signs-youve-chosen-the-wrong-protagonist

Signs You’ve Chosen the Wrong Protagonist

This week’s video discusses the qualifications of a protagonist and what to do when minor characters try to take over.

Video Transcript:

Most of the time we start writing because a particular character has caught our fancy and we want to get to know him better. The guidelines for confirming that a character is protagonist material usually go something like this:

1. He needs to be someone the author cares about. If the character doesn’t interest you, why think he’s going to interest readers?

2. He needs to be someone who has, if not the most at stake, then at least as much at stake as everybody else.

3. He should offer an interesting narrative voice, particularly if you’re going to be portraying him in the first person.

Good list, right? Hard to see how you could go wrong so long as you’ve got a check in every one of those little boxes. But if you write long enough, you’re probably going to wake up one morning and realize that, checked boxes aside, you’ve chosen the wrong protagonist. This is otherwise known as minor characters taking over. Sometimes this is a bad thing. Sometimes you’re going to have to stuff those upstarts back where they belong. But sometimes, you’re going to want to pay attention when your minor characters start clamoring for your attention.

You may start out writing a story with all your focus on one character. But often minor characters will have more wiggle room to grow into interesting and unique personalities. This doesn’t always mean these fascinating minor characters deserve to be protagonists. If they don’t fulfill the second of the requirements I mentioned a second ago, they’ll never be able to carry the story, no matter how interesting they may otherwise be. But if you find yourself repeatedly drawn away from your protagonist and toward a charismatic minor character, you might do well to reconsider whether you’ve chosen the right character for the job.

Tell me your opinion: Have your minor characters ever tried to take over the story?

signs you've chosen the wrong protagonist

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Novel One, a minor character is perhaps more well-loved by some beta readers than the protagonist, so he may be taking over without my even writing him that way. Novel Two (still in planning and development), a minor character did indeed take over and is now the protagonist. The original protag wasn’t going to connect with my target audience (YA) as well as the minor character, so off he goes. And I think the story will be more interesting for it.

  2. I haven’t had a minor character take over but I currently have a minor or secondary character become much more important than originally intended. And like Daniel said, the story seems to be more interesting for it.

  3. Definitely. Sometimes they stay major characters and sometimes they turn into the protagonist, but they’re always interesting and usually integral to the story in some way.

    Lauren

  4. @Daniel: Minor characters – particularly sidekicks – are always a special joy. Sometimes moving them to the spotlight limits that joy; sometimes it just enhances it.

    @mshatch: The “interesting” factor is the one by which every character change has to be judged. If it works, you always know it.

    @Lauren: If a character is taking over it’s almost always a good sign that he has lots to say.

  5. I have a minor character who’s a child in my novel, the daughter of the protagonist. If/when I write a sequel, she as an adult will be the protagonist in it, reflecting on and coming to terms with everything that happened in her life because of her mother’s actions.

  6. Promoting a minor character to protagonist in a sequel always brings interesting opportunities. Beyond just the chance at a new story, you also get to look back at the first book from a totally different perspective.

  7. So far, I’ve lucked out, and never had a minor character take over. I’ve had them grow in the amount of time I give them, but I’ve been pretty lucky and managed to pick the right protagonist from the get-go.

  8. In Friday’s Child, Cheryl was supposed to be a minor character, and I had planned to only have two POVs, Joe and Blake. but Cheryl is… stubborn. She insisted she have her time on the stage. She also insisted her name is Cheryl, after her grandmother—even though that info didn’t make it into the final draft—and refused a name change even when I suggested that name belongs in an older generation. She’s independent, but has to be, given her situation.

  9. @Liberty: Aside from the fact that it can require annoying rewrites, having a minor character take over can actually be a lot of fun.

    @Lorna: Sometimes character are just plain bossy!

  10. I tend to write in threes, so I’m always looking for the minor character who will be the hero in the next book. I’m getting ready to start #3 in a series and the hero is a minor character from the previous book who showed up out of nowhere, fully formed and desperate to be rescued. He’s been through hell and has earned the right for his own story and his own Happily Ever After.

