Letting your protagonist protag

A critique partner gave me this advice as part of her feedback on the Magestone manuscript: let your protagonist protag. She in turn had got it from someone else. Through much of the first half to two-thirds of the story I’d had other people feeding my protagonist information, and making suggestions to her for actions she should take, etc. She might have made the final decisions, but she wasn’t the one coming up with the ideas or being proactive about her situation, most of the time, except when backed into a corner.

I fixed this in my next draft of Magestone (at least, I hope I did!) so she was the driver of her story, not the passenger. It ended up not being especially difficult – for the most part all the plot items and action could remain the same, I just had to change the dialogue in a few spots so she was the one putting forth the idea. It’s amazing how much of an effect simply changing a few words here and there can have, and not just regarding your protagonist’s assertiveness; also for character motivations or personalities.

I’ve been thinking of this as I write my current WIP, the NaNo project I’ve given the working title of Resident 619. Whenever I come up at a decision point I’ve been trying to make sure it’s the protagonist taking charge of the direction of her story. The trouble is, that means the supporting character often takes the role of questioning her actions/decisions… and this is a little counter to his nature. I just realized what’s going on, but I’ve left it for the time being, to be addressed during revisions. Instead of worrying about whether my protagonist is sufficiently assertive, now I’ll have to focus on keeping my secondary characters true to their natures, and not let them get pushed around by the protagonist’s story.

Writing fiction’s not as easy as it seems – as new fiction writers are quick to discover, a lot of thought and effort and balancing went into that book you’re reading to give it the right amount of tension and pacing and well-developed characters and strong plot. I learn something new about the craft with each story I write. My major realizations from each work:

Novel 1: Not everyone in the world is nice and helpful, even if you are. People will be cruel, or get in the way.

Novel 2: Make the conflict personal to the major players; few people are truly altruistic and the stakes are higher when it means something to the character.

Novel 3: Let your protagonist protag; make her take the oars so she’s not just swept along by the current.

Novel 4: But don’t forget that supporting cast are people, too; they’ll have their own idea on where to row that boat.

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