Monday, April 22, 2019

Two Reasons Why Your Protagonist Isn't Driving Your Plot

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The protagonist is the driving force behind the plot, but sometimes he or she feels just along for the ride. Here's an updated look at why your protagonist might not be driving your plot. 

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 make everything is serving that story.

A good place to start is with the protagonist. Is (s)he driving the story or is (s)he just along for the ride?

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.

The Protagonist Is Thinking Too Much

A thinking-too-much protagonist needs a boot to the butt to get moving. This type of protagonist can slow the pace and stall the story and make it feel as though nothing is happening in the plot. Odds are you worked hard to make it clear what your protagonist needed to do and why, you just skimped on her actually doing 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 the action. While it’s good to show the reasons behind the protagonist's choices, over-explaining why it matters and the long haul to get there often creeps into a first draft because we’re not sure what action we want our protagonist to take. We brainstorm by letting the character go over it all in her head, and it never makes it to the page.

To fix:
Look for the reasons why your protagonist is thinking those thoughts. Perhaps put her in a scene where getting out of a jam depends on what she's done in the past, allowing you to keep the action moving and still show those deep thoughts. You can also give her a friend (or even an enemy) to talk to and make the conversation part of a larger and more active scene. If all else fails--start cutting a few lines of internalization at a time and see if it improves the scene.

(Here's more on Internal Medicine: How Much Internalization is Too Much?)

The Protagonist Is Thinking Too Little

A thinking-too-little protagonist is one who’s there to act out plot, but has no feelings about what he's 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, 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, readers 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 readers' head. They feel lost, ungrounded, and flat out just don’t get it.

To fix: Make sure your protagonist is having some thoughts about he's doing. Let him weigh the pros and cons, and make a choice that feels logical to him, and keeps the reader interested. Get in the sense that the protagonist is acting on his own feelings and needs, driving the story forward toward a personal goal.

Stakes are mentioned: You might have shown 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 his head and show how and why whatever he's doing matters. Convey the cost of failure so readers understand what's at stake 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 dialogue might go by where he barely says a word or has a thought. There’s nothing in the scene to show how he feels about what’s being said, so you could effectively yank him from the scene and readers wouldn’t even notice he was 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. He's not just an observer, he has an opinion on what’s going on, ideas of what to do, and thoughts that might even go against what other characters are saying. Make sure he's acting to accomplish a goal instead of watching it come to fruition.

(Here's more on The Trouble With Reactive Protagonists)

Your protagonist might not be in the driver’s seat of your story in a first draft, but by the final draft, (s)he need both hands tight on the wheel. Make sure (s)he's both advancing the plot, and advancing the character so readers always know whose story it is and why that story matters.

Do your first-draft protagonists start out in the driver's seat or do they need tweaking after the draft is done?  

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Great advice. I tend to be the too little thoughts person and then the character is under developed. Great fixes. And I sometimes need put the main character in the scene more when others are talking. Thanks for sharing the tips.

  2. Great post, and timely too. Some of this will definitely help me get through a slump on my current WIP.

  3. The advice always seems to be shorter = faster, and it's taken me a long time to see that for something to feel fast-paced, there needs to be internalization/thoughts. Your checklist of ways-to-fix is great -- thanks!

  4. Janice: I wish more than you can know that I'll get a handle on this problem one day. Everything you said here I've heard in various forms the last eight years and am no closer to achieving that for my stories, which is why my plots look nonexistent and boring, and only leads to disastrous misconceptions I don't intend. Period.

    I may think I'm showing action but instead it reads like boring sappy that I only I care about, and this neither feels helpful or hopeful to me, as much as anyone else.

    I can't help that I relate to feelings more than constant frenetic movement, no matter how I try to come at stories and the queries that MUST go with them in new and fresh ways, I'm always either to vague or detailed.

    I also feel like the biggest hypocrite on Earth. I say on my blog that I'm not a quitter, and I DO slave over one story after another, doing my best to stay positive, but it just seems after a few weeks after a torturous meltdown, without fail, I'll relapse.

    I HATE how immature I know this can look, and how bad I handle this, but if I didn't care at all, I'd be no better than the real egocentric entitlement freaks who no one would want to be around.

