Protagonists and Observers

If I was an energetic sort, I would make a tongue in cheek “Writer Advice bingo card”. Everyone who haunts a forum with an active writing community will probably be able to think of five good truisms for this within a second. One of the candidates for this card would be “Everyone is a protagonist in their own story”, a piece of advice that has been on my mind since reading Jo Zebedee’s wonderful blog post about the subject.

For those not familiar with the term, it boils down to the fact that all the secondary characters in a story aren’t just bits of scenery for the main character, but characters with their own motivation, goals and outlook. Its a regularly repeated piece of advice because its very easy for authors to treat them as the former and a lot better to treat them as the latter. Its also often remarked upon that secondary characters often have more fun and charm that the main character; outstanding secondary characters are often the hook that really drags readers in.

Then Juliana Spink-Mills posted a riff on the subject, linking the concept to personal experience and my brain went into overdrive. I started thinking about how often we get to be the protagonists in our own lives, how people perceive the idea of themselves being a protagonist. I think most people have episodes in their life where they are not the protagonist* – but if we are not the protagonist, what are we? Me, myself, I would say when that happens, I often find myself an observer of someone else’s story. But it is still my story. I am simultaneously protagonist and observer.

So what happens when your story’s protagonist becomes an observer? What happens when they venture into someone else’s story?

Temporarily, the story becomes about the protagonist’s reactions, not their actions. This is something of a high-risk high-reward move. The risk is that the protagonist is seen as boring and passive because they’re being inactive. People don’t want to read about how the protagonist watched all these amazing people solve the problem of the world’s imminent end. Its why all those farmboys level up very quickly.

Your protagonist don’t get to say that shit if they’re always an observer

However, to paraphrase Jim Butcher, reactions are how you get readers to give a flying frack about your characters. Watching them love, hate, get confused, wonder why their significant other hates cheese – that’s where readers form bonds. Reactions are what makes characters. That and the choices they make, and we need their reactions for their choices to make sense. 

Having a protagonist react to other people’s issues rather than their own allows them to demonstrate their character more fully. You can’t see empathy if they’re thinking mainly about themselves. You can’t hug yourself either, or stand there looking awkward with a hand half-raised as a bad substitute. A protagonist that’s not always reacting about their own issues is a lot harder to label as a whiner too.

How people observe tends to reveal a lot about them too. Do they notice the way people fiddle or the slight variation in intonation? Do they have a febrile imagination, filling out people’s lives for them with the slightest glance? Do they need beating with the clue stick before they spot things? Another way of putting this would be saying that when the protagonist stumbles into someone else’s story, they become the narrator. A short glance at any forum would tell you how much readers think they can work out authors based on how the story is told. When a protagonist tells a story, the author can make it far more explicit how the protagonist is affecting the story they’re telling.

The protagonist is always the protagonist. But sometimes we get more of them when they’re in someone else’s story other than their own.

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