Developing Characters: Will the real protagonist please stand up?

We’ve been discussing writing characters who are strong, who strive toward their goal and who are in some way larger-than-life. And as we considered supporting cast members who upstage the hero/heroine, I must say a last word about this main character thing: Sometimes, the person whom you think is the main character is really a supporting cast member.
Writing Tip for Today: One of my students brought in Olive Kitteridge as part of an in-class exercise. I remember reading that the author, Elizabeth Strout, wrote these interconnected stories from other character’s viewpoints. But something didn’t feel right. Then it hit her: she needed to tell the story from Henry’s POV. She rewrote the entire book. Likewise, in your work you may occasionally feel a tug that says you’re writing the wrong story, from the wrong character’s viewpoint. Ask yourself, “Whose story is this?” Many writers get confused here. While the best person to narrate a story may or may not be the POV character, you should be able to answer the question without hesitation. In multiple viewpoint novels, the reader encounters more than one narrator, but the result should still be that the novel is about one character’s story more than the others.
Try This! Take a scene from your WIP, using the narrator/protagonist you’ve chosen, and rewrite that scene from the POV of each remaining character. How does the story remain the same and how does it change? Have you chosen the best protagonist for the story?

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

2 comments on “Developing Characters: Will the real protagonist please stand up?

  1. Stephen J Cannell wrote an interesting mystery called At First Sight.

    It starts in 1st person POV (the bad-guy/ hero), but near the end of the story the author skillfully switches to 1st person POV of the victim (the real hero).

    An interesting read for any writer who would like to see how a novel can have two opposing protagonists tell the story from two different views along a timeline.


  2. James, the operative word here is “skillfully.” Cannell (a University of Oregon graduate)employed a technique mystery writers must often use. Many mystery novelists switch POVs so the bad guy’s crime can be witnessed by the reader. Since the good guy is rarely present when the crime is committed, this makes sense. ~Linda

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