Writers: Have Your Characters Ever Fought Over The Protagonist Role?

What do you mean, YOU want to run the show???

What do you mean, YOU want to run the show???

Writers: have you ever had a protagonist change on you? I don’t mean by that, has your protagonist ever taken on a different personality, or changed in some substantial way?

I mean, have you ever had a protagonist fade into the background and let a different character take over, AFTER the completion of a first draft?

It is SO insane how characters feel so real to us that they push and shove their way to a starring role!

THE PROTAGONIST PUZZLE

I’m having real trouble getting back into the swing of writing fiction after my break to put together “Writing for You.” I’m not sure why, but I don’t feel like I have the energy or the drive to tackle my draft from last year’s NaNoWriMo. Part of the issue is protagonist troubles.

My draft is titled “The Esclavan Abductions,” and from the start I imagined a sorcerer character named Zate Polve to be my protagonist.

  • I wanted him to be a protagonist because of his strong magic: important for sword and sorcery fantasy.
  • He is mentioned in my original Herezoth trilogy, but never appears, so he’s a nice but very subtle connection to link the book with my trilogy without being a continuation of the trilogy
  • He’s really rough around the edges, which is new for me in a protagonist and a fun challenge/ change of pace.

I originally wanted to have every scene in the novel from Zate’s point of view.

Then, when I started outlining, I realized he needed to share the spotlight with a member of the royal family (the king’s sister, Melinda).

Now, I’m realizing almost all the changes I need to make to my plot involve throwing even more attention on Melinda.

This is problematic because the heightened emphasis on the royal family makes the book feel like a sequel of the trilogy, a continuation of it, rather than something that could stand apart, which is what I’d hoped to write.

But that’s enough about my issues…. I might have to scrap the whole idea for this book and start writing something else. (Hey, I’ve done it before).

CHARACTERS SCREAMING AND FIGHTING ME

If I’m going to keep editing this story, I’m going to need some way to make my characters pipe down. I’ve never been in this situation before! It’s kind of nuts.

I’ve written about how characters can be like toddlers, but I’ve never felt this responsible for them, and their places in the story, and making sure everyone is content.

I’ve always thought about my characters as though they were real people, and tried to really get to know them and what makes them tick, but characters real enough to make me shift who the protagonist is? That’s different.

The funny thing is, Zate wouldn’t mind being less of the focus. And Melinda would actually prefer NOT to be in the spotlight (things would be much easier on her that way.)

Anyway, I’ll figure this whole mess out. For now, the situation has got me thinking about the role of character in fiction (from a character’s perspective).

SOME RELATED REFLECTIONS ON CHARACTERIZATION

  • What exactly does it mean to be a protagonist? Does it mean, solely, that you’re the character the narration follows most closely? Does it mean you will be required to take great action of some type solely by virtue of the title SOMEONE ELSE bestows on you? That’s kind of a raw deal….
  • Can an author thrust a character into the spotlight who doesn’t want to be there? Can a character fight back? Maybe by revealing depths of emotion that resist acting in the way the author would like?
  • Can a character manipulate an author by causing so much trouble in a scene or subplot that the author is required to cut him or her out of it?

I think a character can. I don’t know if that’s what Melinda is doing to me or not, but I know that the plot–I’d say the plot, rather than me–forcing her into a more prominent role is not something either of us really wants.

If this story is going to work out at all, I know Melinda has to take the starring role, as frustrating as that is for me. I guess I’ll keep going a bit longer and see what ends up happening!

So,  have you ever had a protagonist back down, or had a secondary character claw his or her way to greater prominence?

I hope you enjoyed this post! If you’re interested in reading more about protagonists, you can check out the first post in my series on heroes/protagonists and go from there.

Also, I’ve decided to extend the introductory sale price of “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction” another week, because it’s doing pretty well. If you haven’t snagged a copy yet, you’re in luck. You can find out more about the book at the link above.

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39 responses to “Writers: Have Your Characters Ever Fought Over The Protagonist Role?

