Problems with Protagonists

Last Saturday I had another meeting with my writing group. Two people couldn’t make it which meant that I was critiqued by four people this month.

Many of you know I’m working on a mystery series titled George Florence. It was originally called Detective Florence and decided to change it.

Everyone in my group seems to enjoy the novel really well so far. I’m happy with it and I’m happy with the feedback they’ve given me, both good and bad.

Now, before I explain my problem, I have to say that I’ve been thinking about making some changes to my novel. One, I’ve been rethinking the POV. Right now it’s in first person with George as the narrator since he’s the protagonist. The more I write this series (three books written so far) the more I wonder if it should be third person limited.

Why? I’m not entirely sure. But if I’m thinking this then somewhere in the back of my mind must have some good reason, right? It wouldn’t hurt to try, right?

Okay, now I’ll explain my problem…

No one in my writing group really likes George. They all love and adorable Lilah, who is the female protagonist, but George is the main-main character… and they think he’s a wuss.

As sad as I am to admit, I agree with them. George does not have the personality I originally intended for him to have.

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Via Pinterest

George has been a character in my mind for years. I first thought of him while writing in a notebook at Barnes & Noble with my sister. I had about 40 or so pages written. The plot was different, the characters were different, the setting was different… the only thing that remained true over the years was George and the title. Lilah wasn’t even a sparkle in my eye at that time.

For an experienced detective, George certainly should not be acting the way he does. Lilah takes charge, she’s bossy, she knows what she’s doing–when she probably shouldn’t.

I told them I knew George needed to be flushed out more. I told them I was thinking of changing the POV. I also told them that Lilah seems to have squeezed her way through and started taking over the story without my consent.

Their advice? Screw George. Write Lilah’s story.

The group coordinator brought up a good point and told me that if Lilah is itching to be told, then she needs her own story as soon as possible. This is Lilah’s way of telling me that she needs to be the lead on a story.

We all know that its the characters who write the story, not the author, so when he said this I completely understood and agreed with him.

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Via Pinterest

The problem is… I feel like I’m cheating on George. Of course, he would still be in the story. He would still be the detective. The plot, characters, setting, etc. would be the same. It would just be from Lilah’s point of view.

So, here are my options:

1. Keep editing and revising until George strengthens and grows against his will
2. Rewrite story in third person with George as main character… see if that makes a difference
3. Rewrite story in first person with Lilah leading the way
4. Rewrite story in third person with Lilah in the lead

Four options… doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a lot to take in.

George Florence is the fifth novel I’ve completed, but the first one I’ve ever been truly serious about. It’s hard trying to figure out what’s best for the novel.

The novel is already written has been edited before. The draft I’ve been sending my group is the second draft. I’ll probably keep sending them the next parts of this draft like nothing happened. Maybe George will seem like he improves throughout the story.

In the meantime, I will try to rewrite the first part with Lilah in charge. Depending on how well that turns out, then the novel may get a huge makeover.

It’s especially troublesome because I love George, even though he didn’t come out as planned. I feel bad kicking him to main male instead of main protagonist. But ultimately it comes down to this question: how can I expect to sell a novel with a protagonist no one likes?

What are your thoughts on this: has this ever happened to you? What do you think I should do?

34 thoughts on “Problems with Protagonists

  1. That sounds like a real conundrum… Hmmm…

    I can’t tell you what to do. I can’t even give you the best advice with this one. Over the years, George has been the one you’ve followed and Lilah decided to pop in for a visit. It’s possible that George is ready to retire for good, and that’s why he’s not developing the way you want him to. It could just be that your mindset has changed and Lilah is the proof of that.

    I can tell you that in my own experience, changing from first person to third person was one of the best decisions I ever made. Puck was originally in first person, but she didn’t seem to sparkle and come to life until an editor told me, “Switch it to third.” I figured it couldn’t hurt and tried it. The result was the story that’s been published, and I feel it’s a much rounder story for it, and I haven’t written anything in first person since.

    Another addition to third person is the capability to switch characters freely. It can be third person limited and still switch between George and Lilah’s POVs, which might be exactly what you need, and it might help develop George’s character more, which is what switching from first to third did for me with Puck. 😉

    • All good points. I definitely need to play around with it. I’m going to try to rewrite a few scenes in third person, but with Lilah as the main character and we’ll see if that makes a difference. Apparently first person with George isn’t what’s best for the novel and I’m learning that the hard way. Thanks for the advice!

