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Uncle Chris’s Writing Tips #2: The Protagonist Drives The Story, Dammit!

The demon leered at the boy. ‘Go through the door on the left, and you save your sweetheart, but your best friend dies. Go through the door on the right, and… well, you get it, right?’

The boy looked from one door to the other. ‘What if I just do nothing? What happens then?’

An expression of confusion crossed the demon’s face. ‘Er,’ he said. ‘No-one’s ever asked that before, actually. Well, you could just hang about, I suppose. But God knows what we’re gonna do with the other 300 pages in this book…’

This is one of those big, important rules that tricks beginner writers out time and time again. One that’s so obvious that it’s actually really easy to forget. The story is supposed to be about your hero. And heroes make choices.

Here’s the thing: what we’re interested in when we read a story is the decisions the characters make. If a boy’s father is cut down by invading marauders, we want to know if they’re going to pick up a sword and go the suicidal revenge route or escape and live to fight another day. Maybe they’ll sweep that tragedy under the rug, or maybe they’ll mercilessly hunt those marauders down ten years later. Maybe they’ll forgive themselves for being unable to defend daddy and get over their tragedy, or maybe they’ll nurse it and turn bitter. All those choices tell us who the character is. Witnessing a character’s actions is so much more important and effective that having the author tell us who they are and what they’re like (either directly or, God forbid, through the conversations of admiring sidekicks).

Nobody ever did anything by lying around like a spilled porridge slick. And if your hero is not really doing anything, then why tell a story about them? Why not tell the story about one of the peripheral characters instead?

Seems obvious, yes? But it’s actually something you have to keep your eye on, especially if you’re writing a fantasy or SF story. The writer can get so caught up in building an awesome world that they forget that the reader is primarily interested in the characters. It’s not enough to simply introduce an amazing new location or bizarre new monster every three chapters in the hope that it will sustain the reader’s interest for ever. The flashy stuff is cool and all, but what your readers really want to know is: is your hero gonna go and get revenge for his father’s death, or isn’t he?

The passive protagonist is basically the source of my annoyance in the last post. The hero who makes no choices is a boring one. There’s no personal stake in doing what your destiny dictates. And stakes are the other thing that makes a hero’s tale worth reading. Choices mean nothing if there’s no sacrifice involved.

Take the opening scene of this post. A classic Sophie’s Choice type of thing: you must choose between your lover and best friend, and whoever you don’t choose dies. Straightforward enough. But any power that lies in the scene comes from the groundwork the author has done beforehand. Hopefully, if they’re any good, they’ve made us love the sweetheart and admire the best friend as much as the hero does, and we don’t want to lose either. Just like he doesn’t. So now we’re biting our nails trying to work out how the hell he’s gonna get out of this predicament because he just can’t condemn one of them to death… can he?

Ah. That’s the choice. Is he clever enough to get out of it? Ruthless enough to choose one over the other? Noble enough to sacrifice his own life for theirs? That’s what we’re interested in. And it’s far more interesting than having the hero bust out a sword and go toe-to-toe with the demon, no matter how fiery and badass he may be.

So, a point to keep in mind. Who is your hero? If he/she isn’t making choices, why are they the hero at all? If he/she risks nothing by them, why do we care? The protagonist(s) are the engine of the story. Whether you’re writing fantasy, SF, crime or kitchen-sink drama, it’s the characters we care about, and the rest is just window-dressing.

Make sure the reader knows the stakes. We need to see how much the hero has to lose by their choices. Make sure the hero has choices to make. And make sure they’re hard. It’s their choices that move the story along, not the other way around. They should never be at the mercy of the plot: they make the plot.

Actions speak louder than words. It’s an oldie, but a goodie.

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