Wednesday, May 10

What to Do if You Think You Have the Wrong Protagonist

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The wrong protagonist is a serious issue for a first draft, but one that does happen from time to time. We get an idea, we write it, and it turns out that the person we thought was at the center of everything really isn’t.

This can be disheartening, but it's not the end of the world or the end of the novel. Go ahead and vent to your writer buddies about your frustration, then roll up your sleeves and get to work fixing the problem.

To find the right protagonist for your novel, ask yourself:

Who Has the Conflict in This Story?


Look at the core conflict of your novel and identify any characters severely affected by that problem. If the goal of the novel is to resolve this problem, the protagonist will be the one trying to do so. List all the characters affected.

To fix the existing protagonist: Look for ways to make the core conflict problem apply to the protagonist. How is this problem going to make her life worse?

Who Has the Ability to Act?


Some problems affect everyone even if they can’t do anything about them. Cross off any characters who can’t affect the problem. Look next at characters who are in a position to do something about it. Maybe they have access, or skills, or know the right people to help solve the problems.

To fix the existing protagonist:
Look for ways to make the protagonist able to affect a change.

(Here's more on the difference between a main character and a protagonist)

Who Has Reasons to Act?


Being able to act is only the first step. A good protagonist also has reasons to act to resolve that core conflict. Cross off anyone who doesn’t have a personal reason to solve the problem.

To fix the existing protagonist: Look for ways to add a personal motivation to the protagonist.

Who Has Something to Lose?


If there’s nothing to lose, there’s nothing to gain, and a lack of stakes is a common problem with weak protagonists. First, make sure failing to resolve the problem has consequences, then, cross off anyone who won’t lose something important if they fail.

To fix the existing protagonist: Look for ways to give the protagonist personal stakes and serious consequences if she fails to resolve the problem.

(Here are five essential questions to ask when writing your protagonist)

Who Has Something to Gain?


Winning isn’t winning if there’s no reward (at least in stories). A good protagonist gains something valuable by resolving the novel’s problem. Often, it’s connected to the character arc and will allow her to be happy. Get rid of any potential protagonists who don’t have anything to gain by winning.

To fix the existing protagonist:
Look for ways the protagonist will benefit from solving the problem, especially if it also fits into her character arc (if the protagonist has no character arc, that could be why the character isn’t working).

Who Has Capacity to Change?


In most stories, the protagonist goes through the experiences in the novel and is changed for the better (the character arc). Cut any characters from the list who are the same people at the end of the story as they are at the beginning.

To fix the existing protagonist: Look for ways to cause a change in the protagonist. The problems overcome should have a long-lasting effect (you might need to do the character arc exercises for this character).

(Here's more on knowing whose story it is)

Who Has a Compelling Quality?


Protagonists have something about them that makes readers want to read about them. It could be a skill, a power, an attitude, or even a way of thinking. Cross off any character without that “something special” about them.

To fix the existing protagonist: Look for ways to make the protagonist more compelling. Add a trait or characteristic to make her more interesting.

Who Has an Interesting Flaw?


Flaws provide areas for growth, so perfect characters can leave the room. A good protagonist needs a flaw to make her human, and give her something to work on to better herself.

To fix the existing protagonist:
Look for ways to give the protagonist flaws that connect to her character arc and the problem at hand.

Who Has Someone or Something Interesting in the Way?


The protagonist is only as good as the antagonist in her way. Look at the remaining potential protagonists and get rid of everyone who doesn’t have someone or something trying to stop them.

To fix the existing protagonist:
Look for ways to give the protagonist a worthy foe to overcome.

Which Character is Your Real Protagonist?


Look at the list of remaining characters. Hopefully it’s a small list (if not, go through these questions again and be more specific and personal about the answers as they pertain to your core conflict). Pick the best candidate to drive your story and put him or her back in as the protagonist.

To fix the existing protagonist: Is your protagonist now the right person for the story? If so, revise overall to fix the problem areas revealed in the questions. If not, and you’re sure this is indeed the right person, then the issue might not be the protagonist but the core conflict or premise of the novel.

Using the wrong protagonist doesn't mean your novel is ruined. It just means you needed to go down a different road to find the right path to your story. 

Have you ever written a story with the wrong protagonist?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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, Blue 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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6 comments:

  1. A good list. I think much of it comes down to having something to lose (and gain, but Loss Looms Larger) and how loss and gain can change them over time-- which overlaps with them having a flaw (that the changes can feed or teach them to overcome). Then, if that person has the ability to act (and hopefully a proper obstacle for it), they're ready for the spotlight.

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  2. You know, I never had this problem. In fact, I never realized this was a problem. But your steps really make it clear how to fix the issue if you have it. I think the steps could also be used to help focus your novel before you begin writing (if you're a character-sketcher or outliner, anyway). Thanks for the valuable information.

    I'm including this link in the Story Empire Curated Content list this Friday. Our readers will find this quite useful.

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    1. Thanks, I hope they do.

      Many writers will never have this issue. I've only had it once, but I've met enough writers who struggled with this that it *can* be a problem.

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  3. I have a WIP that I am struggling with this. It is a YA fantasy but I have a mentor character that has subtle spiritual tones. I want to write her story as a subplot but she is much more exciting to me than the YA protagonist. The world am writing about is the legend of the Tuatha Dé Danann and the possibility that they could manipulate matter at the molecular level. Her story would appeal to a more adult audience than just YA. I don't know where to go with this.

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    1. You could have two books. Maybe the adult story that follows the mentor, and the YA story that follows the protagonist (if these two stores are different enough).

      Or the story you actually want to tell is the mentor's and not the YA. Does this mentor have all the right conflicts, goals, and stakes needed to be a compelling story of its own?

      Or you might also be excited about the backstory of the mentor character, and while it's a great history, it might not make a great book.

      As for a subplot, if the story adds to the protagonist's story, and strengthens something in that story arc, it might make a good subplot. But if it's just "cool history" that doesn't move the core conflict plot, it's probably not needed.

      You'd have to decide if the mentor has a story or just a cool backstory :) That can be tough, so perhaps go back to your core conflict and the book you want to write and see whose story it really is.

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