  2. I feel your pain. I have had similar problems. I had to change my main character right at the start. Then I had a similar problem recently. Basically is intended for my main character to fall in love with a particular person. But what do you know she stubbornly refuses. And it’s really changed the story quite a lot. Then I had to cut out an entire character because another one with a similar role was demanding the limelight. Sigh. With a lot of these things you have to listen to the characters they know what’s best. And to be honest, readers know best too. I would say rewrite with Lilah in charge sounds like she is anyway! And if she’s clearer in your mind she will write a better story anyway. I would say first person Lilah – but then I like the first person. If your head is saying third id go with what feels right.

    • I decided to change the POV because there are a few scenes Lilah wasn’t in and I wanted to write those to see what was going on with her. George can’t explain what he’s not there for, you know? Also, I was wondering why I felt the need to tell those scenes anyway since Lilah isn’t the protagonist. So, there’s another reason to switch the two, now that I think about it. I think I’m going to start off trying third person with Lilah. If that doesn’t seem to work, then I’ll try first person with Lilah. I have a lot of playing around to do. Thanks for the advice!

  3. Third person might help to flush out George, but it does sound like he’s being overshadowed by his supporting cast. That’s actually more common than people realize. Kind of like how some people love Piccolo or Vegeta more than Goku in DBZ or gravitate toward the villains more. I guess the big question is if the story can work with Lilah as the main character. Readers, even in writing groups, don’t know the whole story like the author, so they’ll demand something that might not work in the long-term. The more interesting character taking the lead would definitely hook and keep readers, but if the story falls apart because the original lead has been replaced then you have another problem.

    What about looking at it as a duet instead of one above the other? That’s what I do when I write an ensemble cast and it helps flush everyone out over the course of the story. It also allows the different character types to temper each other and work as a unit.

    • My sister actually mentioned that. It is still early in the story and George is just getting back up on his feet from losing his job. She thinks he’ll develop over the course of the novel and there may not be a need to change characters. You bring up a good point about the long-term of it all.

      They actually were the “same” more or less. I considered George as the main male and Lilah as the main female. George just seems to have an extra step up only because the story revolves around his work and such. However, so far no one is seeing it that way so it may not be working.

      • They find the character they like and focus more on that. Some don’t even realize that they’re cutting out the other leads. I get that all the time with my books. More people like Nyx and Fizzle, but find Luke’s reckless behavior and immaturity frustrating. So they want him removed and the others to get more of the spotlight. This would cause some major trouble for the later books and the main plot. It’s funny how readers will pinpoint the weaknesses of a character they don’t like while ignoring such things in their favorites. Just from the post, it sounds like both characters are flawed, which is great. Though it seems George is slower developer than Lilah, which can cause some issues with people.

        • It’s too bad readers can’t see it how we see it, lol. This summer I’m going to really work with my book and do major edits and see how far George can get. In the meantime, I am going to try to rewrite some scenes with Lilah “taking charge” and see how that goes. I have my work cut out for me. 😉

  4. After working with my first book for a few years, I realized that I didn’t like the main character. It took me a LONG time, but I finally figured out that it wasn’t due to personality or traits, etc, but because the main character didn’t have enough agency of the story. She wasn’t making the choices that propelled the plot. She was just along for the ride, handling what was thrown at her. Characters need to be the driving force of the plot, whether that’s making decisions that affect the plot, or choosing to stay involved.

    If you have a character reaching out for attention, go with it. Run with it. Take it by the hand and let it lead you through the obstacle course of the story. The worst that can happen is the story still won’t feel right (which is where you’re at right now). The best is that you end up with a powerful character in charge, which is what all stories need.

    • I’m going to try to switch the protagonists and see where that leads me. You’re right; the worst that can happen is that I’m right back where I started, lol. It’ll take a while, but hopefully I’ll eventually figure it all out. Thanks.

      • And even if you do end up where you started, any writing and exploration into the story will offer new perspectives and revelations about the plot and characters!

  5. Have you tried writing little short stories or flash fiction with Lilah as the main POV to get a feel for her? I wonder what would happen if you wrote little scenes that took place before the main story starts, such as Lilah discovering that her father’s former partner is a private investigator now or how she felt when she finally found George’s agency.

    As a few other commenters, and our critique group’s leader has said, only the author knows what’s best for the story. You have the whole story written already — has George grown up and developed like you had wanted him to? If you’re not sure of the answer, then playing around with the POVs for the story may be the best thing you can do right now.

