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The Protagonist: How to Center Your Story

The Little PrinceIt’s easy to think we understand the role the protagonist plays in a story. We’ve seen movies and read books, after all. We know the protagonist when we see him. However, as I coach and edit authors, I’ve found that while many authors may be able to spot a protagonist, they don’t necessarily know how to create one.

And this is a huge problem.

In a traditional story, the protagonist has several very specific requirements, and if your protagonist doesn’t meet those requirements, your story will break down.

Definition of Protagonist

The protagonist can also be called the hero or main character, but these terms are imprecise, and for some stories, plainly false. The protagonist of Macbeth, for example, is clearly not a hero. Nick Carraway is the main character of The Great Gatsby but he is not the protagonist.

My favorite definition of the protagonist is from Stephen Koch’s Writer’s Workshop:

The protagonist is the character whose fate matters most to the story.

The protagonist centers the story. She defines the plot and moves it forward. Her fate determines whether the story is a tragedy or comedy.

You may not know who your protagonist is until you are halfway through writing your novel. You may think your protagonist is one character, only to find out your villain is actually your protagonist. You do not need to know who your protagonist is before you begin writing, but as you look at your work in progress, ask “Whose future is most important to this story, to the other characters in this story? Whose future is most important to me?” If you can answer these questions, you have found your protagonist.

How to Characterize a Protagonist

How do you make a protagonist more interesting? How do you bring depth to the protagonist’s personality?

The best way to characterize the protagonist is through an antagonist. An antagonist, or villain, is not necessarily evil or “the bad guy.” Instead, the antagonist is the protagonist’s opposite, their shadow or mirror.

The human mind loves to compare. It especially loves to compare people, and by characterizing your antagonist, you naturally create a comparison that characterizes your protagonist.

Here’s a trick: When you are writing your villain, the stronger you make the antagonist, the better your protagonist will look when he wins. The more you increase the values of your antagonist, the more interesting your protagonist becomes.

Is There Only One Protagonist?

While there is usually only one protagonist in a story, this isn’t always true. In romantic comedies and “buddy stories,” there can be two protagonists. For example, in Romeo and Juliet it is the fate of both characters, not just one of them, that matters to the story. Same with Lethal Weapon and The Odd Couple.

I love stories with multiple viewpoint characters, stories like The Yacoubian Building or The Joy Luck Club or 44 Scottland Street.* These stories have multiple characters who could be protagonists, but while the stories begin with several possible protagonists, by the end, the author has led you to just one or two.

The Most Important Requirement for the Protagonist

This is the single most important element of your protagonist, and thus one of the most important of your novel as a whole. If your protagonist fails to do this, your story will fail. Seriously.

Your protagonist must choose.

Protagonists must make decisions. A character who does not choose her own fate, and thus suffer the consequences of her choice, is not a protagonist. She is, at best, a background character.

Donald Miller says story is, “A character who wants something and is willing to go through conflict to get it.” If your character does not want something enough to choose to go through conflict to get it, your reader will walk away disappointed.

Your protagonist may reject the choice at first. She may debate back and forth between which option to choose. She may spend a hundred pages waffling. This can actually be a good thing. Choice is hard! However, she must choose.

Readers will bear with a protagonist who isn’t very likable. They will endure selfishness, pride, and even cowardice in a character. However, readers will not endure a protagonist who does not decide.

What do you think? What is the most important trait for a protagonist?

PRACTICE

Your protagonist is presented with a choice, perhaps a choice to accept or reject some type of quest.

For fifteen minutes, show her internal or external debate between the two options. Which does she choose?

When your time is finished, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to give feedback to a few other writers.

Happy writing!

*By purchasing from these affiliate links, you do a little bit to support The Write Practice. Thank you!

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • Joe… great subject! As they say: the protagonist IS the plot. As for me, I think the most important trait of the protagonist is his/her ability to suffer failure. Because true heroes WILL be brought to their knees. This is where “determination” comes is. We can’t have protagonists packing up and going home because the going gets tough. Oops my porridge is ready… gotta go!

    • Yes! I agree, PJ. To combine the two ideas, could you say a protagonist must suffer failure but stay the course of their choice?