  11. Characters who have been through hell are usually brimming with their own juicy stories. Hooray for character demons!

  12. I try to avoid as many minor characters as I can in the initial character profiling so I don’t become to attached to any particular minor character. With the exception perhaps of Brett’s step brother.

    Instead of separating it into minor or major, I try to think of it like this: MC, Father, Mother, Sibling, Friend, Acquaintance +, Acquaintance, Enemy, Antagonist.

    And then I separate each character into major or minor: Mother Major, Father Minor, Sibling Major, that sort of thing.

    A reader might not ever see the backstory with the MC’s mother, but the symbolism and character motivations clue in to the fact that this is why they are after the main bad guy. In other words, let the unsaid in the story say more than what is directly stated. Would this make her the minor character?

  13. Good system. Minor characters are there as much to characterize the MC as to drive the plot. Their impact on the protagonist is what should influence their importance in the story.

  14. Sometimes I feel like my characters are writing my book and not me. Over the past few months of revision I noticed some of my more minor characters taking up more pages, what with their inward dialogue and back stories. However, I would like to think that the protagonist is still obvious, even if she does not appear on as many pages as other characters. I guess it depends on your definition of minor or major. What does it mean to you and how does it affect your story? Because if by major we mean the most words and pages attributed to a certain character, well then, our protagonist will make appearances in every chapter. If, on the other hand major simply implies that character’s importance, it might be okay for minor characters to have more appearances than them.

  15. The protagonist is the character whom the story is about. He’s going to be the character with the most at stake and the character who will present a defined personal arc over the course of the story. He’s the character doing most of the action, the one making things happen. As such, he’s usually going to be present for the majority of scenes.

  16. Wow!! This is great! I’m teaching characterization to my middle grade students and this post helps me out tremendously.

    They are developing their characters this week and next. We are having fun bringing their protagonists to life! I will ask them to make sure they are interested in their protagonist because I want to be interested since I will read their stories!

    Thanks!

  17. That has happened to me! I think it was because I liked my main character too much that I was restricted when I wrote him. I wanted him to be so good, so I was almost afraid to let him do anything! Meanwhile, the side character, who I had no particular expectations for, jumped out into center stage.

  18. @Ruth: How fun! Nothing like the wild imagination of those middle grade years.

    @Erika: Yep, that can definitely be a problem. We can get too uptight with our MCs, instead of just cutting loose and seeing what they *really* have to say.

  19. This is funny because it just happened to me with my WiP. I still believe I chose the right protagonist, but the uprising voice will have to have his protagonist role in the sequel.

  20. One can never have too many good characters. The only dilemma is: this book or the next one?

  21. Started outlining a ghost story with a female protagonist moving into an apartment where the former tenant died of fright. Of course, when I got into exploring the back-story of “Mr. Brown” I became so enamoured that I started questioning which story I preferred to tell. Honestly I still haven’t decided. Maybe because what I have are two distinct stories worth telling.

  22. Backstories can take over just as easily as minor characters. I’ve had to rein back mine in practically every story I’ve written.

  23. All the time! Half of the stories I write end with a different MC than I started with.

  24. Stories have minds of their own. Never known what you’re going to get when you first come up with an idea.

  25. A lot of times I usually take the time to get to know them in a test run to see if they are someone I might want to spend time with for 1000+ pages (Even if I only write 20 pages.)

    I generally try to keep the scene blank with minor characters in the story itself, as filler characters or “On set” walking characters can come in when I actually draw the page.

    One question though, how do you convey the fullness of life of a city, without writing a city full of characters? In my experience a filler character might only come in if the protagonist has a direct involvement, such as if he’s at a counter buying beer at a pub.)

    I sometimes find myself inadvertently conveying the empty city of Centralia, Pennsylvania without intending to write a silent hill fan fic.

  26. Oh I found the writing prompt I once used: Take a familiar genre or trope, and twist it into something horrifying by subverting tropes.

  27. Conveying a “full” city is usually just a matter of telling readers there are lots of characters milling about. You can show readers the crowds without needing to have your main character interact with every single person in that crowd.

