How to Create a Bad Protagonist: My First Mistake

My first shelved novel had some issues (hence: shelved). It was complete, it had been through seven (eight, maybe?) drafts, sentences had been lovingly crafted and tweaked. My beta readers all agreed that “once you got into it,” it was a good read.

I wrote about how to know you have the wrong protagonist in my last post. It seems I have made many mistakes with protagonists, for indeed, the seven drafts of my shelved novel were (among other things) all trying to fix issues with the main character. Since hindsight is 20/20 and may prove helpful to other writers (or may help non-writers realize, “So that’s why I couldn’t stand this character in this movie!”) I thought I’d share what I’ve learned.

PROTAGONISTS NEED AN AGENT: THEMSELVES

I planned a Bilbo Baggins, Chihiro-from-Spirited-Away-esque character arc for my main protagonist. A coward is dragged against her will into the special world; because she has been forced out of her comfort zone, she learns bravery and can help where she is needed.

The problem with this plot arc is that, as a coward, my protagonist didn’t initiate anything. Things kept happening to her. She cowered, hoping people would ignore her, but other characters–characters who were more interesting because they had more drive–kept dumping plot on her and forcing her to act.

Now that may be a realistic character arc for real people, but for my readers, it was hard to take. We like characters who want something, who go for it. This is the reason every Disney princess movie has an “I want” song. We even sympathize with Thanos when he wants something really, really badly. I think this is why he is more compelling, in Infinity War, than the more reactive Avengers. (If you plunk the Hero’s Journey over Infinity War, in fact, you could argue that Thanos is the protagonist of the film.)

Bilbo runs out after the Dwarves because, though he is used to keeping his head down and going with the flow, there is something in him that wants more. We don’t want to watch someone who merely sits and sighs about how out of control of her own life she is. She needs to be wanting change and making (and failing, even) attempts to change it.

SAVE THE CAT

But what about the everyman protagonist? Most characters don’t go seeking adventure; they have it foisted upon them (see the trope of the main character’s small fantasy village being burned/casting him out). Isn’t this what the Refusal of the Call in the Hero’s Journey is all about?

Even then, even then, we need to give our protagonists as much agency as we can. It can even be (for the plot’s purposes) wrong. Bilbo tries to get the Dwarves to leave (but is also slightly curious about what all this is about). It could be subtle, like Winston keeping a diary in 1984. In the world Orwell created, keeping a diary, small though our culture may view it, is one of the bravest things Winston could do.

Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat! shares one way you can give your protagonist agency, even if she is powerless in her situation otherwise: have her do a small act of kindness, like, say, saving a cat. Like with Winston, I feel that ideally you should make the agency they show here part of the world building.

Take a relatively mundane world. If your protagonist is a high school girl, shuttled from class to class and activity to activity at her parents’ and resume’s demands, her world is one of work and often cruel school social rules. To save the cat, she can choose to talk to the geeky kid. To show agency in another way that suits her world, she could quietly yet stubbornly take Drama, though all her friends are in Chorus. Taking Drama or being friendly to a nerd in and of itself may not be world-shattering according to my paradigm, but this girl, choosing it despite possible social consequences, is showing admirable agency.

LET ME TALK TO MY AGENT

I’ve been pondering agency long–for at least eight drafts, ha! In these contemplations, I have found that though we want protagonists who have agency, who perform acts of kindness or courage even in a world that may be forcing their hands–we often do not apply this standard to our own lives, in which we ourselves are (for better or worse) the protagonists.

One of our biggest agency-stealers is our schedules. Our schedules, which WE technically decide! But the language we use is telling: We wish we could do something, but the “schedule won’t allow it.” “We’ve been so busy.” “I’m overwhelmed.” Or we list off, with an increasing sense of desperation, all the things we have to do.

Who’s in charge here, the schedule or me? I thought I set my own schedule, but I act like I’m its whipping boy!

There are seasons of life that do overwhelm us with busyness. I myself have had multiple years in which financial survival ruled all and controlled every choice we made. My point is not that these times should never exist.

My point IS that, often, we can give over our agency to the urgency of the schedule’s demands. We let our schedules control us, keep us from doing the good that is in front of us. Even in busy seasons, I want to be intentional in what I commit to, what I invest in.

For now, when my schedule gets too full to have someone over for a chat, to build into someone other than myself, I know it’s time for me to exercise a little agency over that uppity schedule. Heaven forbid I read over my life at the end and say, “What a lame protagonist. Things only happened to her; she never happened to them.”

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