#4: When Protagonists Don’t Protag

Dear Story Nurse,

My problem in a nutshell: I don’t know what kind of climax my story needs!

Details: I’m working on a fantasy novel, mostly secondary world with a little magic thrown in. It’s between 80k and 90k long. This is the first novel I’ve really plotted out seriously, and I can tell that it helped a lot in keeping track of the threads and in keeping the story moving when my tendency is to stop and gaze for way too long at the scenery.

A little bit about the story: There are four (thinking of cutting it down to three) POV characters whose plots intersect and come together toward the end of the story. There’s one character in particular who is sort of central to everything, and everybody else’s arc in the story is directly or indirectly pulled by her—some to help her and others to potentially harm her. Of all the characters, she probably has the most growth as a character.

(This letter is on the longer side, so it’s continued after the cut tag.)

So here’s a longer version of the nutshell:

I’ve reached the point just before the climax, which has all of the POV characters converging together, along with a detachment of soldiers who are in league with the antagonists. The characters who are not bad guys don’t have any such armed support on their side, although one of the POV characters has some experience in a fight.

I even have an ending in mind, which is mostly a happy one: the antagonists are defeated or at least prevented from maximum antagonizing. I just can’t figure out how the characters get from the climax set-up to the denouement! For some reason, the only options that come to mind are (1) a battle—which is not really in keeping with the rest of the novel, which is mostly women of various ages moving through the setting, doing what they do—or (2) an involved conversation, which seems a bit underwhelming.

One thing I’ve thought about is that, throughout the story, the central-most MC has been yanked this way and that by good guys and bad alike. I feel like the climax is her opportunity to assert herself somehow. All the other MCs have had to make choices throughout the story, but she’s been pretty passive.

So if you have any thoughts as to how I can think through this, what some options outside battle/conversation are, and what you’d want to see in this kind of scene, they would be most appreciated!

—chocolatetort (she/her)

Dear chocolatetort,

Thanks for writing in with such a classic concern! A lot of authors face similar problems. You are definitely not alone. And I’ve got a few different sets of suggestions for you to try on for size.

1. Your protagonist needs to protag. When I was editing novels, this was one of the things I said most frequently to my clients, and now I say it unto you. I think you’re totally right that the climax will be a great place for her to assert herself. I also think that if the asserting herself comes out of nowhere—if she spends 95% of the novel as mild-mannered Dr. Banner before suddenly going HULK SMASH—then that climax isn’t going to be very satisfying, because it will be out of character for her and for the book. So go back through your story and find places where she practice assertiveness. Being a doormat is not something readers generally find appealing in any character, and particularly in a main character. Give her things to do and let her do them. Let her take risks and sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. Let her pick a goal and commit to it and pursue it. Let her, as you say, make choices. Otherwise she isn’t really a character; she’s exposition with a face and a name.

Another option is to realize that she isn’t your main character after all, and to recenter the story on someone who actually takes action to shape the world. Authors do this more often than you’d think. Or they don’t, and then book reviewers say things like “I don’t understand why this boring pushover is the protagonist when this other character is way more interesting and does so much cool stuff.”

The interesting side character is often a woman when the bland protagonist is a man, or a person of color when the bland protagonist is white, or someone who’s otherwise part of a group that’s marginalized either in the fictional setting or in the real world. Culturally ingrained ideas about who gets to be a hero are so strong and pervasive that they can override everything else we know about story. So ask yourself: why did you choose to make this person the protagonist, and why did you choose not to make this other person the protagonist? Everyone’s the hero of their own story, so every character could potentially be the hero of yours. When you pick one character to focus on, make that a deliberate choice with solid, story-based reasons behind it.

2. Remember that climaxes aren’t actually about dramatic action; they’re about the release of emotional tension. It’s crucial for the climax to be the peak of the character’s emotional growth, the place where they make use of everything they’ve learned throughout the story and take a major risk or pay a heavy price in order to (they hope) gain what they’re looking for. It’s easy to make ribald jokes about climaxes, but the word is used for orgasm for a reason. The story has built up tension that needs to be released, and the climax is what releases it. It’s cathartic, for the characters and for the reader.

There’s actually nothing wrong with the climax being an involved conversation. Romance novel climaxes are almost always conversations, including in romantic suspense stories where there’s lots of violent dramatic action happening as well, and they work just fine. In romance, the story is specifically about people overcoming obstacles to their happy union, and romance novel protagonists are almost always their own biggest obstacles. They need to really talk to each other to reconcile their differences, commit to their relationship, and collaborate on shaping their future happiness. Done right, that conversation will make you weep or cheer or sigh with relief. That emotional reaction from the reader occurs in tandem with the emotional triumphs of the characters. When you pick one character to focus on, make that an explicit, deliberate choice.

If you think involved conversations are always underwhelming, I recommend reading a Jane Austen novel or six. Her books are nearly all conversation, and it’s nearly all incredibly fascinating conversation. In Persuasion, the emotional climax is a man writing a letter and a woman reading it, and it makes me cry every time. So don’t rule out the possibility of something like that working for your book, even if the epic fantasy genre seems to demand otherwise. You’ve already broken with genre conventions by mostly writing about women of various ages living their lives. Breaking with them further is perfectly fine.

I know you were hoping for some options for climactic scenes that aren’t battles or conversations, so I’ve got some great news for you: anything can happen in a climactic scene! As long as you lay the right groundwork for that release of emotional tension, your main character can be stabbed to death, drag the antagonist over a cliff, save the antagonist’s life, offer or receive a proposal of marriage, pull off a heist or a con, solve a mystery, make a phone call, walk through a door, or do a little dance and sing a little song. The emotional content of the scene is what matters.

3. After the emotional climax, bring your protagonist back down to earth. Right now it sounds like you’re thinking of the end of the book in terms of what happens with the antagonists, but that’s your fondness for scenery creeping in; “the antagonists are defeated” is setting, not plot. What happens to your POV characters? How have they changed during their journeys? Have they gotten what they wanted, and do they still want it now that they have it? Once you’ve got a handle on that, you might be able to work backwards from the ending and figure out what the emotional climax should be—the moment when the character goes from being who they were to who they are now.

You may even learn that the ending isn’t a happy one; if your protagonist has finally gotten in the groove of taking action, for example, she may be disappointed that the antagonists are defeated and she has to go back to her ordinary life. POV characters are like news media: they can spin the same events a dozen different ways. Once you’ve decided whether your protagonist is the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or the Village Voice, you’ll have a much easier time figuring out how the events of the story shape and are shaped by her feelings and thoughts.

I hope this gives you lots of tasty thoughts to chew on! Happy writing!


Story Nurse

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2 thoughts on “#4: When Protagonists Don’t Protag

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