Find Out Why Your Awesome Protagonist Is Boring Readers to Death

Find Out Why Your Awesome Protagonist Is Boring Readers to Death

This week’s video talks about the two reasons you may not be giving a great character enough to do—and how to fix the problem to avoid boring readers.

Video Transcript:

Your protagonist is fabulously interesting, I have no doubt of that. You wouldn’t be writing about him if he bored you. In fact, you’re probably slightly in love with him, to the point that you’d be fascinated just watching him read the thesaurus. But it’s important to keep in mind that while readers may come to share that love for your character, they’ll probably never reach the depths of passion that would interest them in watching, for hours on end, as your awesome protagonist does … nothing.

This seems like a totally obvious statement, but it’s a problem we actually see quite often, even in published books. I just finished reading an otherwise great fantasy about a really fabulous character who spent the entire first quarter of his book literally doing nothing other than shoveling snow. The problem here isn’t just with the tedium of the character’s lack of interesting occupation. The real problem is that when a character is doing nothing, it’s a pretty sure bet that your plot is going nowhere.

Now the sneaky part of all this is that sometimes authors either don’t realize their character is doing nothing, or they think it’s necessary for the plot for him to be doing nothing.

The first is remedied by simply examining your scenes for goal and obstacle. If your character is trying to achieve something that will advance the plot into the next scene, and if that goal is met with conflict in the shape of an obstacle, you’re probably good to go.

The second cause—the idea that the story requires your character to spend some time doing nothing—is a little harder, since it very well may be true. But just because your character is stuck in prison for a couple weeks doesn’t mean he has to spend that entire time twiddling his thumbs. Remember: goal, obstacle, conflict. And if at all possible, give him somebody to talk to—or, even better, argue with.

Your goal is to always give readers a reason to be interested in what your character is doing.

Tell me your opinion: What is your character doing right now that will prevent you from boring readers?

Find Out Why Your Awesome Protagonist Is Boring Readers to Death

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

Email:
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 IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and 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. Yeah, now I realize why the novel I am currently reading doesn’t hold my interest. In that, there are quite a bunch of minor characters taking all the action, while the protagonist is wandering around in the blue with his lectures of sympathy.
    Thanks for the heads up, I would nevet want my story to be the same.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There are certain parts of the story (namely, the first half) in which the protagonist has to be reactive. But we never want to confuse reactivity with passivity.

  2. I grew up with Edgar Rice Burroughs and tend to weave the antagonist’s story in alternative chapters. About time the protagonist would start to get boring I hang her off a cliff and switch to the Anthologists story. It keeps my interest in each character without letting me fall too much in love with either. It is a bit tricky but fun and keep the pace up.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As long as your antagonist is every bit as interesting and compelling as your protagonist, this is a technique that can work well.

  3. Harvey Bannister says:

    I am a writing and story noob but it to me seems like a problem with a lot of stories whether they be written, filmed, or played through. The story can have a bad habit of being so character-centric that the plot doesn’t do anything. Personally I am not a fan of Joss Whedon’s creations as I find that he caters to his characters way too much. The plot then starts becoming about how the character is awesome and the whole thing warps around that. The plot then caters to it and then you don’t have any real story. Sometimes I think a plotline needs to throw unexpected curveballs to derail characters, make the plot put the character back in its place.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think you’re the first person I’ve ever met who doesn’t like Joss Whedon. :p Joss is a master of characterization, and, you’re right, he totally does make his plots serve his characters. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. Plot and character have to work together to create a seamless whole, and that starts with the plot serving the character.

      • Harvey Bannister says:

        I agree that perhaps you need to start with characters although how they progress is somewhat interesting depending on author. Tolkien goes full history in Silmarillion and decides that “all the world is a stage”. Isaac Asimov has something similar going on in Foundation although the characters are somewhat more fleshed out. Robert Jordan does a slow burner and builds the characters up over a very long time, only really giving them a few features to begin with until the last book where you feel you know them inside out.

