Wednesday, March 16
Getting the Most Out of Your Main Character
First drafts are often full of holes and weak characters, which is fine since we don’t always know where a first draft will lead. It’s okay for it to be a mess. But once we know how the story unfolds, it’s time to go back and polish. One place to check the shine is your protagonist. Are they driving the story or are they just along for the ride?
It’s Me. Or Is it?
First draft protagonists can go several ways, but two common miss-directions are too much time spent in their head and too little. Too much is a draft filled with lots of internalization and thinking out every detail, but not a whole lot of actual doing going on. Too little is all plot and not enough thought to know why any of it matters. For a well-rounded story, you want both.
Get Out of My Head
A thinking-too-much protagonist needs a boot to the butt to get them moving. This type of story often feels like nothing is happening and readers are waiting for you to get to a point. Odds are all that first draft work you did had made it pretty clear what your protagonist needs to do and why. Now it’s time to make them do it. Look for scenes where:
There’s a lot of deliberating about what to do
You might be talking about the action your protagonist needs to take, and either showing it afterward (making the story feel repetitious) or skimming through the action itself because it feels like you’ve already written it. You might even find yourself summarizing the action in a “so we did this” or “after we did this” type fashion.
To fix: Take those planning sessions and turn them into active scenes. You know what happens, so either skip the planning altogether (often you can) or trim that planning scene down to the bare minimum and letting the scene play out in real time.
There’s a lot of internalization
Thinking about the past, making witty observations, chatting with the reader – all are ways in which your protagonist might be delaying doing anything. While it’s good to know the reasons behind an action, over-explaining why it matters and the long haul to get there often creeps in when we’re not sure what action we want our protagonist to take. You brainstorm by going over it all in their heads and on the page.
To fix: Look for reasons for your protagonist to be thinking those thoughts. Perhaps put them in a scene where getting out of a jam depends on what they’ve done in the past, allowing you to keep the action moving and still show those deep thoughts. You can also give them a friend (or even an enemy) to talk to and make the conversation part of a larger and more active scene.
Who Are You Again?
A thinking-too-little protagonist is one who’s there to act out plot, but has no feelings about what they’re doing. This usually results in a plot that feels aimless, since nothing matters, and there’s no sense of stakes to carry the story forward. Now that you know what happens, it’s time to dig in and let your protagonist say why it’s important. Look for scenes where:
Choices are made
Choices send the plot in new directions, but without understanding why those choices are made, the reader might be left wondering why they’re following along. Before long, plot events starts to blur and it’s hard to remember what’s happened since none of it carried enough meaning to really sink into the reader’s head. They feel lost, ungrounded, and flat out just don’t get it.
To fix: Make sure your protagonist’s thinking about they’re doing, weighs the pros and cons, and making a choice that feels logical to them, and keeps the reader interested. Get in the sense that the protagonist is acting on their own feelings and needs, driving the story forward toward a personal goal.
Stakes are mentioned
You might say why something is bad, but without context from the protagonist to put it into perspective, readers might not get exactly what “bad” means. Or worse, they might not realize the stakes have escalated at all if the protagonist isn’t concerned or does little to say why this is a bad thing. This leads to flat stories that are easy to put down and never pick back up.
To fix: Make sure the stakes and how those stakes affect the characters is clear. This is personal for your protagonist, so get into their head and show how and why. Get across what bad things will happen so the reader understands and can worry right along with the protagonist.
More people are talking than your protagonist
A protagonist along for the ride often comes across as an observer while other characters talk, plan or even act. Long stretches of dialog go by where they barely say or word or have a thought. There’s nothing there to show how they feel about what’s being said, so you could effectively yank them from the scene and your reader wouldn’t even notice they were gone. This leads to readers wondering whose story it is and why they should bother reading about it if the protagonist isn’t even an important part of it.
To fix: Get your protagonist in there. They’re not just an observer, they have an opinion on what’s going on, ideas of what to do, and thoughts that might even go against what others are saying. They’re affecting change, acting to accomplish a goal instead of watching it come to fruition.
Your protagonist might not be in the driver’s seat of your story in a first draft, but by the final draft, they need both hands tight on the wheel. Make sure they’re both advancing the plot, and advancing their character so the reader always knows whose story it is and why that story matters.