The Protagonist Problem

I’m in the process of starting to write a new novel. Which is exciting, and also nerve-wracking, because I haven’t written a new novel in several years. After my previous novels failed to find publishers, I decided to concentrate on short fiction for a while. Which has been fun, but my brain is itching to write something long-form. Something with chapters and multiple point-of-view characters. Something with lots of world-building and character arcs and all that juicy stuff. Something I can really get lost in the writing of, for months.

No sooner have I started, though, than I’ve encountered a problem. The Protagonist Problem. There’s been a common thread in the rejections I’ve received from publishers, and the notes I got back from my erstwhile agent. My protagonists, I am told, aren’t protaggy enough. They need to be out there, doing more protagonising. Having more agency. Making more choices. All that stuff. I have a tendency to write main characters who are passive and mopey and don’t actually *do* anything. Stuff just… kind of happens to them.

And… now I’m doing it again. I’ve started writing a book with protagonists who aren’t doing all that much protagonising. More… sitting around moping and drinking tea and waiting for someone else to tell them what to do.

So. What am I going to do about my Protagonist Problem?

Well, part of me rejects this whole notion that protagonists need to be All Action, All The Time. Isn’t that all a bit Western-centric, patriarchal, white supremacist? After all, for anyone who is marginalized in some way – ie the vast majority of people in the world – agency is in short supply. Choices are constrained. And even if you’re in a relatively privileged position, you’re still subject to the whims of fate. Real life is less about going out there and making stuff happen, and more about dealing with the stuff that happens to you.

One of the things that’s happened to me is that I’ve been burned by the publishing industry. I’ve spent lots of time trying to write books which were supposed to be commercially viable, compromising my artistic vision and my enjoyment of my own writing process in an attempt to produce something publishable. And then I still got rejected.

So what I’m trying to do now is to write something purely for the joy of getting lost in a world of my own creation, without compromise and without concern for what anyone might think of the finished product. So what if my main characters are mopey? Maybe I like them that way.

All that being said…

I have identified, at an early stage, an issue with my writing that I have repeatedly been told makes my books less compelling to read. And I would quite like, actually, to produce a book that’s not just fun to write but also fun to read. Perhaps I should at least consider The Protagonist Problem from all angles. Perhaps I should have a think if there are any tweaks I can make to the story. Perhaps it’s possible to make my main characters more pro-active without making them completely unrecognizable as the people who’ve been living in my head rent-free.

Well, it turns out it didn’t take a huge amount of thought about my plot outline to identify a few crucial moments where my characters could be making more deliberate choices rather than simply doing what they’re told. So… I guess I’m in the process of trying to resolve my Protagonist Problem? I don’t know how successful I’m going to be, but that’s all part of the ongoing process of discovery and delight that is writing a novel.