        I have the feeling that I am writing my book wrong by having a character wander around a post financial collapse English Countryside rather than write some sort of future history. It’s not really character based, more situation based.

        • It definitely comes down to the Plot vs Character argument.

          Personally, I have a world, with some huge events that happen – that need to happen. My characters are fit into the plots, but I leave the plots loose enough that the stories during these events are driven by the character.

          I think it is as much the job of other characters to push the main character into the plot, just as much as it’s the plot’s job to suck the main character in as well. In fact, when the other characters are trying to pull the character out of the plot, the plot thickens (unless it’s just badly done, but that’s beside the point).

  4. Yay! Oh, this post was encouraging…. I’ve been working with Problem #2 (my protagonist doing “nothing” up to the inciting incident due to plot constraints). I think it’s working out, though, because he has quite a bit of internal conflict (as the reader is meeting some of the internal “ghosts” haunting him which will later affect his decisions and actions through the rest of the story).

    My main trick is that certain other characters *are* doing things (more action, etc). I needed to not be stuck in his head, because I felt that would be making him way too passive — with everything happening “around him” (if that makes sense). So….enter my heroine as someone for him to talk to! They have some hefty tension and debates (providing great space for exploring Lies, Goals, etc.), and from the response of my initial beta-readers thus far, I think it’s adding up to a good amount of reader involvement and suspense. I’m also trying to make sure there’s plenty of small action (physical movement) within those debate scenes (including foreshadowing), which seems to be beautifully helping in building the big picture. 🙂

    So thanks so much again for the excellent post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The first eighth of a story can be tricky for these very reasons. But it sounds like you’re checking off all the little boxes just right. As long as your character has a thematically pertinent goal from the very beginning, you know you’re headed in the right direction.

  5. Oh, yes, we want good characters in action, but of course we do want them to be good characters first 😛

    Great post, thank you!

    M.

  6. thomas h cullen says:

    It’s troublesome, acknowledging the validity of this issue; doing so means having to acknowledge the finiteness of our reality, and its lack of variety.

    Talking about this bears no difference than to talking about “formulas”, and “genre machinations”: in talking about either, all the same what’s being discussed is the truth about our existence’s condition relative to the rest of reality.

    When people watch Downton Abbey (whatever their “politics”), do they care about the Earl of Grantham, outside of the formulaic drama that surrounds his existence? When people watch Rambo, do they care about John Rambo himself, outside of the formulaic expectation that their going to see sprees of bloodshed, and action?

    There isn’t “character”, just as there isn’t “person”: there is however intelligence, and such a thing as a beautiful story, composed of poetic beats, and memorable scene-by-scene progression.

    It’s sad, having to recognise this truth.. but we can at least take comfort in knowing that the formulas that surround us aren’t just real, but worthy of living for (and using to tell great stories).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I recognize the essence of what you’re saying, but I don’t see any reason to take understanding of story that far. To do so rather eliminates the point of storytelling to begin with.

      • thomas h cullen says:

        On a conventional level of thought, this is true: it does read like an over-reaction, and an even absurd one at that.

        However, to understand this reaction, you have to first understand that I’m looking at the “big picture”, and not just functioning as part of the system.

        A year in advance, we’re able to predict how a certain novel or a film will get reviewed, aren’t we? Yet the product isn’t anywhere close to being out! Who’s supposed to know how good the art will be?

        Humanity plays games. It just wants management, and routine.. When I speak like this, it’s out of the desire to expose this ulterior reality.

        (On a prime human level, storytelling isn’t just legitimate, but necessary.)

  7. My awesome protagonist is boring?!?!

    Thanks, K.M., for not sugar coating your advice to us budding authors. We get enough sugar from our significant others, family and friends that we’re at risk of becoming diabetics!

    However, I must say that I do enjoy first person stories where the protagonist mulls over her situation every now and then, and I get to discover what makes her tick. This allows me to identify with her and care about her more which, in turn, personalizes the story for me.

