By Marissa Graff
We love our protagonists. We spend a ridiculous amount of time, blood, sweat, and tears championing their stories. But what if they’re undermining us by behaving in ways that drive readers away? What if they’re not-so-secretly sabotaging us despite all our efforts to advocate for them? Let’s discuss four ways your protagonist is working against you and, more importantly, how you can fight back.
1. They’ve got a case of “chatty narrator syndrome”
Whether a book is in first-person point-of-view or third, narrators who talk at the reader beyond what is needed threaten to wreck your reader’s experience. With every word the character says to the reader, they’re stopping the flow of an active scene. They’re stealing work from your reader. They’re doing the analysis or overly controlling what your reader thinks or feels. They’re hovering like a helicopter parent and not allowing the reader the freedom to engage with the scenes and draw their own conclusions. And oftentimes, they’re pointing out the obvious and giving us way too much information.
Solution: Scrutinize each and every line of narration/interiority. Is what your character/narrator says to the reader something the reader can see through action and dialogue instead? Is it crucial information your reader needs for the scene to make sense? Is the line revealing something the character is hiding from other characters and something we might otherwise not know? If the line is needed, is it done as briefly as possible? When you look at any given scene, are these stops done sparingly so as to not hit the “scene brakes” too frequently?
2. They’ve booked a tour and your secondary characters are their guide
The protagonist is allowing other characters to show them around new settings–new towns, new planets, new schools, and so on. Your beloved character is along for the ride instead of driving the action. They go into the scene with no identifiable goal and follow the path that the other character(s) set before them. Don’t get me wrong. Mentor characters are a great way to world build and orient your character (and reader) with new settings and experiences. But be careful not to let these “tour” scenes effectively stop the plot. All “tour sites” need a purpose, whether it’s to glimpse a place your character will need to utilize later. Or to introduce a plot point that deepens the way the character understands the conflict or other characters or themselves. Or perhaps the new setting contains some sort of purpose. A need or a want the character is pursuing.
Solution: If another character is mentoring or guiding your protagonist, particularly in the first half of your story, craft tour stops that yield plot development or emotional development. Maybe a stop gives rise to a flashback we need to see, or introduces a character we need to meet, or hints at a location that will be relevant later. But as much as possible, find ways to let your protagonist hand-craft their tour. Where do they want to go and more importantly why? How does that setting or new character represent a need the protagonist has? Do they hold information or an object your character needs to keep working on their novel-length goal? Do they face an obstacle on that stop, one that has them pushing through and earning a win? Or one that thwarts them and forces them to reconfigure their plan? Be sure your protagonist is planning their own tour as much as possible.
3. They’re too good of a listener
One of the common concerns I see in client manuscripts is crafting the protagonist’s lines of dialogue in a way that allows other characters to teach them and pass along exposition. The lines are of the tell-me-more variety or even the wow-that’s-cool variety. These types of hollow lines allow the other characters to fill them in with how the world works, its history, and more. We may think this counts as an active scene because this exposition is hiding inside lines of dialogue, but it’s not. The reader can see this information dumping for what it is.
Solution: In any given scene, read your protagonist’s lines out loud and test them for conveying intent. Do their lines reflect a specific need they have? Their scene goal? Do the lines evoke an emotion beyond curiosity? Are their lines hiding how they really feel or what they think? Are the things they ask necessary to formulate a plan for their next action? If you’re feeling extra brave, have someone else read your dialogue to you. Nothing reveals weak dialogue like having to hear it yourself.
4. They’re swimming in a pool of self-pity
Your protagonist tells us how bad they have it. How messed up their situation is. They make sure we know all that they lack or they point out how someone else has it better. They are a victim and they know it. But research shows readers are turned off by self-pity. If the character is all-too-aware that they are a victim, the reader doesn’t want to identify with the character. They don’t want to see themselves in that self-pitying state. They don’t want to identify with them, which reduces the efficacy of the reading experience and the potential for emotional growth in the reader.
Solution: Allow the reader to see the protagonist’s situation for what it is or for who they are. Show their situation honestly through action and dialogue (scenes), but don’t let the narrator/protagonist point to pity. Instead, let their reactions to their circumstances hint at how they feel, how their situation is leading to a lack of what they need, and giving rise to reader empathy.
Comb through your work-in-progress and see if your protagonist might be guilty of these four efforts that undermine your efforts. Consider how you might revise in ways that have you regaining control of your story and the way your reader experiences it.
Can you think of other primary ways a protagonist might sabotage a story? Chime in!
Resident Writing Coach
Marissa has been a freelance editor and reader for literary agent Sarah Davies at Greenhouse Literary Agency for over five years. In conjunction with Angelella Editorial, she offers developmental editing, author coaching, and more. Marissa feels if she’s done her job well, a client should probably never need her help again because she’s given them a crash-course MFA via deep editorial support and/or coaching.
Michael Warner says
Hi Marissa. Great article! It contains a lot that I can apply directly to my WIP. Question, though: How do you distinguish the pool of self-pity in point 4 from the dark night of the soul that many characters must go through?
Marissa Graff says
Thanks so much for your kind feedback! This is a really good question and the answer is somewhat complicated and nuanced. A lot of what makes a character seem self-pitying is in the way they view themselves and their circumstances. So for example, if they’re signaling that they’re a victim of something or someone, i.e. blaming, that’s oftentimes the thing that tips the balance into the self-pity zone. If after all your characters trials and efforts, they reach the dark-night-of-the-soul (DNOTS) moment and signal their own culpability and/or responsibility, this can often be the white hot center that avoids self-pity. It’s important that we’ve seen them striving the whole length of the novel, otherwise the DNOTS will have a skeptical reader thinking, “But you barely tried anything.” Another element can be how long we let the character linger in DNOTS. If it goes on…and on…and on, readers can start to view the character as wallowing in self-pity. If you think of a character who can call their situation for what it is, acknowledge their inability to (momentarily) reach their ultimate goal, and then move into the aha that sets them up to enter the climax having put their misbelief to bed, then you will likely avoid self-pity. One thing I recommend to my clients is to have beta readers and critique partners read and evaluate that line between self-pity and earning reader empathy. Hope all of this helps! Sincere thanks 🙂
Mindy Alyse Weiss says
Thanks for this helpful post, Marissa! I was guilty of having my protagonist too full of self pity early in my writing career, and wish I had this post to guide me back then.
This post can help so many writers!
Marissa Graff says
Oh boy, aren’t we all guilty of this? I still struggle with it in early drafts. It can be the kind of thing that’s hard to judge, and so often it’s about our ability to trust the reader to empathize with our characters based on what we show. Thankfully, there’s always revision! I’m so grateful for your thoughts!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Great observations here, Marissa – I never thought to look at it this way, and how holding back can cause big story problems. Our characters always have to have agency, follow through on expectations, and we as writers need to be careful we don’t write them so cagey that they hold back to the point they drag things out and damage our scenes.
Marissa Graff says
Hey Angela, I think you’re absolutely right. In client manuscripts, I oftentimes see this issue. Characters stall out and we don’t get them out into their worlds, *doing* stuff. Even if they’re simply choosing to resist change or knowingly ignore things in the first quarter, we still want to show them as in control of how they react to their world. A sincere thanks for having me on!
Ritu Anand says
If a protagonist makes a promise and does not fulfill it through the course of the plot, it could lead to trust issues.
Marissa J Graff says
So true, Ritu! When we expect the character to work on the story problem and they don’t, it chips away at our trust immensely. It can be hard to give our characters agency and force them to act, but I agree with you that it’s a must to keep our bond with readers. Thanks for your thoughts!