Some story ideas come to us through a character, so we know exactly who the story belongs to. It’s that person with a problem and we start our novels with that in mind. Other ideas are more conceptual or based on an situation, and we have the entire problem figured out before we know the best person to dump that problem on.
In these novels, it’s not uncommon for us to lose sight of whose story is it—or not decide that at all before we start writing it. We’re more interested in the premise than the people that premise affects.
For a first draft this isn’t a big deal, as we’re still figuring out the details. It might take a draft to explore the idea before we can figure out whose story it really is, and once we do, we can revise with that character (or characters if there’s more than one) as the protagonist. But before we get to the serious revising, we’d better know whose story we’re writing.
The Problems With Not Knowing Whose Story it is
We don’t know how to plot it: Character choices drive plots, and plots drive the novel. The entire point of a novel is to resolve a problem posed at the beginning. If we don’t know who the story belongs to, it’s harder to know who has the most to gain and/or lose from that problem, so the plot ends up wandering all over with no one character driving it forward. A rambling plot = a boring plot.
(Here’s more on how to tell if you have a premise novel and how to fix it)
We don’t know how to end it: Solving the core conflict is the end of a novel, but if we don’t know who has the problem, it’s much harder to know what that resolution looks like. Many novels that stall in the middle suffer from this problem—a cool premise got it there, but the middle is where stakes escalate and get more personal, and if there is no person behind the story to take it to the end, it sputters and dies. Since no specific character is at the center of the story, the “one thing that has to happen or else” gets lost.
Readers won’t know who to root for: The more plot-focused the story the less this applies, as multiple point of view thrillers or epic fantasies often have one loose “hero” and a lot of people affecting the outcome of the story. But for most novels, readers want to know whose story they’re reading so they can root for them, care about them, and join them on their journey. If the story doesn’t belong to anyone, or belongs to everyone, it can feel detached and a little impersonal.
There are novels that are more about exploring an idea than a person with a problem, and these typically revolve around a fascinating concept or theme. The characters are all there to help explore this concept and show various views or aspects of it. Answering the “big question” is what matters, not seeing a person solve a problem. But even with these stories, there’s usually someone asking the big question to get the ball rolling.
Most of the time, the story belongs to someone, and that someone is at the center of everything.
(Here’s more on creating a great protagonist)
If you have a story that’s floundering and you’re not sure why, ask yourself whose story it is. If you can’t answer that, odds are that’s what’s holding you back. Figure out who this tale belongs to and you’ll start seeing a path out of the muck. Start by asking:
1. Who do you think about first when you think about this story?
Gut reaction, first character who pops to mind. Is this their story? Are they at the center of it all? If not, then should they be? How would you do that?
2. Who can’t the story live without?
Look at your characters and one at a time, start imagining the story without them there. What would change? What wouldn’t happen? If the “most important” person can be cut and nothing changes, that’s a huge red flag it’s not their story. What would you change so they had to be there or the novel falls apart?
3. Who is most changed by undergoing this experience?
In most novels, the person who experiences the story is changed by it (the character arc). If your novel isn’t a heavy plot-focused book or part of a long series (which often have protagonists who don’t change), somebody important in the story is going to be affected by what happens in it. If there’s no change, that could indicate nothing the character(s) does matters in the story, and if it doesn’t matter, why should people read it? How might you make the events and choices matter and bring about a character change?
(Here’s more on character arcs and inner conflict)
4. Who do you want readers to identity with?
Odds are you have a character you want readers to love as much as you do. You want them to put themselves in their shoes and feel all the emotion that you did when you wrote the novel. Anyone you want readers to identify with strongly is probably the person the story belongs to. If you don’t have anyone, that’s a red flag that there’s no center in your story yet, and you’re exploring an idea instead of solving a problem. You might need to revisit your core conflict and see who is most affected by it.
(Here’s more on the core conflict)
5. Who do you want readers to care about?
If the story has multiple main characters, it might be about a group solving a problem, and you want readers to care about the whole team. Identifying who that team is can help you figure out who the leader is.
Stories are about people solving problems. Not knowing who a story belongs to can make it harder to write that story, or the novel winds up more exploration of premise than actual tale. Figuring out whose story it is can help you ground your novel and find its center.
Do you know who your current story belongs to?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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