Last week’s letter discussed passive protagonists. This week, I want to unpack two other ways to give protagonists agency within their stories: considering how they learn critical information and who makes the majority of the decisions in their story.
Think about scenes in which your protagonist is looking for answers or direction. Do others tend to give them helpful hints and suggestions at just the right time? Does your protagonist seem to happen across what they need to know by chance, without much effort? If so, think about how you can remove some of this assistance in order to make it harder for your protagonist to find information.
This might mean having your protagonist start the story with less information or making the answers to their questions more complex than they initially appear. It might involve limiting explicit directions, lucky breaks, and hints from other characters, or it might be more subtle.
For example, I often read manuscripts in which protagonists overhear important conversations. Eavesdropping—particularly if it happens accidentally, repeatedly, or without risk, effort, and planning—can read as an overly convenient way for characters to quickly learn information. If your protagonist must eavesdrop, consider making the conversation somewhat misleading; having it leave your character unsatisfied or with more questions than answers; or requiring your character to sacrifice something else in exchange, such as betraying a friend’s trust or missing an anticipated event.
In addition to considering how your protagonist learns information, think about who makes the major decisions in their story. These might be decisions that impact the plot (e.g. Should I investigate that mysterious light in the forest?); their relationships (e.g. Should I stick with my best friend, even if that means giving up something I want to do?); their growth (e.g. Do I need to come clean about my mistake?); or other areas of the story. Does your protagonist always follow the rules, allow their friends to take the lead, or find themselves forced into uncomfortable situations by circumstances outside of their control? If your protagonist starts the book this way, do they continue this pattern, or do they break it as they grow?
Passive protagonists have a tendency to cede responsibility for difficult decisions to other characters or to let fate take its course. This can make it seem as if the protagonist is simply along for the ride in someone else’s story, rather than driving their own story forward. Delegating or avoiding decisions also robs the protagonist of opportunities to grow as they make mistakes and learn from them.
Ultimately, allowing your characters to struggle and forge their own path helps readers to become more invested in their journey. Kids and teens are constantly being told what to think and do by their parents, teachers, and friends—all while trying to form their own identities in the midst of a barrage of influences. These are some of the reasons why it can be so satisfying and affirming to read books that show the determination, strength, and resilience kids and teens have, whether in subtle or dramatic ways.
Your Editor Friend,
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