but Baba is reduced to working at a gas station and making money by buying used goods and selling them for a better price at a flea market mostly run by Afghanis. Amir has the relationship he wanted with his father, but inwardly he's still crushed by guilt over what happened to Hassan -- he's still stuck emotionally. When Amir is attracted to a disgraced Afghani girl, he marries, but can't tell her his dark secret.
Soon, Baba is terminally ill with cancer and dies. Amir becomes successful as a writer, but he and his wife fail to conceive a child. In the Afghan culture, this is a great loss of face, so once again Amir finds himself stuck around another issue he can't resolve. Then Amir gets the call from Rahim Khan that began the novel, and the words, 'There is a way to be good again.'
Amir goes to Pakistan and discovers that Rahim always knew that Amir put the money in Hassan's room. What Amir doesn't know is that his father was one of the men lured by Sanaubar, and that Hassan was actually Amir's stepbrother. Amir learns that Hassan and his father died during the fighting in Afghanistan, so Amir cannot undo what happened, but Hassan had a son, and Rahim wants Amir to return to the shattered Kabul, rescue the boy, and return him to Pakistan for adoption. Amir is fearful, but he accepts the charge of finding the boy. If he can just save Hassan's son...he will be free of his guilt, i.e., unstuck.
He returns to a Kabul torn apart by factional fighting and now run by the Taliban, young religious fanatics with guns. In a twist of fate, Amir discovers that Hassan's son is being held and used for sex by Assef, now a thug in the employ of the Taliban who lives in Amir's childhood home. Amir meets with Assef, who brings out the brass knuckles and is beating Amir to a bloody pulp when Hassan's son, like his father a master with a sling shot, puts out Assef's eye, allowing Amir and the boy to escape.
Amir, who once had cruel thoughts about Hassan's harelep now must face having his face reconstructed via surgery. And, in what seems to be another cruel twist, Hassan's son cannot be adopted because Amir would need to get paperwork from the Taliban. Still, Amir promises the boy that everything will be okay. But when the boy discovers that he won't be adopted by Amir nor by another couple in Pakistan, he tries to take his life by slitting his wrists.
Once again Amir is stuck; just as he failed Hassan, he has failed Hassan's son. But with some help he's able to take the boy home to America and take him into his family. The boy has been so brutalized, however, he barely speaks and never smiles. Another wounded, stuck character.
Nothing Amir or his wife do bring the boy out of shell, until one day an Afghani-style kite tournament is held in a San Francisco park. When Amir cuts the string of a kite, for the first time a slight smile appears on the boy's lips, and Amir knows that the boy will be all right.
That's the end of the novel. Knowing Hassan's son will be okay, Amir is finally unstuck, free of his guilt. While Hosseini writes a novel about a main character who is emotionally stuck, the underlying story mechanics are all in place, and operate to transport the story's audience.
The Kite Runner is a powerful, haunting novel. This new essay is included in the fourth edition of A Story is a Promise.
Bill Johnson is the author of A Story is a Promise and The Spirit of Storytelling, a writing workbook. He is also the web master of storyispromise.com, a web site that explores principles of storytelling through reviews of popular movies, books and plays. Spirit is now available on Amazon Kindle, http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004V020N0.
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