For today’s Writing Wednesday I’m going to talk about choosing a protagonist. Why? Because I screwed this up big time with my novel and chose the wrong one. This is causing me many headaches and the need to study up so I can rewrite with the correct protagonist. It’s going to be a pain in my butt. So much so, I’m still trying to figure out ways to keep my current protagonist. First draft was finished in January, so yeah, I’m avoiding it.
Here’s the key I’ve discovered. A protagonist needs an antagonist. And not just a bad guy in the story. This bad guy needs to be so bad it forces your protagonist to do something, to make a change, to strive to reach some goal. This creates a character arc, and it’s pretty much a necessity for a good story, especially a novel length one.
Your protagonist needs to butt heads with your antagonist in a pretty direct manner. And your protagonist needs to beat the bad guy in some way. That can be literally a beating or killing of the bad guy, or it can be more figurative like standing up to an overpowering boss type thing. But? What about if your bad guy is society or hate or something existential? It can be done, not by me, but it can be done. Kristen Lamb explains how, plus a bit more about the antagonist, in her post Introducing the Big Bad Troublemaker. (By the way, if you’re not reading her blog, you’re missing out.)
The protagonist also needs to have some stakes in the game. There needs to be a reason they choose to go up against the antagonist. If there’s no reason for the conflict, it just doesn’t work.
In my novel I have the antagonist, Charles, who is an abusive husband and an adoptive father. My original protagonist, Susan, is the birth mother. They could clash. He definitely doesn’t want her to reunite with her son. Here’s the thing though, since my story takes place when the adoptive son is a young adult, there’s really no reason for Susan and Charles to interact directly. Son doesn’t live at home, Charles has disowned him, so for Susan and Charles to have any conflict, I really had to contrive scenarios that seem unrealistic. Also, I found myself using Charles’ wife, Emily, often as a third party way for Susan and Charles to interact. It wasn’t until I wrote the climax that I realized Emily needed to be my protagonist. She had something to lose in all of this. She had someone she wanted to protect. She was in danger and there were stakes for her. Aha! Got it. Too bad I didn’t get it until almost the end of my novel. Learning experience #2456 I got from writing this first novel.
So, how could I have avoided this? Well, a little forethought would have gone a long way. I’m not necessarily advocating massive planning and outlining (I am a plotter not a pantster, but this doesn’t require real planning), but I am saying, think about it. I got carried away by the character that first came to me. She must be my protagonist. Right? Nope. She’s a main character for sure. One of my most important, but she’s not my protagonist because the stakes really aren’t high enough for her. She has no reason to confront my antagonist.
If, once I knew who my antagonist was and knew the story I was trying to tell, I had sat back and thought, who has the most at stake here? Who has something to lose and who has to go through the antagonist to get there? Then I would have known from the start, it’s Emily, not Susan. And I wouldn’t have such a terrible mess to clean up. Learn from my mistakes. Think before you write.
Or you can do what I’m doing, blaming the character. Emily’s mousy. I didn’t think she had it in her. It’s the quiet ones you’ve got to look out for.