What if your protagonist starts acting like a jerk? Should you try to make him or her behave? Or should you change to a different protagonist?
Emily posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
How can you tell who your protagonist is?
I began writing my novel a couple years ago and I am still incredibly new at writing fiction. I have been kind of all over the place with it and haven’t really had a good method until I found the snowflake method and so far it seems to be the method for me. But I have now come to a new problem and that is that I am wondering if my Protagonist may be misplaced. The story is in the time a bit before the Protestant Reformation and the first disaster is that my “protagonists” wife becomes a Protestant and my protagonist feels obligated because of his values to send her away despite the fact that he loves her to death. Eventually some time later she discovers that she is pregnant with his child and to her her husband gets really upset. For some reasons he doesn’t seem to be very likeable and I am wondering if maybe it sounds like his wife should be the protagonist. Or does he have hope of being likeable if I write it right?
Randy sez: Glad to hear you’re finding the Snowflake Method useful, Emily! I don’t know much about your protagonist, but already I don’t like him. And I suspect most readers won’t like him either. Of course I might change my mind after seeing some of your novel, but as it stands, this guy is a jerk.
So what are you going to do?
As I see it, you’ve got three options:
- Change your protagonist’s behavior to be more likeable.
- Change your story so the wife is the protagonist/lead character.
- Change the story so that your current protagonist remains the lead character but now becomes the antagonist.
In a minute, we’ll look at those three options, but let’s talk first about what a lead character is.
Your Lead Character
Your lead character is the person the story is focused on. Your lead character generally gets the biggest share of the air-time in the story. Your lead character is the person your reader is watching.
Your lead character is usually the protagonist of your story. Usually, but not always.
As an example, in Frederick Forsyth’s novel, The Day of the Jackal, the lead character is a ruthless assassin code-named “the Jackal.” Nobody knows his real name, but a French terrorist organization hires him to assassinate Charles de Gaulle.
The novel tells the story of how the Jackal buys fake ID, gets a brilliantly disguised sniper rifle, crosses the border into France, makes his way to Paris, chooses his killing ground, and …
You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens next. The novel is brilliant and was a major best-seller in its day. I can’t justify calling the Jackal the protatonist of the story. That honor would go to Claude Lebel, the French detective leading the effort to catch the Jackal before he strikes.
But Lebel gets comparatively little air-time. The Jackal gets more of the action than any other player.
So in my view, the Jackal is the lead character and Lebel is the protagonist.
Let’s be clear that usually the lead character is the protagonist. It’s just not an absolute requirement.
That’s why I think you have three options, and not just two.
Now let’s look at those options in a little more detail.
Option 1: Make Your Protagonist More Likeable
Why would you choose this option?
Maybe because when you started writing the story, you liked your protagonist. You thought he had some good qualities that more than balanced out his flaws, and you hoped to write a story with a good redemption theme. That’s very reasonable. We can all think of any number of flawed people who, like Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice, turn out good in the end.
If that’s what you intended, then it sounds like you’ve let your protagonist drift a bit. He’s done things you didn’t intend, or else you intended to show a better justification for those actions.
And if that’s what’s happened to your novel, then the solution is to work through the novel, find the bad things he does, and either soften them, or show his moral dilemma more starkly and give him a stronger reason for making the bad decisions he makes. And then show us the guilt he feels and the efforts he makes to turn things right again.
That could work.
Option 2: Make the Wife Your Protagonist
This could be a lot of work, so why would you want to choose this option?
Maybe because you were actually more in tune with the wife from the beginning, even though you didn’t realize it.
It may be that, all along, your theme has been about repression of women by male authority figures and patriarchal power systems. In a year like this one, that could play extremely well.
It may be that you didn’t realize this was your theme. It may be that the theme developed organically and now you’re seeing that it’s at odds with the story you started telling.
If that’s what’s happened, then it completely makes sense to make the wife the protagonist. You may need to give her more air-time. You may need to rewrite a lot of scenes.
Or it may turn out that you don’t actually have to change very much, if that’s the story you’ve subconsciously been writing all along. Writing a novel has a way of bringing out things from your core that you didn’t know were there.
In any event, this approach could work quite well.
Option 3: Leave Your Lead Character the Same, but Change the Protagonist
This is a lot like option 2. The wife (or some other character) would now be the protagonist, while the lead character remains this cruel man.
Why would you want to choose this option?
Maybe because your novel is about the hidden cruelty in all humans, and you want to take a deep look into evil, using a person who thinks he’s a paragon of virtue. Could play well or play poorly, depending on who your target audience is.
This option might not take that much work. Your lead character has been getting most of the air-time and he gets to keep that. But now you just need to adjust the tone so that your reader empathizes with the wife and watches in increasing horror as the lead character turns more and more to the wrong.
If you take this tack, I’d advise you to write the first scene in the point of view of the actual protagonist. I’d recommend you give the reader a strong emotional attachment to the true protagonist early on. And you’d need to find some compelling reason why your villainish lead character gets most of the air-time. If you can’t find that compelling reason, then this probably isn’t your strongest option. (In The Day of the Jackal, the compelling reason to give the Jackal so many scenes is because he’s really quite a fascinating person, meticulous in his preparations, making it look like a dead certainty that he’s going to succeed. And that makes for a great suspense novel.)
In any event, if you go this route, you’d have a strong novel about the nature of evil.
That could work.
You Have Options; Take Your Pick
So you have several good options, Emily. They all require a bit of work, but any one of them could make a good novel.
You get to decide how you’ll play it.
Make your decision based on who you are, what you value, and what you want to say about life.
Good luck, and have fun!
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THANK YOU SOOOOOO MUCH!!!!! Now I understand my novel so much better! Everything falls in to place much better now that I understand where I can take it. I feel like I’m looking at my story right side up after being upsidedown for the last two years!😄🙃☺️
Emily Janowiak says
It does seem like I should make the wife the lead character because come to think of it when I was sending my chapters to a friend as I wrote them, she ended up routing for her and not liking her husband. I kinda like it better that way anyway at the moment.
It might be helpful to think of your protagonist as the character who is going to have the largest character arc. The person who is going to change from the person they were at the beginning of the story to the person they are at the end of the story. It also might be helpful to to think of it as the person your reader is rooting for. Would you like the reader to root for the your husband character to have a change from someone bound by those feelings that are pushing his wife away to a man who becomes free to love her? Or would you like the reader to root for the woman to somehow escape her situation or change her situation for the better? Of course they could both change for the better … but it comes down to who you want your reader to root for the most, I think. It sounds like an interesting story!
Mel Hughes says
Thank you Amanda! You beat me to the punch, but your advice is perfect.
Somraj Pokras says
Randy: Great answer to the protagonist conundrum of this author. I’m also writing my first novel (after 20 non-fiction works) and learning a lot from your books and articles. Keep up the good work.