Thursday, August 04, 2011

All By Myself: Why Protagonists Need Friends

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It can be lonely being a protagonist. You go about your day with all kinds of terrible things happening to you, and there's not always someone to talk to about it. But protags need friends and confidants. And not just because it's lonely.

It's difficult to write a character who has no one to talk to.

Solitary protag stories are hard to write. The protag is in their head all the time, internalizing, talking to themselves. Some of this is great (you really get to know a protag that way), but too much and your reader can wind up telling your protag to zip it and get on with things.

Sidekicks and secondary characters are there to help keep your protag out of their head. They're perfect for getting information across to your reader in logical and natural ways. They provide ways to look at the other side of an issue, to help guide your protag to a revelation they need to make. They can be the balance your protag needs. Or the bad influence.

Interaction with other characters -- no matter how minor -- also helps dramatize scenes that would otherwise be told.
Bob stopped at the gas station as asked the attendant what was with all the army trucks. He said with the army, it had to be something. 
 Bor-ing. Do you get any sense that this matters? Any tension? It's a missed opportunity.
Bob got out of the car and swiped his credit card at the pump. A convoy of army trucks rumbled by, stirring up dust. The gas station attendant just shook his head as they passed.

"Been like that all day," he said. "One right after the other."

Bob stuck the nozzle in the tank. "Something going on?"

"It's the army. Something's always going on with them." 
Better, right? A small scene, but there's a sense that something is happening, trouble is brewing. Later, Bob might see another small detail and start putting things together.

If you have a scene that feels heavy and bogged down with too much internalization or description (or even a summarized or told section like the example), look for ways you can add a person for your protag to interact with. It doesn't even have to be a person. Animals work fine, too, or even talking out loud to themselves. (Though be careful with this, as you don't want them to look like a idiot and it can start to feel fake after a while). Even minor exchanges can add depth and flavor and allow you to show, not tell. It's a win/win.

By our natures, we like to watch how other people interact. And stories are just a bunch of people interacting.


  1. I love interactions. Other people make great sounding boards when puzzling something out or be a backsplash for conflicting emotions. So hard when there's no one to talk to. Other people have a tendency sometimes to make somebody think about something in particular, even when they want to avoid that topic. More drama->more interesting.

  2. On another note, I just nominated you for the Sugar Doll Award on my blog for posts like this. They have really helped me with my writing. Thanks for passing along what you've learned.

  3. Aw, thanks! You are most welcome.

  4. This is so true! Writing characters by themselves is just exhausting. Give me dialogue any day!

  5. Me too. With first person it's a little easier to deal with a solo protag, but with third it's really tough.

  6. I love dialog, and I rely on it often in my own writing! It's far more interesting for me, the writer, to watch these two talk, so why wouldn't it be for the reader?

  7. Great post, Janice. I am having problems with my protagonist at the moment because he internalises everything. It's great for the subtext, but not so great for sharing information! Maybe he needs a better friend.

  8. Good advice - and you have to be careful or those secondary characters will want to take over the scene--or demand their own book.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  9. I am one of those AWFUL readers that gets a little bored if there isn't enough external dialogue going on. So you hit the nail on the head for me. :)

  10. I always learn something from your blog :) Thanks for sharing this stuff!

  11. Wow. Yesterday, one of my classmates mentioned that her advisor said something similar to her about her secondary characters. Then today I read your post. This is definitely a sign that I need to beef up my main characters interactions with others.

  12. In one of my novels, the hero had literally no one to talk to during a section of the novel. I solved the problem by letting him have imagined conversations with his dead best friend. I also placed these conversations at various locations which offered insight into the hero's adventurous past.

    Another possibility is a basketball with a face drawn on it like in the Tom Hank's movie, CAST AWAY.

  13. Great post, and your vivid examples showed your point so clearly.
    Donna V.

  14. So true about the Cast Away comment. Before seeing the film I can remember thinking, how can you make a film where the the main character is on his own for the majority of the film, but Wilson works brilliantly.
    Having recently stayed with friends who have a golden retriever I can vouch for how much the family talked to Alfie (me included). Also, depending on the circumstances, a character might admit more to a canine friend than they would a human one, who might remind them in the future of what they said.

  15. Great post, Janice.

    I was wondering if you know of any resources that list all of the secondary character types that are/can be used (i.e. foil, comic relief, etc)?

    I've been trying to find a resource for this but without any success.


  16. Thanks all!

    Jen, even random people can help add some interaction. Folks might some something or engage your protag in a small exchange that make him internalize.

    Terry, that happened to me with the first book I ever wrote. I must have added 50K words fleshing out secondary characters subplots.

    Gene, you might try tv tropes for that. They're pretty good at nailing about every trope and cliche out there.

  17. This is SO TRUE.

    I had a chapter opening where one of my protagonists was captured by people who didn't speak his language, and GOOD LORD, it took forever to write. Not a single line of meaningful dialog for 3000 words.

    It was an important couple of scenes, and the isolation and frustration of the protag really helped to set up the tone for the chapter. But JEEZ, I got so sick of description and internalization.

    So I got my protags together ASAP. And they're going to learn some language offpage, 'cause I ain't doing that again.

  18. ooo that would be tough. You could also have him talk to them, even though they can't understand him.

  19. That's a great point! I always end up liking the secondary characters better than the protag, though, because they're often the logical ones who talk stupid protagonist around to a solution.