  28. In the story I’m working on now, I started writing with my protagonist, included him meeting another character who was supposed to be a minor connection (the nephew) to the antagonist, and the minor character ended up taking on a life of his own. The follow up book will be primarily about this formerly minor character, but I’m having trouble keeping a balance between the two in the current story. Other supporting charcters have managed to stay supports, but I’ve ended up writing out some of them in exchange for better charcter development in the more central supports.

  29. When two minor characters can be combined into a stronger character, the whole story is usually better off for it. By the same token, sometimes a strong character becomes stronger when an unnecessary character is deleted.

  30. Oh, I loved this!

    Didn´t happen to me (I am in love with my lead :p), but I guess it is because sometimes the minor character is supposed to bring the joy, being the hopeful cheerful one. Or the fun one.

  31. It’s like that because the protag is the responsible older sibling. The minor characters get to be the party animals because they don’t have to carry that weight.

  32. I’ve had this happen to me before, and I really had to stop and think of what I should do with the character before I continued. Once I changed the story slightly and gave the minor character a more predominant role, bringing the character in as a main character. Another time I realized I could take a certain character out and have a whole other story as a sequel, which can always be exciting, however then I have to be careful because I sometimes find myself drawn to writing the sequel and being bored with my original idea of the first book.

  33. That sudden diversion of excitement is definitely one of the pitfalls of minor characters taking over. Sometimes their taking isn’t what’s best for the plot, but just a sign of our own temporary infatuation with something new and shiny.

  34. New and shiny is a great way to put it – some characters can be a joy in small doses but are too thin to support the weight of the entire work without their main selling point having to be seriously diluted. I had an important character in my WIP continually vying for the spotlight, and she’s fun to write since she always has a withering put-down on hand, but her prickly exterior would be a little too much to deal with for 300 pages. I didn’t want to telegraph her squishy, scared centre too early either, which would be kind of a must for a character we are in the head of for most of the story. She could not hide her vulnerability from the reader for chapter after chapter. I compromised, making her an occasional POV character, but not the primary protagonist.

  35. This is very true. Sometimes the traits that make us love our minor characters so much would actually turn out to be annoying in a main character. One of the reasons minor characters are often so colorful is that we cut their behavior a lot more slack.

  36. In my Novel One the rather bland protagonist is constantly upstaged by the villain(s), quirky supporting characters and especially his mouthy, complaining sidekick, thus it wasn’t all that successful as a story. Novel Two, the protagonist, a female sleuth, is clearly the dominant character though I like to think the supporting characters are interesting. As a result I’m happier with the final result this time. Thanks for all the great insights.

  37. Great example. Protags can’t always be the wittiest, funniest, or even most skillful in a cast (although it’s nice when they are), but they *always* need to be the dominant character, the one readers are thinking about and can’t wait to spend more time with.

  38. Anonymous says:

    I have had Minor characters take over in several ways. In one case, I had written a character just to be a minor character to last about halfway through the story. He was originally written to be eighteen and very rough, very silent and he just wasn’t working. He just didn’t fit but I needed a character to take his place to move the story on because he ended up being a motivator for the main character. My main character was kind of boring and I was thinking at two in the morning, “What if the minor character was switched with the main?” I figured it was worth playing around with and this minor character ended up as a fourteen year old with a ton at stake and his point of view was more intriguing. His name was Kacson and he ended up bringing this story to the point where I won a writing award where my school awards the best writer in the whole school. But I’ve also had a minor character who just kept begging for a bigger part when I knew he didn’t need one.

  39. We always have to exercise our judgement. In the end, no matter how boisterous our characters get, we’re still the ones in charge. But it’s always worth while giving a loud character a chance to talk. Never know what we’ll find!

  40. Definitely having that conflict now. It’s important that my protagonist remain who she is but I find myself so drawn to my minor character. I tend to under develop her character and spend a lot of time on him. 400 pages into my epic fantasy and I am thinking of completely rewriting it from his point of view. UGH!

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Nothing’s worse than having to change POV that late in a book (except maybe running out of chocolate truffles…). Sometimes we have to resist when minor characters try to take over. But sometimes it can actually be the best choice.

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