5 Things Your Protagonist Probably Shouldn’t Do

May 17, 2010 at 5:50 am (Character, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , )


Unless, of course, there is a valid reason.

Under most circumstances these are 5 things that protagonists shouldn’t be getting up to.

1.  Waiting for another character to solve all of the problems and hand them a nice tidy package.  I’m not pointing fingers at any single, scarred, boy wizard for this one (in one of his later books), but protagonists should be actively involved in trying to work through the conflicts, not passively sitting on the sidelines waiting for someone to tag them and say that it is now time for them to get involved.

2.  Getting over things. This one is something I’ve found in quite a few stories that I’ve started reading and then abandoned. Midway through a major conflict the character just get’s over it and decides that something is no longer important.  If your protagonist gives up caring about a problem, odds are the reader is going to as well.

3.  Getting side tracked and never returning to the original complication. Yes, side plots are great but if your protagonist gets tangled up in a side plot to the point where the original problem is left dangling and never resolved then this is going to bother your reader.

4.  Have a personality transplant midstory.  There is a difference between developing a character and throwing out a character midway through the plot and suddenly having a doppelgänger with the same name but no other resemblance to the original character running around.

5.  Drop dead in the second act. By all means, kill your protagonist off if the story calls for it, but if we’ve been following this character so far and now they are dead and there is still almost a third of the story to go, as reader’s we are going to feel resentful.

What do you think?  Is there any thing your protagonist should just not do?

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24 Comments

  1. milkfever said,

    Thanks for this one, Cassandra Jade. I would have to agree with you, especially about having the protagonist drop dead. Not good.

  2. Arvael said,

    Tsk, tsk… #5 could be actually quite interesting – never heard of ghosts before? 😉
    If you can pull it off, then why not? 😀

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I know people can do it but I really don’t like ghosts in stories – that doesn’t stop me from using them if the occasion calls for it. I tend to find that most people use ghosts as a contrivnce to push a stagnant plot forward and it usually feels awkward. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done and done well.

  3. Lua said,

    Great list Cassandra! I especially agree with #2- a character should not be just getting over things, there should be a reason and a process. Also, I think a character shouldn’t change for no reason, if he’s angry, he shouldn’t just become this cute guy who brings flowers, we need to see reasons and how the change happens…

  4. AlexJ said,

    Good tips. Characters acting ‘out of character’ annoy me. We all have moments, but major personality or behavior changes for no reason feel fake and contrived.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      It is amazing that we all acknowledge that real people sometimes do bizarre things but we want logic from our characters. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Elizabeth Spann Craig said,

    Love it! Will be tweeting this one.

  6. lunaleo said,

    I especially agree with #4–there’s nothing worse than having a character suddenly behave differently for no apparent reason. Whenever this happens, it throws me out of the story.

    I’d also add that you shouldn’t have a protagonist always do the right thing. In order to be interesting and realistic, I think a protagonist has to screw up occasionally. Thanks for the list!

  7. writerleerobertson said,

    Yes, I agree with all of these. Especially No. 1.

    There is nothing worse than a protagonist who just moans but takes no action. At least if the protag. tries, he/she will win the reader’s sympathy.

  8. Alex Willging said,

    This is a great list, and I should know (having done this quite a bit when I was starting out!). No. 1 and 2 are the errors that most common ones I’ve come across.

  9. Jane Kennedy Sutton said,

    What a great list – funny and so true. If I can come up with anything to add to it, I’ll drop back by later.

  10. JackieS said,

    Have added Death’s Daughter to my Kindle wishlist.

    I agree with lunaleo, having the character always do the right thing is annoying. But sometimes it’s difficult to combat. For instance, my main character’s a cop so she’s kind of obliged to do the right thing. How would you deal with making sure your character’s not such a goody two shoes?

    Jackie

    • lunaleo said,

      Hi Jackie,

      My suggestion is to still give her a flaw–I have a few friends who are cops, so when they’re on the job, they have to do the right thing (or at least try to), but outside of the job they are definitely not goody two shoes. Maybe she cheats on her spouse, or has anger problems, etc. Or it could be something small, like she has a tendency towards self-righteousness.

      Obviously I don’t know anything about your character, but I’ve found that even a tiny flaw helps because it’s something most people can relate to. Just my two cents. 🙂 I’m a big fan of the flawed character, I think because it makes me feel better–if a character is too good, I end up wanting to see them fall. That’s probably one of my own flaws shining through, though, and might not be universal. ; )

      • Cassandra Jade said,

        Great advice – flawed characters make for really interesting reads (usually).
        Thanks for the comment.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Thanks for adding Death’s Duaghter to your list – hope you enjoy it.

      My characters don’t tend to be goody two shoes at the best of times. Occasionally they show a spark of nobility but it is usually short lived. I like my characters to run around in the grey areas, it is usually more interesting.

  11. Jemi Fraser said,

    Good tips Cassandra 🙂 I hate those ‘about faces’ some characters make in the middle of the story – they drive me batty!

    • thebitchywriter said,

      An about face can be good if the character learned something that gave them a jolt. If say, your character is a spy, but learns s/he is working for the wrong side then it’s just fine. But if there’s no reason at all then that’s just lack of creativity. Give us a reason why at least.

      • Cassandra Jade said,

        Have to agree. As long as there is a reason you can usually go with it.

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