Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Beige Protagonist Syndrome

I mentioned last week that I had decide to cut my main character, Ink, from my Nanowrimo plans. In fact, my sister and I had a Delete-Your-Main-Character party, where we both got rid of our main characters, and upgraded a secondary character. This isn’t the first story I’ve found has benefited from this. Once you’ve got caught up in your exciting plot, your fascinating secondary characters and your shiny new setting, it’s easy to forget that your main character protagonist has to be exciting too. Instead, they end up beige, bland and overall dull. So, to save myself – and anyone else who finds themselves burdened by boring protagonists – I have compiled a list of question to indicate whether the main character suffers from beige protagonist syndrome.

Can your protagonist be described using the words ‘ordinary teenage girl’?
Of course, this doesn’t apply only to teenage girls. It also works for ‘ordinary middle-aged mother’ or ‘just your average office-worker’. If someone asks you what your main character is like, and this is your answer, warning lights should probably be flashing. If the most interesting thing you can think to say about your main character is their age, their gender, and their averageness, there’s probably something wrong.
I once figured this was okay, because of course my protagonist would be ordinary at the start of the novel, which is why it would be so much more exciting when she discovered the magical world. But I don’t think it works quite like that. A protagonist has to be interesting as a person before they become interesting as a vessel for the plot. Ordinary is basically shorthand for ‘I couldn’t be bothered thinking of a character’.

Would the plot change if you removed your protagonist?
If Harry Potter didn’t exist, Voldemort wouldn’t attack Hogwarts at the end of the school year. If Frodo didn’t exist, nobody would have volunteered to take the ring to Mordor, and then where would we be?
When reading the wonderful Snowflake Method (somehow this seems to come up in every post), Ingermason suggests “It is OK to have the first disaster be caused by external circumstances, but I think that the second and third disasters should be caused by the protagonist's attempts to "fix things". That’s a bit of a simplistic, overly structured take on the whole affair, but the point stands that at least some of the plot should be caused by your protagonist. They shouldn’t just be along for the ride.

Do you find yourself struggling to explain why your protagonist is present during key moments in the story?
This relates do the previous question. If you do, they probably aren’t connected strongly enough to the plot. Similarly, if your protagonist is only there because they begged to come along (Mortal Instruments, I’m looking at you) and the more you think about it, the more it makes sense for everyone to just left them at home, you have a problem. Your protagonist shouldn’t need a reason to be in key scenes. Key scenes should come to them.

Do you love your secondary characters more than your protagonist?
This one isn’t linked to plot, but it’s still important to making sure your main character isn’t boring. If you think your secondary characters are more exciting, chances are your readers do too. You want to write more about your secondary characters, and your readers probably want to read more about them. So why is everyone being subjected to your beige protagonist?
Of course, this goes by degrees. It’s probably okay if your main character isn’t your favourite character. But it’s probably not okay if you cringe every time you have to write a long scene about them, and invent extravagant subplots just to give your secondary characters more screen time.

Is your character having too much fun?
While other characters are feeling angst ridden and stressed, is your character really just having an adventure? Chances are they’re not invested enough in the plot. Your main character should be up there in the list of people with the most to lose if the antagonist wins. They should be on the front line of the battle against your story’s evil, and if anyone has the right to be an angst monkey, it should be them. Make sure your character is heavily affected by the plot, not just a passive observer. Motivation is important.

When you come across a beige protagonist, there are several things you can do. Character development obviously helps.. I’ve posted some stuff on the topic here and here. When it comes to plot, the easiest way to fix things is to raise the stakes for them. Your protagonist has no reason to fight the antagonist? Have the antagonist threaten something that personally matters to them.

If your protagonist is too far gone for any of that to work, scrap them. Promote your favourite secondary character. You might be surprised at how well it works.


  1. I've struggled with this on my current WIP. The questions you pose are good, and luckily most of them are not an issue in my WIP. The big one for me is that she is an ordinary girl. Now she's dealing with un-ordinary issues, being gay and a brother who died by suicide, but on the inside, she's a sweet, quiet, dependable, nice girl.

    Ordinary really.

    She's not super witty or charismatic. But she's the type of friend I'd like to have.

    So that's my issue. How to make her more intresting, but keep with the quiet nice girl image.

    1. What I write is often fantasy, so my biggest trouble is linking ordinary characters (usually teenage girls) into extraordinary worlds and events, without making them seem boring in comparison. I don't have much experience writing in non-fantasy genres, but this blog post is very helpful (I can't actually work out how to embed the link):
      It talks about making your character extraordinary, but not necessarily in enourmous ways. For your character, it could even be that she's just an extraordinarily sweet, dependable girl in spite of all the trouble she faces.
      Hope that helps. =)