    I have become disenchanted with some stories where the protagonist is involved in one action sequence after another, a la rapid fire–I find it difficult to maintain that suspension of disbelief in those types of stories.

    Every reader has their own preferences in stories and I like a mixture of personal reflection and action in mine.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree with you. It’s important to distinguish between the character “doing something” and “action” as the movies have taught us to think about it. Every scene has to be made up of two different parts – scene and sequel, action and reaction. For every action-oriented moment in the story, we need to include a segment where we see the character’s reaction (reaction, dilemma, decision). More on that in my series on scene structure: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/how-to-structure-scenes/

  8. Hi K.M..

    Thanks for another wildly helpful post!

    I’m struggling a bit with this now–the first third (or almost third) of my book is setting up my young MC’s everday life, her relationships and personality, along with her ultimate story goal, which is introduced in the first chapter and referred to multiple times through minor obstacles she has to overcome. I’m hoping these minor obstacles and her daily life will keep readers hooked long enough to get to the big plot point–the death of her mother, which results in a total world change (new home, school, “family”, and even a re-prioritizing of her first goal). I want to ground readers strongly in her early on world, so that the rug is yanked from under them as hard as it is for her, but I’m starting to worry that readers won’t see that it’s “leading” somewhere, and get bored too quick.

    Still, your post on structuring a scene has helped so much, and sometimes it’s good to remember that conflict doesn’t have to be catastrophic to be engaging. I’m trying to strengthen her smaller conflicts in the meantime : )

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Story structure is the key thing to keep in mind here. The First Plot Point (which ends the First Act) should ideally be placed at the 25% mark. Pushing it to the 33% is asking readers to wait longer than is optimal, so if you can tighten up your timeline any there, that will definitely help.

      You’ll also want to make sure you’re including a turning point halfway through the First Act (at roughly the 12% mark). Screenwriters call this moment the Inciting Event (in constrast to how we often think of the Inciting Event as something that happens in the first chapter). This is a crucial moment in your First Act. It’s the introduction of the main conflict and likely (if you’re familiar with the Hero’s Journey) your character’s Call to Action–which he will essentially reject up until the First Plot Point.

      If you can keep these factors in play as you’re using your First Act to introduce your characters and set up the story, you’ll be able to keep readers’ interest until the “real” story begins in the Second Act.

      • Susi Franco says:

        My MC Lilly is working through a deep post-divorce depression and starts up a bake shop, seeing as how her baking skills have been praised by others her entire life and she really needs the dough ( I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it :).

        She encounters obstacles and surprises I have outlined to be my First Plot Point and then my Inciting Event. Her lil bake shop becomes the catalyst for many of the plot points to come…..that there’s a kind of magic/spiritualism woven in adds intrigue & depth to both her character and the overall plot.

        I hope. 🙂

        Thank you, as usual, for another wonderful butt-saving article.
        Respectfully,
        Susi

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          She’s got internal baggage and a clear goal that allows her to be doing something pertinent to the plot – she’s definitely not going to be boring your readers to death!

      • It’s interesting that you mention this, because right after introducing the MC’s goal, I follow up with some brief, teasing conflict between her and another character (who won’t reappear until just after the first plot point). It felt a bit rushed, a bit much to drop on readers so close together, but I just wanted to keep readers hooked, and felt that the MC’s goal, which is passive by circumstance, just wasn’t enough. And although my first chapter has remained this way for months, I’ve been just now starting to feel as if that character conflict should be delayed a bit, to tease for the further conflict it will present ahead, and also to strengthen and focus the MC’s goal.

        It makes so much more sense as the Inciting Event and at the 12% mark, rather than it’s current 3 or 4%, as you’ve suggested. It’s revelatory to me, that I was “feeling” this without realizing, and I think this speaks a lot to the innate sense of pacing and story we all have, after a lifetime of good movies and books. To think that a slight 8% makes such a difference is really eye-opening for me.

