Today’s post is written by Melanie Faith.
A little over a year ago, I was expanding a short story I liked into a novel. The ideas were popping, and I was nine chapters in, having a blast meeting my characters and setting them against each other, page after page.
I had a setting that was a camp for adults, which was financially on wobbly ground; a wise-cracking airport-run driver for the camp; a kayaking instructor (more on him later); and a business inspector on her way to the camp to deliver some horrible news she didn’t want to deliver. My plot was in motion, and I alternated points of view in every other chapter.
Problem was, I also had a protagonist who was a working professional in finance vacationing at the camp by the lake, and I kind of found her annoying on a regular basis.
Well, not kind of, unless nails across a chalkboard are just sort of grating.
It was a full-throttle cringe I couldn’t shake every time I reread her scenes. The dialogue and internal monologues I wrote for her demonstrated how entitled and privileged she was. Sure, she was also sad and debating her future, but she didn’t feel substantial or authentic enough for me to care.
If I, the writer, didn’t like my protagonist, why should readers?
My novel stalled at chapter 10. Not surprisingly, it was a chapter in which my whiny protagonist was due to speak, and it’s where the manuscript resides to this day.
What happened, and what can we do when we find that a main character whose actions are driving so much of the plot is really, really unlikeable—so unlikeable, even we don’t want to hang out with them anymore?
A friend’s Instagram account included this unattributed quote today that caught my eye: “Your desire to change must be greater than your desire to stay the same.” Yes, I thought, that’s exactly one of the biggest things that went wrong with my protagonist. She had no desire to change her actions.
She thought a lot about what went wrong with her relationship-in-progress. She rested a lot by the lake and went into town to have some lunch and flirted some with a counselor, but mostly she read text messages from her doctor boyfriend and lamented to herself how tired and confused about her career and her romantic future she was. She did a lot of endless thinking about how much she still needed rest and didn’t want to go back to her regularly scheduled life. [Yawn.]
My protagonist needed bigger obstacles to confront and more confrontation through actions in general.
Characters must realize (if not at first, then soon) that life is not happening to them; they must become self-directed and at least begin pursuing change, even if complete change is not possible overnight or in one or two short chapters.
Protagonists must be active. My protagonist was on the sloth side when it came to digging into her life issues and pushing back against what she didn’t like by creating her own purpose. Her few actions were half-hearted and didn’t add up to a change in her as a person, in her situation, or (for that matter) in the plot.
Even when I dangled the attractive kayaking instructor in front of her like a carrot, the chapters from the kayak instructor’s point of view were way more authentic and included much better conflict, tension, pacing, and action.
What did the kayaker have that my protagonist didn’t? His familial life had fallen apart, and he was a part-time dad who was doing something to reconstruct a new normal in his life. He was dynamic amid picking up his life’s pieces.
Readers don’t mind if characters don’t have their lives all figured out—my kayaking instructor certainly didn’t. Readers respond positively to people who try and fail and try again in the plot, compared to those who just think about their options. What do readers find especially off-putting? Characters like my protagonist who half-heartedly ponder a change and wholeheartedly poor-me in their thoughts, and withdraw from most other characters in stasis.
So, how can we fix flimsy or flaky characters like mine? Revise with an eye to these three qualities of compelling protagonists:
- Make sure your protagonist has more at stake than self-image. There needs to be something big to struggle against that affects not just their own life but the lives of others, both near and sometimes far. Endless self-reflection from characters is the equivalent of talking about oneself for twenty-five minutes to strangers at a party. No, thanks. Next.
- Give your protagonist deep flaws that are authentic to the human condition. Perfect or privileged characters are turn-offs for readers. [Read 3 Signs Your Story’s Characters Are Too Perfect for more on this.]
- Make your protagonist not only realize their flaws and disappointments but take action to confront their flaws and work for positive change. They shouldn’t just hang around and around, thinking and debating if they should.
When I return to the novel draft, as likely will happen this summer, I’ll approach my protagonist to re-envision her and make her more authentic with these guidelines at the forefront of my editing process.
From your own writing experience, what tips can you share about crafting strong protagonists?