There's a question that I sometimes see on Query Manager that asks, "Why are you the right person to tell this story?" It's one of those deceptively simple questions that usually has an infuriatingly complicated answer.
Despite the potential for infuriation, there's a variation on this question I think authors should ask themselves while they are drafting their book: "Why is my main character the right protagonist for this story?"
"Because I said so," you might say. "Because I'm writing this story, and this is the main character I picked!"
But if that's your answer, you’re at risk of writing an entire book with the wrong main character. You know what I'm talking about — we've all read those books in which we find a side character infinitely more interesting than the protagonist the author is making us follow.
To avoid writing a book that suffers from "Wrong Main Character Syndrome," ask yourself these three questions to determine if the protagonist you’ve chosen is the right one to lead your story.
What's at stake for them?
The easiest way to tell if you have the right main character for your book is to check in with the stakes.
Occasionally, I'll read a manuscript with a "self-appointed Chosen One." It's when the main character sees something wrong in their world and decides to fix it. Noble, yes, but the issue with this set-up is there's often nothing to keep the character invested in the task other than an intellectual sense of obligation. If they don't succeed on their journey, the consequence is the status quo remains intact, and while that isn't ideal, it's not exactly exciting for the reader.
Before you have your protagonist set out to solve a problem, do an analysis of what they have at stake. I usually break down the stakes by determining the possible outcomes for the end of the book and sketching out what my protagonist will gain and lose for each outcome.
If your main character isn't facing the possibility of tangible gains and losses, then refocus your story on a character who has more invested.
Are they motivated by someone else’s pain?
A long time ago, I saw a tweet from a very wise internet stranger who said something along the lines of, “Take the bad thing that happens to your main character’s friend, sibling, or love interest and make it happen to them instead.”*
While the suffering of a loved one can be a powerful motivating factor for a character, when it comes to storytelling, secondhand challenges just aren’t as compelling as firsthand challenges.
A main character who cares about other people isn't a bad thing, and it certainly can be part of what drives your story forward. But it shouldn't be the only thing. Because no matter how much your main character cares about what happens to their loved ones, there's going to be a sense of distance from the consequences.
The threat of something bad happening to your main character's sister is never going to be as harrowing for the reader as the threat of something bad happening to your main character.
Do the character arc and plot line up?
One of my theories about why “Wrong Main Character Syndrome” might occur is that the plot and characters were developed separately.** This means you can end up with a compelling protagonist and a unique premise, but the protagonist and premise never really gel together.
Your plot development and your character development should have a symbiotic relationship. The protagonist should grow and change depending on what happens in the plot, and they should also steer the plot based on how they are growing and changing.
If the plot is happening totally independently from your protagonist’s emotional conflicts, it’s a sign you’ve picked the wrong main character for your plot (or you’ve picked the wrong plot for your main character).
*If you know what tweet I’m talking about, please let me know so I can thank the person who wrote it. It has forever changed the way I think about characterization!
**This is by no means the ONLY reason this phenomenon happens, and it’s not inevitable you will pick the wrong main character if you work out the plot and the characters separately. Just one possibility.
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