Before readers launch into a literary journey and spend hours and hours reading a story, they must be charmed or fascinated by the protagonist. It helps if the character is funny or feisty. Everyone likes feisty. Feisty faces the world with chin up and eyes blazing. Readers can't wait to see what that character gets up to and they believe whatever she faces, she'll be up to the task.
It's tougher to start a story with a protagonist who's downhearted and pessimistic. In her excellent book The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults, Cheryl Klein likens the experience to listening to a negative person at a party who goes on and on about their bad luck and how it never changes. Who wants to spend time with that person? She says negative, defeated characters are unappealing. If you start a story with a protagonist who's downhearted, it's vitally important to show they're resilience and assertiveness. Immediately! And humor counts double in this story.
So, guess who starts every book with a dispirited, passive person?
Yep, that would be me. My muse NEVER imagines characters who wake up on the right side of the bed with a sword drawn to vanquish their enemies. In my critique group The Skyway Writers, my critique partners know I always want their eyes searching for the passages where my character lacks assertiveness. They help me see when she's reacting instead of acting, passive instead of active, finding problems instead of solutions and embracing defeat instead of believing in victory.
I think most writers tend to pen protagonists with personalities that echo their own. If you're not a witty and daring optimist, that doesn't mean you can't create appealing characters. You just have to dig deeper, find the parts of you that believe in miracles and have the courage to overcome the most dreadful events. Write the character you hope to become!
Who's Leading Your Story?
It took many years and hours upon hours of writing and learning to earn a place among The Skyway Writers, the group I share stories with. They're one of the most valuable things in my life, right up there with reliable transportation and groceries. I've met many people who struggle to find compatible writing partners, so one of the things I thought I'd do with my blog this year is share some of the wisdom I glean from my group.
This month, the Skyway Writers talked about the need for an active protagonist. It's a subject vitally important to me because I'm an introvert. If I'm not paying attention, I'll start every story with a passive, reactive character. I still remember the moment when I took a synopsis class years ago and the teacher pointed out my character wasn't DOING anything assertive to reach her goal.
Oh. You mean, they have to pick up the sword and yell charge?
Your protagonist has to drive the story, even if it's a quiet, emotional tale with very little action, and even if they make a wreck of their lives and everyone else's, they have to drive the train. From the onset when they make the decision that sets the story in motion, each decision and action must propel them to the climax and resolution.
That's so much easier said than done for someone like me. I try not to let it interfere with writing a first draft but I pay attention to it in every revision and ask my critique partners to keep an eye out for places where my character's not asserting herself. If you don't have a writing partner, don't despair. You can teach yourself to beware of weak protagonists.
When you revise, take notes in every scene. Is your main character making decisions that drive the plot or is she merely responding to other characters' decisions and actions? Is she following someone else's lead? If so, it's not a bad idea to look at the leader and ask if maybe it's their story you should be writing. Try a chapter in their point of view. Or go back to chapter one, wind your protagonist up, then buckle on that sword and charge!
I write middle grade and young adult books with a magical twist. I'm represented by the fabulous Leslie Zampetti of Dunham Lit.
Lorin Oberweger - Freelance Editor