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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.

18 Comments

  1. Joseph Evans says:

    Do you read a lot of unpublished manuscripts, Chris? I’m guessing this kind of thing happens a lot but luckily the publishing industry filter most of them out before they find their way onto the shelves.

  2. Yes, I do get to read some. It happens much more in unpublished stuff and fanfics, but it’s by no means exclusive to them. This may be just a personal taste thing, but I’ve read quite a few authors, and some of them quite popular (therefore I shan’t name them in case they hit me), who fall into the trap to some degree. I imagine I have at times, though hopefully less now than when I was a kiddie. But I read whole books stuffed with wonder and imagination, and all the way through I’m asking myself why I should care? Like, what are the real personal stakes for this character to plough through this quest?

    I’m reading one at the moment which is otherwise very good, but I still can’t come up with a really good reason why the protagonist is suffering all kinds of horrors except that He’s Supposed To Otherwise There’s No Book. There’s no sense of personal failure if he doesn’t do what he’s doing. No stakes. It doesn’t stop it being a good book, but I get the sense that it could be a really good book if I’d been made to understand how important it is that the hero succeed.

    Bleh, maybe I’m being hypercritical. This is why I don’t write book reviews. I’m so damn jaded 🙁

  3. Naomi says:

    Have to agree with you there Chris.
    I’m still dragging myself through the Thomas Covenant series by my fingernails and had to read Lord Jim for uni, and I have to admit the central characters are infuriating in their inaction and then turning round asking, “Why is it always me that gets picked on?” Fair enough that stuff happens to them otherwise there is no story, but sometimes readers do need a bit of motivation as to why they should like them, or at least care. Especially if writers want us to continue reading their work, as I’ve often found myself wondering, “Why did I even bother reading that book as it had no plot/character development/total lack of anything?” So yeah, all-in-all books need that something to keep readers interested in the dramatis personae, otherwise they get flung into dark, dusty corners and are never spoken of again.

  4. Or into my capacious Imaginary Fireplace Of Doom 😉

  5. Joseph Evans says:

    I’d love to know what the book is that you’re reading at the moment 🙂 I find this stuff really interesting because I’m at the completion of my debut novel and I’ve been thinking hard for nearly two years about plot structure and character motivation and I hope that I’ve managed to avoid the big pitfalls.

    I have to say I’ve read most of your books and I’ve never felt as though the protagonists didn’t drive the story. I found that I didn’t care as much for the characters of Malice as I did for the characters in your other books, though this may have been down to the simplified writing style. The target audience for Malice was probably your youngest, is that right?

    I really felt Orna’s pain in The Fade, and I was rooting for her the whole way through, and you’re probably fed up of hearing about Broken Sky but it was masterful. There were so many characters and all of them were fascinating to me. When the incident with Kia occurred in Part 6 I was almost heartbroken. When you can get your teenage readers to feel this kind of emotion for your fictional characters you know you’ve done something right.

  6. Kath says:

    T_T

    That does remind me a bit (or a “tad”, bwahaha) of Williams’s The Dragonbone Chair.

    The four novels were kind of good and enjoyable enough but they had one big flaw – the most boring and infuriating main character of all time.
    I remember wishing that he’d die in the middle of book one and that the real main character would come along and take his place. Something like a huge “Tricked youuu!” for the readers, you know. There were so many interesting sidekicks and supporting characters and Seoman paled in comparison. But it was the “idiot plot”. He was immune to any attacks.
    No matter what happened, no matter how deadly the situation, he survived – while others who were more experienced than him died. At one point I was so frustrated because my favourite character had died on the battlefield and that was mentioned in a small sentence somewhere and described through the eyes of Seoman who hardly knew the man so it was even more detached. (I’d have told that bit through the eyes of the dead guy’s best friend because, damn, that would have been heartbreaking.)
    Sometimes “being the Chosen One” is just an excuse for the main character to be there and come along. In The Dragonbone Chair 1-4 Seoman hadn’t even that excuse.

    This is probably also why I loved RetFalls so much.
    The characters were good and loveable. I wanted to know their stories – even the cat’s. And Frey made choices. Bad ones and good ones so it never got boring. 😉

  7. Summer says:

    Awesome post! Your writing advice is really helpful-and I need all the help I can get. 😉

  8. Raihor says:

    Another great piece of advice here! These posts are fun to read, and are always so true.

