Fixing a Protagonist

Stacey Kite

Stacey Kite

It really stinks to get way into a big project and then discover a major flaw. I’ve had that happen before and don’t really want to repeat the exercise with my novel’s manuscript. Of course, I know there will be problems with the first draft. That’s why writers do multiple revisions—to fix all those mistakes they made the first time around. But since I haven’t actually made it to the revision stage yet, I’ve had plenty of doubts about whether I would be able to fix the big boo-boos later. That anxiety has really slowed my writing pace.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Don’t worry. It doesn’t matter if you make a mistake. Just keep going. Yes, I know that’s what I should do, but knowing something intellectually and feeling it are two different things. Telling myself that worrying is unproductive and irrational doesn’t silence the insecurity monster that whispers in the back of my head any more than it cures my fear of wolf spiders. (Seriously, it’s called arachnophobia for a reason; if it were a rational fear, it would just be called exercising reasonable caution.)

Anyway, my point is that I have this fear of dooming my story by making some fatal mistake in the first draft. So, in the hopes of heading off big problems early, I asked a writing friend to read the first few chapters. Fortunately, she is an honest critiquer, and though there were many things she liked, my protagonist wasn’t one of them. (She didn’t put it that bluntly because she’s a very sweet person, but that was the gist.) The lead character evidently read like a mean girl pretending to be nice. Ouch!

That’s bad. A protagonist who turns off readers is the ultimate book killer. It doesn’t matter how tight the plot is or how cool the world-building. If the lead is a dud, no one is going to keep reading. Though I know it’s usually unproductive to re-write chapters before finishing the first draft, I didn’t feel comfortable forging on with the story until I knew I could fix my protagonist.

So, with that review in hand as well as the suggestions of another wonderful writing buddy, I gave my protagonist a literary makeover. I didn’t really change her character or the story’s plot, but just softened her language, especially on her internal dialogue, and shifted one aspect of her backstory. Then I asked the people in my monthly critique group, writers who had never read anything about this particular character before, to critique the chapter and tell me how they felt about the protagonist. It was a universal thumbs up. The character didn’t turn anybody off. Yay! There was much rejoicing.

Now I have a lot more confidence going forward because I know that I’m capable of going back later and fixing the big problems. I may need help from writing friends to do it, but that’s just fine with me. I have a lot of smart and talented friends. And because I know that, I’m not nearly as anxious about messing up as I write on. I will make mistakes, some bigger than others, but if I can fix a dis-likable protagonist, I’ll be able to fix the rest of the mistakes, too. I only wish that facing down the next creepy spider that traps itself in the bathtub will be as easy. I doubt my writing friends can help me with that.

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