    Most of my novels tend to have two or three main POVs, mostly because I’m trying to get a feel for how best to tell the story and because it allows me to watch all the leads develop overtime. Perhaps your story may benefit from the same. You’ll figure it out. 🙂

    • That’s a good idea to do scenes with Lilah before the story actually starts. I shall keep that in mind. I think I’m still going to have to play around with the POV, though.

  6. I’ve had this problem before. I’ve had it a few times, really. Perspective seems to be one of my weakest suits when it comes to first drafts. What your group said was absolutely right, though – if the character is itching for center stage give it to them because readers will also be itching for it if you don’t.

    I find it helpful to think of my books while I’m writing/editing/revising from the perspective of a reader. How many times have you read a review where someone said, “I WANTED MORE X, Y, Z the whole timeeee!”? It makes it easier to make the decision when you remember things like that.

    You could also scrap Geroge’s personality palette, but which decision would yield better results?

    Do right by the story first.

    • It’s hard to figure out what’s best for the story. But that’s a good point; looking at it through a reader’s perspective. I think I’ll just have to try out all my options and see where that gets me.

  7. This happens to me all of the time. I started working with a group of characters 4 or 5 years ago. At the time, I loved them. The story was different, and as the years wore on, the story changed completely. Unfortunately, the story became less of what I wanted it to be and more of what others thought it should be. I know for a fact that I’ve become a much better writer in 5 years, but I can’t bring myself to work with my original group of characters even though I still really like them.

    When it comes down to it, YOU need to be the one who’s happy with your character. Yes, take criticism, but he is your character after all. If you like him, you shouldn’t scrap him or replace him. Maybe try re-writing a small excerpt or even a chapter or two in third person and see how that affects the story.

    I think what I would do is evaluate George’s character as a whole considering the criticism you have received. Why is George the way he is? Is there a reason for his inexperience? Is this something he can overcome? Etc. It sort of sounds (from the way you wrote about her) that you seem to be a bit more interested in Liliah’s character, but I like the idea of a somewhat more passive protagonist with a more bossy foil (I suppose that’s the right word. I don’t know enough about the story to say for sure). Like I said, it’s ultimately your choice!

    • Hm… Good questions to ask. I’m not going to get rid of George completely. My original thought was that they would both be equals; George the main male and Lilah the main female. But Lilah decided she wanted to be slightly higher than George.

      I am going to try to do some editing with George in third person as well as try to write as Lilah and see what looks better. I also have to look at my draft and really see if I notice any huge character development throughout the story with George. In the beginning he’s just getting back up on his feet from losing his job, so anyone would be acting different than normal. I have to make sure he doesn’t stay like that through the rest of the story.

      Thanks for the advice!

          • I know I over think it. All the time. I took a playwriting class last semester, and my professor tore apart everything I wrote. (I’m grateful for it, because I’m much better at writing meaningful dialogue now, but it hurt a lot at the time.) Now, I question everything I write to the point where it’s difficult to get anything down. Last week, I started writing and told myself I wasn’t going to question what I wrote. I just went with whatever came to mind. I spent time editing yesterday (just a first chapter) and realized that it wasn’t bad. Messy, but not bad, and now I’m excited to continue.

            • It always hurts when someone tears it apart like that. But in the end we end up appreciating much more than we think. I’m glad you’re making good progress on your WIP!

              • Oh yes. I’ve learned to like the blatant honesty a lot more than people saying, “Oh. I liked it. It was good.” Sometimes it hinders progress, but it’s all a learning process, especially if we want to produce something that we can be proud of.

                • You’re right. We’re all in the same boat, but it’s a different perspective when someone looks at it through a reader’s standpoint.

  8. Hmm… changing him so he’s more likable would certainly be a plus, but you know that the “main character” and the “viewpoint character” are not always the same character.
    Since George is a detective, I’d say Sherlock Holmes is a perfect example–the stories were all about Holmes, he was clearly the main character, but absolutely everything was told to us through Watson’s point of view.

    Go ahead and tell Lilah’s story if you feel it needs doing… or rather she feels. 😉 But that doesn’t necessarily require rewriting George’s story. Perhaps you could tell both of their stories?

    • My sister mentioned Sherlock Holmes to me. I was thinking of writing George’s story, but through Lilah. So I think I might try that. 🙂

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