    I do hate it when there is a protagonist who is only there because he/she has to be. I’m a sucker for a horde of well-developed characters! Like Maliris, I loved Retribution Falls so much for this very reason.

  9. Great tip. I can think of more than a few books I’ve read that would have been awesome except for the fact that I’ve found the protagonist is annoying or boring. I’ve often wished that various books had been written about one of the secondary characters – I’ve often found the less heroic friends or (possibly) treacherous companions are more compelling. Thinking back on it, a lot of the reason probably is to do with the point of your post – the problem of there being a lack of interesting choices for the main character.

    If the protagonist doesn’t ever seem to do anything, or if you just don’t care about the outcome of their seemingly inevitable actions, it’s hard to get that sucked into the story.

  10. Aditya Wadhwani says:

    Hey Chris,

    I’m an independent scriptwriter from India. Couldn’t manage to find any info regarding your agent so I figured this was as good a place as any to contact you. Just finished reading Malice and loved it. I’m interested in adapting it to a screenplay. Any thoughts on that? I’d love to get a dialogue going.

    Cheers,

    Aditya Wadhwani

  11. Here’s my blog too. Post on malice in the works!

  12. Review of malice is up.

  13. Tara says:

    The Dante Valentine series is a lot like this. I picked it up because I really liked the devil and magic dynamic that they use, but the title character is possibly the most infuriating woman I have ever had the misfortune of reading.

    Every single bad event in the book is her fault. I don’t mean that she made a tough decision and had to face the consequences – that would be far too understandable. No, she just constantly and repeatedly makes ridiculously stupid decisions that even a child would see were wrong and then angsts about the problems it causes.

    She has a super-powerful demon protector who gave up Hell itself for her? She leaves him. Her friend is in serious might-get-picked-off-at-any-moment trouble? She angsts and gets a massage. The Devil is prepared to tear the very flesh off her bones? She goes to him.

    However, the supporting cast is far superior, and it is them who keep me coming back (even if the author decided to kill off my favourite one).

  14. @ Joseph – Yeah, you’re right. Malice was aimed slightly younger than any of my previous books, and the writing and characterisation are a bit more straightforward and simpler as a result.

    @ Kath – You might enjoy China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun, which has a main character who’s pretty and perfect and is known as the Chosen One, until about a quarter of the way through the book when she drops out of the story entirely and it turns out it was her less-than-perfect mate that was the hero all along 😉

    Noble and morally perfect protagonists annoy the hell out of me. You’re supposed to like them ’cause they always do what’s ‘right’ (or at least right from the point of view of white middle-class folk from a Christian culture) but you’re also supposed to continue loving them when their infallible rightness gets loads of undeserving people killed…

    @ Aditya – Cheers for the review! As to the screenplay, the movie rights to Malice have been sold and there’s already a screenwriter working on it, I’m afraid.

    @ Tara – Hmm. I may avoid that series, then. That kind of stuff makes me gnash my teeth. Like you say, how are you supposed to like a hero who you think is an utter idiot?

  15. Den says:

    Great post, really enjoyed it.

    Are you going to write more of these for 2010?

  16. Lucy says:

    Wow.

    I’m a new writer (about to go and do a uni course in September) and I must admit that I’ve found this post incedibly useful. I wasn’t looking for answers or anything like that but it’s helped me.

    I’m writing a graphic novel at the moment and well this post has really helped me decide something, that I suppose is very important to the story. It revolves around a decision the protagonist has to make and I was really toying with whether I should do that or not.

    Finally I’ve made up my mind, it’d odd how you can read something and then you just know what should happen. 🙂

    Thanks!

  17. Ayslia says:

    Twilight Series.
    Enough said.
    Seriously though, the main character never makes a choice except whether she’ll fall for Jacob or Edward. But don’t get me started on the aforementioned series- I’ll never stop.

  18. JL says:

    @Ayslia
    Completely agree with you there! The only reason I stuck around and read all of the books was to find out if she was gunna die or not. Sadly, she doesn’t…

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