  1. I didn’t have my protagonist back down on me but he did end up having a completely different role to play than I had originally intended. He ended up being less of a solo act and more of an ensemble group. The rest of his group ended up being just as important and having just as large a role as he had. And he ended up being less of a hero and more of a guy who is expected by everyone to be the hero but who lacks the knowledge on how to be the hero everyone expects him to be. He has trouble coming to terms with the fact that he is the protagonist.
    It was difficult because i really wanted him to be an all star character who mostly carried the story all on his own and he just kept screaming at me that he wasn’t ready for that yet. So I gave him the help he needed and it ended up being a better story all around

    • That’s awesome! The whole scenario rings very true and very human. I know I never feel ready or prepared for the things I have to do and the big tasks I have to tackle, so i could relate very much to what you’re saying about your character. Wow!

  2. Oh, wow, that’s quite something, isn’t it? I’ve never experienced this to the extend that you have with Melinda and Zate, but similar. I don’t have one protagonist but a band of main characters in my WIP. The members of that band have changed a bit, to my surprise (some planned protagonists were pushed out by others). Also, I always had four POV characters out of this group. I’ve chosen those four because the group splits and follows different directions and I wanted a voice in every direction. That worked quite well, not confusing, I guess the voices are distinguishable… But somehow I ended up having a few more POV main characters than I intended – because those intendedly-non-POV characters pressed into the spotlight and refused to let anybody else tell that part of the story. I need to figure out if it still works this way, if it’s not too confusing.

    • I felt similarly about the second book in my trilogy where POV is much less controlled because my characters are all in different places…. It’s tough but I think it’s manageable. Omniscient POV is hard!!!

  3. Hey! First, let me say how much I love your blog. Since I started following you I have always found your posts to be quirky, interesting and about topics I would have never thought of including this one. I actually wanted to ask you this question on another one of your posts, but it slipped my mind. Hope that’s okay. Anyway, I’m an aspiring writer and I was wondering how many times would you recommend editing a novel? I know another author whose book will be out next month and she has told me she edited her own novel about 20 times. Is that too little? Too much? Or just right? Thanks so much for your posts.

    • Tasha, I’m so glad you enjoy the blog! Thanks so much for your kind words. I really hope it continues to be helpful for me.

      As for you question, that depends on every person and many times they’ve shipped the book off to other people, and how tight/well-formed the book is to start with.

      About 20 edits…. I definitely hit that with my first and unreleased novel. Not so much with my last release, which I probably went through 8-10 times myself as a whole. Beta reader were a Godsend, let me tell you, to help me get things in order. Certain scenes I hit more than that.

      I don’t keep track of numbers of editing passes, if that makes sense….I just edit until i feel things are ready. Or I realize they’ll never be ready.

      Also, I think everyone approaches editing differently and at different speeds. The amount of work done in one pass for one person might equal three passes, each focusing on different things, for someone else. If you’re unsure about how much more editing you need, it’s time to let an editor and/or beta readers at the work and see what they have to say. That’s my general approach.

  4. Also, is your book only available in Kindle form? I would prefer a physical copy.

  5. I write an ensemble cast type of story, so the heroes have to share. Yet, some take more of the spotlight than others depending on their role in the story. For example, the 4th book of my series focuses more on Sari and Nyx, so Luke Callindor isn’t center stage as much. Something similar happens in book 5. I have one book planned where all, but one of the main heroes will be placed in a secondary role while he goes off to handle a personal demon. So, I have to keep a balance and switch going.

  6. Why stick to just one protagonist? Sometimes, a story needs several angles.

  7. My characters were frequently caught fighting over lead roles. That’s when Wendy Darlin decided to set up her own series… and take kick-boxing lessons from Uma Thurman.

  8. In my WIP I have a situation where a secondary character has decided in draft three to take over the role of protagonist in the last few chapters of the book, but the original protagonist still serves that role up until that point, and there’s no way I could drop the original protagonist from the role completely. The story would be so utterly changed, it wouldn’t be the same story anymore. But it does appear to be a good thing to have this secondary character step in at the end. In my situation, the switch of protagonist helps to prolong suspense and gives the reader certain desirable information that would be difficult to give from the POV of the original protagonist.

