Bringing Them Home: The Inner Journey of Your Protagonist


Author and creative writing teacher Jesse Falzoi was born in Hamburg and raised in Lübeck, Germany. Back in the nineties, after stays in the USA and France, she moved to Berlin, where she still lives with her three children.

She has translated Donald Barthelme stories into German. Her own stories have appeared in American, Russian, Indian, German, Swiss, Irish, British and Canadian magazines and anthologies. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Sierra Nevada College.

Her new book on Creative Writing is released end of May 2017. 

At the age of twenty-one I quit university and bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco, USA. I wanted to get far away from my first attempts to grow up. I wanted to get away from a frustrating relationship and boring courses and everything that was pushing me to take life more seriously. I didn’t have any plans what I would be doing in San Francisco but I had the address of an acquaintance I had made a year before. I went on a journey that was physical in the beginning and became more and more spiritual during the process. I bought a return ticket in the end and went back to my hometown just to pack my suitcases for good; I’d be staying in Germany, but I wouldn’t be staying home.

My escape to the States made me reconsider what I wanted to do with my life in my home country. My inner and outer journey led me through compelling and appalling moments, it led me to my crisis at a Seven-Eleven in San Louis Obispo when the shop owner said, “Hold on for a sec, please”, and then reached for the scissors next to the cash register to cut my credit card into halves. I stared at him, not able to say anything, and he shrugged and went on: “Believe me, you’ll appreciate it one day.”

The fact that I had only twenty dollars left didn’t leave many options except selling my beloved 70s Cadillac Coupe de Ville which had been more home to me than any other place I was offered to stay. So my climax made me go through negotiations with a Mexican family father who wanted his son to take his new bride home in a nice car and I got enough cash to buy a flight ticket and to have a last boozy evening at my favourite bar before checking in. I came back to my hometown after a year, shaken, disillusioned, older – much older – and ready to find out what to do with my life. I wouldn’t say that I came back grown up but at least I had accepted that I would be eventually.

Readers As Vicarious Tourists

We often find ourselves in situations that force us to reconsider something we took for granted. Situations that we can only handle if we change something in our way of thinking and behaving. Situations that make us grow up. We suddenly realize that we must act no matter if we feel like it or not. But life’s not static and we have to adapt to changes. No matter if we wanted the change (marriage, the birth of a child, the buying of a new house) or not (death of somebody close, loss of work, becoming dependent on care). We have to get used to it and by doing so we grow. By accepting the change in our life we change as well. But it takes a lot of courage to enter such a journey. Not all of us are ready to go it all the way. Some of us need several attempts. Some of us will never dare.

It is profoundly human to go on an inner journey in order to face new situations. It is profoundly human to be afraid of the Unknown.

And it is profoundly human to be interested in anybody who goes on such a journey.

No matter if it’s sung, shown on TV or written on paper, we love stories about people who have to realize that something important in their life is changing. We love to witness how they find a way to cope – and we cry if they don’t. No matter what will be at the end of the journey, a journey it must be to keep us engaged.

What the Reader Wants

A good story follows the journey of its protagonist, but there is no need to send him away. You don’t need to have him leave his home, as I left Germany: a journey can be exclusively inwards.

The reader wants to get to know the protagonist first in his familiar surroundings; he wants to have a picture of the person he sacrifices his precious time for; he needs to know what this person leaves behind. Then, the reader wants to witness the protagonist opening the door and making the first steps into the Wild, into unfamiliar grounds. He wants to see what obstacles come in his way and he is curious to see how the protagonist acts when these obstacles get higher and more hazardous.

At the end of the journey, the reader wants to see if the protagonist has learned something or not.

Two Examples

At the end, Jerry Battle, Chang-rae Lees protagonist of the novel Aloft, has finally grown up. Frank Bascombe, the protagonist of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, hasn’t moved an inch at the end of his story. Both of them have had their katabasis but only one of them came out changed. Only one of them raises the hope that he has found a sense and a place in life. Only one of them has finally come home, whereas the other is drifting even farther away from home – if he ever had one.

In both cases, their journeys are moving and exciting for the reader. It makes us turn the pages because we want to know where the protagonist will be in the end. In stating relatively early what is keeping them from being happy (both of them haven’t coped with the deaths of near family members and protect themselves by keeping remote from any commitment) we wish for them to get involved again. Jerry Battle does; he had to make another sacrifice which broke his – and the reader’s – heart, but has finally touched ground, most probably for the first time in his life. Frank Bascombe, on the other hand, will drift on, further and further apart from everything and everybody and we cry for him because he now seems to be lost forever. (Readers of Independence Day know at least that he isn’t dead.)

The protagonist’s journey is the basis for a compelling, lasting and educational story. Humans are interested in humans moving forward, in humans stepping into unfamiliar surroundings. Perhaps we like to watch others going on a journey because we ourselves sometimes dare not to. Perhaps we first want to see somebody else succeeding – or failing. Perhaps we appreciate our safe but not so satisfying life when we witness some adventurer on the ground in the end. In any case, we learn something from other people’s stories; what happens to them can make us see our own life from another angle. It can make us understand things that concern us. We learn best when we are shown, not when we are told.

The interest in somebody going on a journey and being taught a lesson is ancient. We see it in the Gilgamesh epic, which is four thousand years old. The first stories we listen to as children follow this pattern. It’s something we expect from stories instinctively. In sending a protagonist on a journey, in letting him cope with obstacles, in leading him home – or in the case of Frank Bascombe in estranging him even further – we satisfy a deeply rooted human need.

Writers ask themselves: What exactly would drive my protagonist nuts?

First there may be reluctance, until certain events force the character to face the error of their ways. Events we, the writer, create especially in order to attack this flaw. Every attack aims at our protagonist’s weak point and with every attack the reader hopes that the protagonist will finally understand. In creating the obstacles, the writer constantly asks himself what would make his protagonist reconsider his behaviour.

It may be profoundly human to love stories about protagonists who go on a journey and come back changed. But it may be profoundly human, too, to watch a protagonist who remains blind no matter what happens to him. Why would Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a drama written more than 400 years ago, have such a success even today if we were not fascinated by somebody who doesn’t seem to learn, no matter how clear the lesson?

No matter how we as writers end our books, our task is to send the protagonists on journeys, to make them struggle, to make them face their flaws. And that was what happened to me when I was leaving America: I realized that all the trouble I’d fallen into wasn’t the fault of Germany or America, of people or situations, but it was inside of me. And my transformed self was ready to deal with that now.

Feel inspired? Compose your own story now with Beemgee.


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