My first protagonist’s origin story

In case you weren’t aware, about a year ago I started writing a novel. It’s bound to be a tragedy. In the end, my protagonist will die a lonely death. Readers will know this upfront; the opening scene is his terminal cancer diagnosis.

There’s a lot more to it, of course, and I’ve read Story Genius by Lisa Cron to help me think through the “third rail” of my novel, the essence of the story, the reason why it matters. My initial draft had two-dimensional characters, driven by plot, without the depth that would really make this story shine. I’m now trying to fix that.

A critical exercise that Lisa Cron requires is to write up an origin story that sets up the a core belief held by the protagonist. This is his third rail, the core code that he lives by and gets tested throughout the story.

For several months before his seventh birthday, getting new Air Jordans was all Ben could think about. 

Chester, his best friend, had a pair. Chester’s parents would drop them off at the local mall, where Ben and Chester would sprint up the escalator steps, dodging by irate elderly couples, to Footlocker. Ben could smell the inside of those shoes from three storefronts away. 

They would arrive at the entrance to the store shoulder to shoulder, and walk slowly to the Air Jordan display as if they were in line for communion. Ben held the red and black shoe, embraced it, flipped it upside down and stared at the sole, mesmerized by the design of the concentric circles and shooting star. It was like looking into another world. 

The price was other-worldly too. At $135, he knew it was more than his parents could afford. His mom was a photographer, his dad a writer, and they met at an anti-war protest. Neither of his parents came from money or cared much about it. Although the Bay Area was getting more expensive to live in the 1980s and 90s, his parents rented small apartment in San Rafael, a small city in Marin County, and could get by.

“We’ll see what we can do about those shoes, Ben,” his mom told him when he asked again after returning from Footlocker. “I know you want them.”

A little twinkle in her eye told Ben she was keeping a secret. His insides burst with happiness and anticipation. He was sure his parents were going to find a way to get his Air Jordans for his birthday.

As the day drew closer, he kept looking to his mom for a sign. She would give him none. He pressed his dad, who knew nothing of sports and only knew the name Michael Jordan because it was plastered all over the sports pages in the newspapers he wrote for. But he probably never read the articles. His dad simply shrugged. Clearly he had no understanding of what the shoes meant to Ben. 

Ben kept his hopes, sure that his parents would find a way. He’d never asked for anything else, not like this, and he was clear to his parents that the shoes were all he wanted. No party, no money, not even a cake. He just wanted the shoes. 

On the morning of his birthday, Ben woke up early in anticipation. He could hear his parents in the kitchen talking in hushed tones. He smelled the coffee. Quickly Ben pulled on his Nike shorts and a tank top. He stuffed his favorite pair socks in his pocket, hoping he’d be wearing his own pair of Air Jordans in just a few minutes. 

When he opened the door to his room and stepped into the hallway his parents stopped talking. A knot formed in his throat. The air felt thick. He walked into the kitchen and the look on his parents’ faces told him what he’d already sensed was true. There would be no Air Jordans today.

“I’m so sorry, Ben,” his mom said, tears welling in her eyes. 

“Your mom lost her job yesterday, son,” his dad said. “We were going to surprise you with those Nikes you wanted, but right now, we just can’t.”

Ben turned and ran back to his room before his parents could see him cry. He threw the socks against the wall. They bounced hard off a Michael Jordan poster, causing it to rip and hang at an angle. Ben buried his face into his pillow. 

“When I grow up,” Ben thought to himself. “I will never lose my job. I’ll never be poor. I’ll always have control, and that will make me happy.”

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