    But rejection hurts, regardless if it being unavoidable if you want to get published, and I do, but it especially hurts when you feel like you're the only one who feels your hard work has value.

    I know I can write. I know can revise, even though I wish it didn't ALWAYS take me years to revise everything, but my bad query letters are really getting in the way.

    I know some people have suggested I go the self-pub route and get noticed that way, but aside from lack of money, (I can't even afford ONE writer's conference a year, not counting extra for hotel and plane fees,) and that I'm not a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to marketing and promotion.

    I just don't think the e-book market is a viable option and and of itself, and feedback I hear about this is conflicting.

    Some say e-books ONLY benefit romance novels, which I read but don't write, or the flip-side that more children's and YA fiction is finding an audience with tech savvy tween and teens, but since YA is not my native strength, I doubt e-books will help me get noticed, and again, my limited funds only reach so far.

    I used to think my stories were more lighthearted, not solely due to the subject matter, but because the conflicts in my fiction are not like ones in your trilogy.

    Your trilogy involves the moral ambiguities of war, something I'm WAY too chicken to touch, but it doesn't mean NOTHING happens in my stories, and I know you've never said that, but they're just not the moral dilemmas in the vein of what you and others among your complementaries overall.

    I hope my blog post yesterday shows the earnest genuine feelings I felt and am still feeling the emotional aftershocks from my meltdown yesterday.

    Until the start of March, I barely wrote any non-blog material let alone the "Next book" that many assure will be WAY better than the last one I tried to get an agent with.

    Well, if the query letters I write continue to remain boring and falsely accused of being plot-less, this does me no favors, because no one will ever see the actual book assuming it will be as messed up or worse than my query than I honestly isn't so.

    I'm still on the mend so I might not update today like I wanted, had a horrible night and couldn't sleep, mostly due to my writing hitting yet another detour I neither want or need, at least from current state of mind, anyways. I can't seem to curb yet.

  5. Great post, as usual. Lately I've started writing a scene to explain what I'm GOING to do, and then (duh) realize I should just show it in real time, as you said. The reader can see how the plan will unfold as the characters dialogue or as the MC internalizes while IN the scene. Works well!

  6. Natalie: Most welcome. I tend to do the "taking about what they plan to do" type scenes in first drafts.

    Jamie: Fantastic! Good luck with that.

    Megan: I've found that the internalization really helps keep the reader grounded in fast-paced scenes. You don't have to do a lot, but if you hear from the protag then it's easier to stick with what's going on and follow along.

    Carol: That's me :) I delete more planning scenes during second drafts than anything else.

  7. Oh wow. Love the specific examples, especially in laying out the stakes. At one point I did think about transcendentalist novels as a possible exception to this, but you know what, I can't think of one that I can stand at all, so I'm just going to drop that thought.

  8. I think all novels have stakes. They might not be the same type or the same level of stake-ness (is that even a word?) but something has to be pushing the protag to act.

  9. This post is just what I needed as I work on novel revisions. I'm a writer who tends to let the MC be dragged through the story by the events without showing what they are thinking or feeling. Thanks for the great tips!

  10. Excellent article. Thanks for sharing. Had that same problem with a character a few years ago and almost tossed the entire book. In rewrite stage now and glad I decided to rework my main character.

  11. Linda: I'm glad to hear you got it worked out :)

  12. I tend to write the action and then have to go back and fill in the details. Then every once in a while, I find that I write entirely internal scenes that could be better shown as action. When I go back to revise, I find myself filling in thoughts to the actions and actions to the thoughts. Talk about a swinging pendulum!

    Thanks for summarizing the differences so concisely and offering fix ideas. I love that posts like these help ke see clearly what I'm trying to accomplish instinctually!

  13. Michelle: Most welcome. One thing I've realized by doing this blog, is that it's made me pay a LOT more attention to what I do and why as I write. I'm always looking for things to blog about. It's not a bad way to study your own process, actually.

    I actually write in layers like you talk about. First drafts are mostly action and dialog, then I layer in internal thought, then check motivations and goals, add description, etc. Lots of back and forth :)

  14. Great post!

    My main character was definitely in-her-head a lot and needed a bit more pro-activity.

    Editing in those layers.

    1. Yay! Glad the right bit of advice found you when you needed it.