  • Now where was I… oh, yeah… I was going to comment on “choice”… because the protagonist has to be the cause of everything that happens to him/her. There’s a great scene at the end of Act I in “Empire of the Sun” where the kid (ten-year-old Christian Bale) is hanging on to his mother as they struggle to stay together as people flee Shanghai in 1937 in advance of the Japanese invasion… and little Jamie, who is obsessed with airplanes, and who is carrying a toy plane… drops his toy… and then “chooses” to let go of his mother’s hand to retrieve it! And gets separated from his family for the rest of the movie. So Jamie is the cause of all that happens to him. I love it! So, yes, CHOICE! A character is their choices. Good one.

    • Right. That’s such a great film, such a great story. Good example, PJ. 🙂

  • Joe, can I just say I think this article is great? Thank you so much for it. It’s inspired me to in an unexpected direction in the piece I’m currently working on. I like that you point out that readers will not endure with protagonists who don’t make a choice because nothing frustrates me more than characters who are as much in limbo at the end of a story as they were in the middle of it.

    • Of course, you can say that. What a question! 🙂

      Totally. Readers really easily pick up on this, but when we’re writing, we often leave it out and then don’t understand why our story isn’t connecting. Good luck with your story!

  • Since reading Kellen Gorbett’s post about the broken hallelujah I have been obsessed with the concept. When I think back over my favorite protagonists in literature, I realize the broken hallelujah is entwined in each, from the stories I adored as a child to the stories I can’t put down as an adult. My writing practice since Gorbett’s post have embraced the broken hallelujah. I long for my protagonists to reach that depth.

    • That’s interesting, the question of what we look for in a protagonist. I’m a sucker for the broken hallelujah, too. Give me some examples of protagonists you’re thinking about.

  • New

    This is an excellent article. Thank you. It clarifies and deepens my understanding, confirms it.

    I also think, that in some works, there are multiple parallel as well as connected protagonists. I think of The Game of Thrones right away. Star Trek was like that too, sometimes it would be the Captain Luke’s story, others, the doctor, or Data, etc. It can be lovely to have many characters who are complex enough to take you away with them on their journeys.

    And yet… in the WIP I am editing currently, thought there are several such character lines and stories, there is STILL the main protagonist.

    Another thing I try to remind myself about is active choices Vs. passive ones that the protagonist must make. They have to work, reach, want for their goal actively. There may be that “hesitation” in the hero’s journey wherein they don’t know if they can go on the journey, may even reject it, question their ability, but then they must finally decide and act.

    • Good point. Serials (like Star Trek and even Game of Thrones, in some ways) sometimes play by different rules. Serials are usually made up of many smaller stories woven together. In each thread, there will be a protagonist, but episode to episode, and sometimes within episodes, the protagonist will change as the story we’re following changes. I’m sure I’m not getting this completely right, but that’s my theory right now!. 🙂

      I completely agree with your analysis of active and passive choice.

  • Juliana Austen

    Anabelle stared into the fridge. What to choose. The strident alarm form the door being open too long startled her and she slammed the door shut. Heaving a deep sigh she wandered over to the sink and poured herself a long glass of cold water. She leaned back against the sink and stared at the fridge door. Stuck to it by cheap and cheerful magnets were the detritus of her life, the calendar for March – appointments, meetings, deadlines all neatly laid out. There was a drawing of a fire engine presented to her by her 5 year old nephew and a painting from his younger sister. She sighed again.
    It was ridiculous all this procrastination, simple decisions had suddenly become impossible. She was planning what to cook for dinner, not the solution to problems in the Middle East! She stared at the ceiling, her shoulders slumped and she was overwhelmed with tiredness. She was going to have to do something. Would she be able to do it, did she have the courage, “moral fortitude” her dad always called it?
    She pulled the piece of paper hidden under the painting of the bird – a pencil list of pro and cons. It and every other decision making tool pointed in one direction. It was a direction she did not like. But the alternative scared her. It would shake up her ordered life, it would mean chaos for her and confusion for her family. The ideas churned around in her mind, battering at her. She scratched her arm – the rash had come back. Could be food related the doctor said, could be stress and he had looked at her with a raised eyebrow. She stopped looking at the list and stared at the paining – she smiled it was labelled “bird” – it was a riot of primary colours. She turned it round in her hand and squinted and suddenly she could see that bird.
    She took a deep breath and closed her eyes and visualised what it would be like – the good and the bad – if she failed what was the worst thing that could happen?
    What was the worst that could happen? The worst that could happen could not be as bad as this grey, limbo she was living in.