        I think it’s time to order one of the screenwriting books you’ve mentioned : ) Thanks so much for your always helpful and constructive feedback. I’m so excited to get to work on this!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yes, I totally recommend screenwriting books! They teach structure so much more pertinently than most of the novel-centric books I’ve found.

          As for the inciting event, I’m actually planning to do a post on that soon. It’s a continuing conundrum for so many writers.

          • A post on the inciting event would be really helpful to a lot of people, I bet, assuming many thought of it as being in the first chapter, as I did. I’ll be checking back, as usual : )

  9. robert easterbrook says:

    Is ‘movement’ another way of thinking about it? I think – yes, I think ;p – a character writing a letter is movement. Even though they’re sitting at a desk. Could be texting, but that’s more like a conversation, yes? Because there’s another person involved.

    Or like they’re walking through a park, and then they start running because they’re being chased. Or about to miss the bus. Or they’re late for work.

    Or, a more mundane, but subtle one: eating in a restaurant, and then they’re arguing with the waiter because there’s a fly in the soup.

    I know you’re not a fan of the cafe scene, ;p but I like cafe scenes – so long as there’s more going on than drinking coffee – besides me drinking the coffee, that is. Like, say when the character is in an internet cafe and is searching for something on the internet while drinking her favorite beverage. She slowly grows frustrated because the thing she’s looking for is not so easy to find as she first thought. 😉

    I suppose this may be true if you’re working with a single character, of course. And that’s more the point, right? How to get a single character doing something even though they’re alone.

    I recently read something, a brief quote, if I recall, that said we work to put characters up a tree and then throw rocks at them. An interesting metaphor.

    Am I on the right track, though, about getting a ‘single’ character to engage in movement, so long as it serves to move the plot forward. Like the guy above, writing the letter – there’s movement, so the scene isn’t static.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Movement is definitely a big step in the right direction. But the most crucial part of this is giving the character a goal of some type that he can actively be working towards.

    • A few years ago I discovered ‘text critique analysis’ books (I hope I traslated this rightly) and I read a few of them. Fascinating read, if you ask me, a lot better than creative writing manuals.

      Anyway, that’s where I learn the meaning of ‘action’ in fiction. It is to be considered ‘action’ anything that changes the direction of the story. So it may even be an idea that occurs to the character: if that idea changes the character’s attitude toward something – and particularly her goal – that’s to be considered action.

  10. I’ve been struggling with this lately in my latest WIP, in where my MC is in training for three years. That’s supposed to make up my first act, but I’m wondering if I’m going to have to cut some of it because she’s only sitting around and talking to another character. It’s supposed to move along their relationship but I’m wondering if it will only bore the reader. I just hit the first plot point, and I’m going to be going back to edit, so we’ll see.
    Another fabulous post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Just remember: goal and conflict. If she has a goal she’s working toward and she’s encountering obstacles, you’re on the right track. Another good rule of thumb to remember is that if it’s boring you, it’s probably going to bore readers too. But if you’re enjoying it, that’s a good sign!

  11. My story is medieval based fantasy that follows a father-son duo. Hot tempers, bad decisions, and harsh words cause them both to split ways by the end of chapter 3.
    By chapter 7, the father is captured and imprisoned, and remains that way for much of the remaining two thirds of the book. The son is doing a lot of moving, traveling, fighting, arguing, and sometimes thieving. I’ve gotten very worried from time to time about whether the fathers side of the story would be interesting to readers, especially since he’s my favorite. After reading this, though, I’m not really worried about that any longer.
    Because while going from grueling slave labor to the cell and back, I have him form friendships with two important characters: An older guy named Kel, and a kind, understanding girl named Adriana. Kel brings some conflict into things later on that gets the father character in lots of trouble, and Adriana begins to form this deep friendship with him, which buds into romantic interest later on. On top of that, the father character struggles with the horribly realistic night terrors that combine many of the worst things he’s ever experienced, which begin bringing up lots of self imposed guilt he has over what’s happened to the people he loves.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like you’re on the right track! Character interaction is a huge prevention tool for reader boredom. Just make sure that the father character has an overall goal and individual scene goals he’s always working toward and all will be well.