    But I’ve never had a secondary character want to take over the entire novel before after a first draft. That is an interesting pickle you’ve got yourself into, Victoria! 🙂

    • It’s kind of nuts. 🙂 Trying to have the two characters share the role as much as possible. UGH. Haven’t even opened the draft all week. I’m in trouble. I’ll either figure it out, though, or move on to something else. So either way I’ll get back to writing 🙂

  9. I was going to tell my story solely from the heroine’s perspective. Then I added the perspective of her older brother. But the story still wasn’t “big” enough. The brother’s perspective still kept the story in their corner of the world. So I added a character who lives on the other side of the world but meets up with the heroine. This character was just going to be a tertiary character—never to live beyond a chapter. But he clawed his way into my thoughts, demanding that his story be told. Still the story was not complete without the antagonist’s perspective. The heroine’s brother is now a tertiary character. So yes, I can see how a character would “demand” more page time.

    • That sounds like quite an evolution for your story! So cool! 🙂 I’m glad you shared. The character on the other side of the world makes me think of certain Doctor Who episodes that focus on characters you’ve never seen before in which you see the doctor for maybe 5 minutes of screentime.

  10. I love that you wrote about this topic in particular. This has happened to me THREE TIMES now! I’m officially fuming!
    Every single time I begin to write a protagonist and continue to progress the story, I discover a supporting character to be far more interesting than the protagonist himself.
    I didn’t understand it at first but after reading your article, it seems that I may have been “trying too hard” when designing a protagonist–I should’ve just let it happen (as in the case of the supporting characters).

    Great article as usual!

    • Glad you enjoyed it! 🙂 Three times??? WOW! I usually find I like a minor character more than my protagonist, if only because knowing them less and being less in their heads makes them more interesting.

  11. I’ve definitely had protagonist issues, but what your post made me think about was how frustrating it is that you have to write a million words in order to get a 90,000 word novel, for example. I thought of that when you said you might have to scrap the idea after all. It boggles me how that happens, but it does, and it happens to all of us. Sometimes it frustrates me so much I stop writing for a few hours 🙂

    • WOW! I’m so glad you said that! I had never considered it that way, but it’s so true!!! a million words to get 90,000.

      I guess it’s good to realize that’s just how the process goes! while it can be frustrating, we’ve all got to remember that’s how writing works and it’s not a failure to have a scrap a draft. It’s normal 🙂

  12. Love this article! It sounds a lot like the arguments I have with my characters!

  13. With my WIP, I have two protagonists. I have two different time periods. My modern day protagonist is a 27 year old former child movie star that witnessed the murder of both of her parents twenty years previously. She was so traumatized that she developed Mutism and didn’t speak a word for 5 years. Her guardian, Uncle Bob took care of her and he also died (right before the story starts) and she inherited a large house in a small town in Nevada with a very colorful Old West history. Upon going there to check it out for the renovation that was a term of the will, she comes to realize that it was formerly a parlor house. She meets the ghost of the madam that ran it, and she pleads with her to help her solve her murder from 1871. So, the madam is my second protagonist. I see her much more clearly than any other character. She speaks to me on how to work on my other characters..lol..She’s really quite pushy. One of these days I’ll need to work on a short description (blurb) for it, but I wanted to give you an idea of what I’m doing. I am still working out a lot of details, but this post was really interesting because it fit with what I am experiencing..but of course, I don’t have a first draft yet, so it’s not quite the same..Also, I wanted to ask you if you had considered a series on Herezoth rather than only a trilogy. It sounds like you have more characters there that want to speak..or maybe a neighboring country or area that would be separate yet connect the two? Just a thought. Best of luck though..if you have any words of wisdom on my WIP, I’d love to hear them. 🙂

    • thanks, Rebecca, for your thoughts on both your novel and my trilogy 🙂 I had considered a longer series but I don’t think that’s the best idea. I think people nowadays have short attention spans and aren’t likely to invest in a long series from an author like me who isn’t well-known.

      I do like the idea of writing more about Herezoth, but I wanted the new novels to stand apart. If I end up with a couple of more books that are closer related to the first ones that I’d like, I guess that’s okay. Just hoping I can work this novel into something, haha…. It’s being difficult.

