How to Force Your Protagonist to Take Charge of the Story

How to Strengthen Your Narrative Drive, Protagonists, Planning Your Novel, Characters, Renea Guenther, Character Creation

It’s common for first drafts to be a mess as they’re simply meant for placing the foundations of the story and getting our ideas down.

You’ll probably find your first draft falls into one of two categories: character-focused with lots of internalization and little action, or plot-focused with lots of action and very little internalization.

For the story to feel balanced, it needs a combination of both internalization and action.

All of which needs to be driven by the protagonist.

Fixing a Character-Focused Story

A story tends to get boring fast if all the protagonist does is live in their head.

While we do need internalization to understand the character’s motivations and internal reactions to the world around them, a story can quickly begin to drag if that is all there is to the story.

Internalization means very little if we don’t give it a purpose by showing the character interacting with the world around them.

We want to use just enough to understand how the character acts and feels without going overboard.

Step-by-step planning of their next moves needs to be minimized or eliminated altogether.

Unless their plan blows up in their face and things happen differently than planned, then all you’re doing is setting the story up for repetition when they actually get to the action.

Making it boring to the reader and causing you to rush through writing it, leaving out much of the detail that could have been included.

Readers are more interested in action than internal dialogue. So, keep the planning to a minimum.

One problem to watch for is sometimes we find ourselves using the character’s internal dialogue to brainstorm as we write.

That’s fine for a first draft since the story isn’t fully formed yet, but during the revision stage, we need to cut what isn’t necessary.

Only include what is needed for understanding the scene and pushing the story forward, and substitute action wherever possible.

When it comes to plot elements, remember: show, don’t tell.

Fixing a Plot-Focused Story

Readers come to our stories wanting to live another person’s life, to become them, to have new and exciting experiences to distract them from the monotony of everyday life.

To do that, they need to know what’s going on in the character’s head, their thoughts and feelings, their motivation for acting the way they do.

No matter how exciting and fast-paced the action, a reader will never emotionally connect with the protagonist, or the story, if they can’t get inside the character’s head and see the world through their eyes.

This can make the story just as boring as one that is solely character-focused.

The reader needs to know the stakes matter to the character, and the story has a purpose.

Sure, a lot of that can be relayed in dialogue.

But we don’t always tell others our innermost thoughts, and we can’t always put our emotions into words, nor would we want everyone to be privy to them.

For the readers to connect with our characters, we need to make them as realistic as you or me.

A messed-up bundle of emotion, thoughts, and action.

Sometimes in emotionally-charged situations, we don’t always think before acting.

But we always suffer the consequences of those actions, replaying it in our minds, trying to find where we went wrong and how we can fix it.

Other times, we have time to weigh the pros and cons before we decide on a course of action.

We choose the most logical choice for the situation that we hope will have the most reward with the lowest risk and hope for the best.

We want our characters to make logical, realistic choices that further the story, preferably making them suffer along the way as we escalate the stakes until they finally reach the climax and overcome the enemy.

It should be clear to the readers how the stakes affect the protagonist mentally and physically.

We want the readers to sympathize with the character and worry they might not succeed, much as they would if it was happening to themselves or someone close to them.

Just be careful to keep the focus on the protagonist if you’re writing multiple points of view.

You want it to be clear which character has the most at stake and you don’t want other characters stealing the show.

The protagonist should be at the center of every plan, conversation, or scheme, even when the chapter or scene is told by another character.

There should be a constant reminder of who this story is about and how the plot revolves around them and no one else.


The ultimate goal should be to create a balance of action and internalization to create a well-rounded story.

All of which is driven by the protagonist.

They are your story, and everything in it should revolve around them.

Everything else is secondary.

What kind of story do you prefer? Plot-based, character-based, or a balance of the two?



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Renea strives to help writers develop the focus and skills they need to finish their first novel, offering writers practical writing advice they can apply one step at a time.

She is the author of Conquering Writing Pressures: Living a Balanced Writing Life in a Busy World where she helps writers find the courage to accept life will never be perfect. And if we want our dreams to succeed, we must fight to make them a reality.

She currently lives in St. Joseph, Missouri, with her husband Joe, her three children, and her five lovable furballs.

From a young age, Renea was mad for books and reading, and especially loved Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, which she read in the ninth grade.

She is an avid reader, with her main interests residing in history, mythology, and fantasy, along with some romance and science fiction in her earlier years.

When Renea’s not writing, she enjoys genealogy, role-playing games, and dreams of traveling the world. In a past life, she plucked chickens and milked cows.

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6 thoughts on “How to Force Your Protagonist to Take Charge of the Story

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