How to Know You’ve Picked the Wrong Main Character

When I came up with an idea for a new book, I had the main character (we’ll call her… #1) from my shelved novel as the only protagonist I had ever considered for anything, ever. I was used to #1: familiar with her voice, her foibles, her overall character arc. I also love her, as any author comes to love her characters. So it seemed logical to use #1 (inoperable as her own book was) as the main character of the new book.

I learned a Thing from this. That Thing is that characters are not like actors that you can cut out of one story and plop down into another, expecting them to adapt. They don’t get paid for that. (They don’t get paid at all.) My #1, my little darling, did not work in the new book.

I still love her. We parted on good terms.

But that’s not to say I didn’t try to force #1 to work, out of misguided loyalty, or laziness, or perhaps an inflated view of my own limitations (“I CAN’T COME UP WITH any protagonist but this one!”). I tried for about 1/3 of the way through. I share my experience in hopes it will help other authors.

SYMPTOMS

As I squished #1 into the new book, I experienced a few warning signs that she wasn’t the right girl for the job:

THE CLEAR WINDOW. #1 only ever let the plot happen to her. It was almost as if she was uncomfortable, trying to get used to the new setting, and didn’t want to make decisions. The plot made her part of a group at first, which disguised the issue: there were plenty of other interesting characters to distract me from her, and she observed group dynamics well.

That was the problem, though: she only observed. When circumstances left her on her own, it finally became clear that she had done nothing but watch the other, more interesting characters and had little going on inside to hold our attention by herself. She was more like an empty window, a viewing position, than a character.

THE NAIL IN THE COFFIN. I wrote one chapter from another character, Brid, once she and #1 were separated. It blew my mind (in a very rough, first draft-y sort of explosion). Brid’s strategic mind was alive, effective, bleeding into every sentence and into each sentence’s very style. She was still a window to the action, yes, but the tint of her personality colored how all of it came through. Every sentence, even descriptions of setting, showed her character by what she noticed and how she reacted.

Brid’s chapter came quickly, unlike the steady but slow trudge of word count I’d been experiencing before. This character was alive, and she inescapably highlighted how #1, my protagonist, was not. In a book with chapters from both perspectives, I knew that readers would dread #1’s and look forward to Brid’s.

A protagonist more boring than her support is no good. It was time for drastic change.

DIAGNOSIS AND CURE

So I started at the beginning, free-writing a brand new character (we’ll call her… wait for it… #2). Unlike #1, I developed #2 by considering which moral and ethical dilemmas fit into this new world I had built—and then giving her one of those dilemmas. A theme and a new protagonist were both born. Twinsies!

That free-write, like Brid’s chapter, was alive. This girl had a voice, goals beyond just watching, and a personality that shook things up. Here’s what I learned from her:

FIND/REPLACE DOESN’T WORK. After that free-write, I knew who #2 was. I thought I could rewrite the first chapter to introduce her, then Find and Replace #1’s name with #2’s name and call it done. I was wrong.

From the very first chapter, #2 made decisions I didn’t expect her to make. She didn’t fit neatly into the plot’s directions for her. She was no mere observer; she was an agent, affecting the group around her, causing things to happen in ways that my passive placeholder #1 just hadn’t.

And that meant that I had to rewrite the whole dang thing.

I dithered a little at this realization, but now that I’m nearly done with the rewrite, I can see that it’s so, so worth it. The book is coming alive in #2’s capable hands.

THE SAME PLOT DOESN’T WORK. I was surprised at how little actually survived the rewrite. I use Scrivener for my MS, so I kept the draft with the old MC up in the bottom pane while I wrote the new stuff in the top pane, always on the lookout for an apt description I could copy and paste. But #2 thinks about things differently, which means she notices different things than #1, forces new dialogue, has different attitudes.  A simile or two, some locations and character names, survived. But, like the hand of Midas, a new protagonist’s touch goes further than I had guessed.

THE LOVE INTEREST DOESN’T WORK. I don’t know about you, but I like a good splash of romance subplot in my novels. And a different protagonist needed a different love interest. #2 didn’t click with the old beau at all.

It took me a while to find the new love interest (more dithering was necessary), but I did eventually find him by giving him a completely opposite approach to the book’s dilemma than #2. This means they still don’t click…yet. But their currently very explosive chemistry has potential to become a good solution in time. In their extremes, they each know something the other needs to realize, and they explore my theme quite organically this way.

LESSONS LEARNED

I guess my big takeaway is (duuuuuhhhh) your protagonist really matters. #RookieLessons, right? Changing a protagonist in a story doesn’t just change the name and the voice of the dialogue; that new person will come in like a wrecking ball and change setting descriptions, other characters, and even the entire plot. Sort of like, you know—a real person.

Fellow writers, how about you? How do you know you’ve found the right protagonist? What were some signs that you needed to fire a protagonist?

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