  12. I have a hard time defining smaller things as goals, even when they are, just because they’re small.
    What would you define as a “goal” a character stuck in one place for a long period of time could have?

  13. Yeah, it’s the scene goals that I’m not sure if I’m doing right. I’ll read your post though and figure it out.
    Thank you for your help, this has gotten me excited to get to editing in a week or two and make sure these things are right. 🙂

  14. I used to believe that adding an interior dialogue now and then would be a great idea for the readers to take a break from the actual action and listen to the chatacter’s thoughts and intentions. After watching your videos, I tried to fight that temptation, so I found out that providing my hero with a good friend to talk to would be a better idea (that sidekick you talked about).
    But, Katie, do you think that sometimes an interior dialogue would not be that bad of a option? I mean, once or twice thoughout the whole novel wouldn’t be that much. Besides, people don’t always trust all of their thoughts to somebody, not even their closest friend.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Interior dialogue/narrative is absolutely a crucial part of any good story. The key is to balance it with all the other elements. Generally speaking, readers are going to find dialogue most interesting. But we still need that balance with the narrator’s internal reactions to contrast and refine what’s being said aloud.

  15. Yup. Definitely a reason my WIP is still in its outlining stage. My story covers a long span of time – several years. Things in the lapses of time need to be told, rather than shown. I can’t only tell how much time has passed, but what has happened in that time. It’s not enough to say “three years later”, just as it isn’t enough to say “one week later”. These periods of time are usually reactionary, or active preparation.

    Time lapses are what we are talking about here, yes? I mean, if there’s a huge chunk of a story that doesn’t even include the main character… well then something is simply missing, no?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Time lapses can definitely play a role – although sometimes it’s more advisable to just skip the time rather than feel like you have to show the protagonist doing nothing for its duration.

  16. In my novel, I have two threads intertwining and from my first beta reader I discovered the FMC’s thread was more involving than the MMC’s thread. Which bothered me, because I’ve always thought as him as the one the story is about.

    So I reworked the entire manuscript trying to add more depth to him. My beta just got back to me on the second read and one of her comment struck me: Michael is so cool.
    I told her, you never told me you find Michael’s cool. And she said, that’s because he wasn’t enough in the front before to really see how cool he is.

    And you know what? I’m not even sure how I did it. I didn’t change anything in the action or the structure of the story. All scenes are the same, all dialogues are the same. What I did do was to introduce his conflict a bit earlier (without revealing it, though) and then I did a big work of grounding him in the writing by trying to take out as much filters as possible.
    I’m just mentioning because it seems to have worked 🙂

  17. Urrgggg. I hate boring spots. >_< On a writing website where it's common to do a read for a read, well last week this was hard to do, because chapter 3-4 was nothing but the pov cooking with her mothers friend, describing how the food tasted, then cooking more food. Along with that the winks giggles, and blushing was annoying. Snore. Instead of switching povs to her father and mother that were in battle, that would have been interesting. I tried to tell the author (gently) that this wasn't interesting, but she blew it off. Oh well at least I told her can't do anything else past that point. I hope I don't have any boring places in my books and am ignoring them becasue I love my character/s. I'll have to go though each of the chapters and really look hard.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      And this is a good reminder too to solicit outside opinions and heed them when they’re expression apathy.

Trackbacks

  1. […] This seems like a totally obvious statement, but it’s a problem we actually see quite often, even in published books. I just finished reading an otherwise great fantasy about a really fabulous character who spent the entire first quarter of his book literally doing nothing other than shoveling snow. The problem here isn’t just with the tedium of the character’s lack of interesting occupation. The real …read more […]

  2. […] Why is your awesome protagonist boring readers to death? Katie’s Wednesday vlog. […]

Speak Your Mind

*