The park was deserted—all mine. Perfect. My plan: run laps of the trail for four miles, and come home with plot developments for my work in progress. I took in the beauty of the setting and slipped into creative mode as my legs fell into the rhythm of running, ready for free-wheeling improvisation. Then, up the stream bank came a mother duck followed by a swarm of fluffy brown-and-yellow ducklings. It was a tough climb for their little legs, and I wondered if they would all make it up the steep slope. On my next lap, I checked. None seemed to have been left behind. At first, I couldn’t count the babies, they were so numerous, active and close together. When I finally could see them clearly, I counted eleven.
She herded them to hide behind her as well as possible when I neared and quacked them into order when they strayed too far. I wondered if she felt overwhelmed by the responsibility. Could she count to eleven? Could she tell them apart? After I’d passed a few times, she began to warn me off, making a soft hissing sound. The next time, she hissed and waddled toward me. The next time, she lowered her head and charged, eyes narrowed, hissing for all she was worth. I honored her efforts with a burst of speed, letting her think she had scared me. I don’t know if there is such a thing as courage in ducks, but she struck me as brave, a small animal going after an adult human.
A couple with an off-leash dog arrived on the far side of the park. I jogged across and let them know about the ducks, in case their dog might be tempted to chase. They said he took no interest in things like that. I went back to the trail. No ducks in sight, not even in the stream. How she had swept all eleven into hiding so quickly, I don’t know. It was an impressive exit. Unlike the dog, I took an interest. Distracted from brainstorming my work in progress, I got wrapped up in the drama of the ducks, feeling as if I somehow knew what it was like to have too many ducklings and to strive to defend them.
Pardon me while I anthropomorphize. The mother duck has some excellent characteristics for a sympathetic protagonist. In spite of being better equipped for flight than fight, she chooses not to fly from danger, though that would be her own best defense. Instead, she tries to fight. Protectiveness in relation to weaker beings is a trait that makes readers care about a character. Flaws, in the right dose, also help readers identify with a protagonist and feel compassion for her. The brave mother duck is imperfect. Waddling at me while throwing a hissy fit, she’s a comical yet touching inconvenience. Her success in driving me off the path gives her moments of illusory triumph, but in reality she’s the underdog—underduck sounds funny—and she’s chasing a red herring, unable to realize I’m no threat to her fuzzy eleven. Against hawks and cats, the real enemies, she’s far less likely to succeed. The odds are stacked against her and her ducklings, hypervigilant though she is, but she because she’s a gifted escape artist, she stands a chance. Readers root for the character who might—but might not—make it.
On my next run in the same park, I found that nature had taken its toll. She’s down to nine ducklings now. The loss of two makes her story stronger. She charged me with even more ferocity, straight away without allowing me a few laps before she attacked. The struggles in pursuit of a meaningful goal, the setbacks, and the sense that the protagonist is reaching her limits and still not quitting: all of this keeps the reader emotionally involved and turning the pages. I have to close this “book” since I leave Virginia for New Mexico tomorrow, and I won’t see the next chapter, but I’m rooting for the nine remaining baby ducks to survive, and for their hard-working mother to eventually see them fly. And I’ll keep her in mind as write this summer, checking that I have all my ducks in a row for establishing an engaging protagonist.