      Your first protagonist breaks my heart!!! Aw 😦 Her story sounds really powerful. I have to admit I don’t usually pick up stories about madams and brothels but the ghost is a unique twist.

    • Pushy characters can be difficult but they also tend to be strong and interesting to readers. They make things happen. They are doers. So that’s good! 🙂 I think it’s okay for characters to share the spotlight a little bit and even fight for it. Make sure you read my post tomorrow…. I talk about that particularly and it applies to your situation.

      • Thanks Victoria, I will do that. I am also one that is not big on sexual explicit books, so although it will be touched on, I don’t intend for it to be that way. I will keep it as clean as possible. 🙂 I really hope that you will read it when I’m done just so I can get your opinion..that is if you want to. 🙂 Thanks again for all your comments.

        • Aw, I’d be happy to read it when you’re done with it 🙂 I definitely get what you’re saying about a pushy character…. If the ghost and the woman are clashing wills and being present together, you can always present those scenes from the woman’s POV if you’re worried about the ghost being overpowering (unless she totally backs down to the ghost)

        • What I actually had in mind was back and forth sections from present day to 1871. I am wondering how to do this without it looking like a volleyball game and not only confusing the reader, but making him/her dizzy! I doubt know if you have read the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, excellent by the way. She handles it very well with sections rather than just chapters and stays within one time frame for a significant time. What do you think of that? My object is to have Rusty (the ghost) help bring my MC, Sierra out of her shell and make her want to remember the night of her parent’s murders so that she can heal. That will be the major change she will go through. I still need some secondary characters to populate the 1871 background. I had originally planned to have Sierra time travel, but I scrapped that idea in favor of being more mystery than sci-fi techie..I am a fan of the cozy mystery although I don’t have any objections to a Pinkerton agent here and there.. 🙂

        • I like the idea of sections. I know Tolkien wrote “The Lord of the Rings” that way and it definitely worked for me. If you’re worried about all the back and forth, large sections makes sense, definitely.

  14. Pingback: Creative Writing Reflection: Do Multiple Protagonists Require Some Pattern of Narration? | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  15. Miss Alexandrina

    In my most recent first draft, I’ve actually found the opposite – that a lot of my characters don’t want to be dominant. I had planned for dual narrative between the protagonist and one of the male supporting characters who continues to the third book in the trilogy I’m writing, but, somehow, he and his sub-plot stepped back and threw up his hands. “I’m fine with being seen through another’s eyes.”
    It’s weird when this happens because the scenes themsleves are so different on paper than in my head! Perhaps I simply had stronger/more confident characters in the first book… In terms of the setting reflecting on the characters, I can see that they would be more relaxed that the others (in terms of dominance and submissiveness anyway).
    As for thoughts on protagonists, I like the suggestion ‘you will be required to take great action’, as in, the protagonist is someone who stands out in some way to lead the story on. In my previous novel, I have four perspectives, but I’d say that two are definitely Supporting Characters, because, although they can give insight that other characters won’t/can’t, they don’t have quite the…oomph of the protagonists’ actions, you know?

    • I do know! That makes sense! Part of the fun of a great secondary character is him or her, unknown to the reader, working and doing cool stuff in the shadows that gets revealed at the end or in its time. I’m glad you stopped by because I had never really considered that issue: that sometimes people don’t WANT to be the main character. No one might want to be.

      Best of luck! I personally love stories with multiple protags, perhaps a protag that shifts from scene to scene.

  16. My recent post was about this very thing…it’s becoming a Battle Royale for the top seat. Perhaps the problem is the main character isn’t fleshed out enough to give the others a reason to follow her. On the other hand, I think a lively backstory is going to create a richer experience for all of the characters to live through. So, I’ll write it out, then cut without mercy. Even if the characters have awesome backstories, I don’t have to reveal all of it at once. Timing is everything. This has been my decision, but I think my characters will probably fight me. I look forward to the battle (in a totally evil mastermind, rubbing those cliched hands together with maniacal laughter, sort of way).

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