One of the most common manuscript problems I see in my coaching practice is that new novel writers especially tend to try to tell every character’s story—and end up telling no one’s story well.
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s discuss some ways writers can choose the best character’s story to write:
Your novel’s main character (the character whose story predominates) must be the character who has a vision which matches the novel’s theme. By vision, I mean that this character has a goal. And not just any goal—this goal must be the one your character burns for, the one thing the character thinks she must attain over everything else. This goal could be a person, place or thing. Your character wants to get the guy/girl, wants to win something or longs to return to a certain place or time. The goal could also be an intense emotional desire. Your character passionately seeks acceptance, love, healing. Any of these goals might drive your character and your story. You, as writer and reader manager, must choose the character whose determination and passion rises above the other players.
Good storytelling always involves character goals, but readers hate it if the character wins too easily. This means that worthy antagonists and/or obstacles must arise to challenge your character. For most of your novel, your character will try to overcome obstacles and then lose a little ground. Readers want to see one step forward, two steps back. They love characters who fearlessly keep wading back into the fight. The character whose story you choose to tell must be the one who is most fearless in the face of these obstacles. This character keeps on when the odds are against him. Gets knocked down but gets up again. Each obstacle must be harder than the last one, all the way to the “all is lost” moment and the climax “do or die” scene. Choose your Protagonist with this fearlessness in mind.
Most to Lose
Your novel will be most satisfying if you choose the character who has the most to lose. All good story involves risk-taking. Let your novel focus on the character who has the most to lose, the biggest stake, the farthest to fall. If you do, you’ll have the best chance to grab readers and not let go. When you set the stakes, raise them again. One way to increase the stakes and tension is to imagine the character inside a series of concentric rings. At the center, your character has a personal stake (something to lose). In the next ring, he risks relationships—family, children, marriage, romance. In the next ring, your story puts the character at the heart of something bigger—the town he lives in, her lifestyle, his relationship with the environment. And at the outer ring, if possible, set stakes for the novel which could impact the world or the planet or galaxy. These rings of potential loss may help you expand your character’s risk, creating more tension. The character with the most to lose is almost always the best choice for protagonist.