    She raised her chin and ripped the calendar form the fridge and tore it into a million little bits and flung them in the air. They rained down on, a ticker tape parade, a celebration of confetti.
    She would do it!

    • Jessica

      I love your imagery–a riot of primary colours, a ticker tape parade. I don’t know what a detritus is, but otherwise I like your story. 🙂

    • randall031

      Now I’m curious, Juliana, what is she going to do? Inquiring minds want to know 🙂

      • Juliana Austen

        At first I thought she was planning to get out of a bad relationship but maybe she is going to throw in her job and take up writing full time!!!! Or go on quest to find a unicorn …. maybe that’s the same thing!

    • Hi Juliana!!Feels like a mystery developing to me. I like the way you build the questions, and all the slight things that feel ‘off’ like the rash, the detritus, the Middle East, etc, great pointers to something worse to come.

      • Juliana Austen

        Thanks Yvette!

  • Jessica

    Claire looked around in dismay. Michael said he would be back at noon for her, if she wanted to go with him. The books and papers strewn about the floor suggested she was not ready for the impending journey. The wall clock ticked the seconds by, loud and intimidating. It would be so much easier to just stay ensconced in her little room, protected from prying eyes. She stepped to the closed door and touched the knob.

    The cool metal revived her spirit and calmed her nerves. She could do this. It was only one little trip. In the past two months, the only traveling she had done was in her mind when she explored other lands with her friends in books. It was time now to take that step outside, into the sunshine, and let the breeze rake its fingers through her hair.

    Resolved anew to right the room before Michael arrived, Claire collected the books from the various pieces of furniture and returned them their rightful bookshelf. She ran her cleaning rag over the windowsill, banishing the dirt and little dead bugs. One stack of papers—The papers—had slipped off the edge of her desk and she stooped to gather them. She didn’t want to look at what they said; she knew her trepidation would return. Stuffing the papers into a folder, she shelved her fears and walked away.

    The room was straightened, cobwebs knocked down, dust brushed away. Most importantly, her past was firmly wedged between “do not touch” and “on pain or death”. She smiled as she thought of her plans for the day. Michael would be so proud to know that her mental cobwebs were swept away. The drive to Nana’s house would rid her of her emotional dust, and already she felt some semblance of balance return to her life.

    Why couldn’t she have done this a month ago? Change was hard, but once you cashed in your bonds, freedom was so liberating!

    • randall031

      Jessica — You have some very nice imagery here. I love your little dead bugs — that’s just what my bookshelves look like too often. You’ve created a scene that’s easy to visualize, but in a few places you’ve backed away from specifics into generalizations and the imagery breaks down. I would be tempted to try (for example) naming specific pieces of furniture when she’s cleaning up, but that’s a pretty small thing. Nice work.

      • Jessica

        I rewrote the furniture and papers part, and also scanned the rest of the story and added a couple other succinct adjectives. I read this morning about not overloading the reader with unnecessary details, and I think I got scared about that. Somehow I have to find that balance between being specific and too many details!

  • randall031

    (Prior to this scene, Janie drove to her sister’s apartment. It had been demolished and her sister was nowhere to be found. As she wondered what to do, the phone in her sister’s apartment rang and she heard her sister crying and asking her to please not call the police.)

    **********

    Not call the police? What kind of insanity was that? Of course she had to call them. Joan’s apartment had been demolished, and Joan herself was nowhere to be found.

    Nine-one-one. Only took a second to dial on her cell phone, but Janie paused before tapping the call button.

    The memory of Joan’s sobs echoed in Janie’s head and she walked back to the living room to listen to the message again.

    “…. We really can’t have the cops involved…”?

    Why not? What in the world was going on?

    Maybe Joan had been drugged and didn’t know what she was saying. The police could dust for fingerprints. Maybe they could discover who had destroyed Joan’s apartment? And track them down and save her sister?

    Turning the phone over in her hand, she unlocked it and saw the numbers still displayed on the screen. All she had to do was press the call button.

    But Joan never asked for anything. Joan was always strong and in control. Joan was the one who cared for Janie when she fell apart. Could Janie do this one thing for her sister?

    Janie balanced the cell phone on the toppled coffee table and ran her uninjured hand through her hair. She crossed the room to the French door she studied her reflection in the dark glass. Could she do this one thing? For Joan?

    She had no choice. She had to try.

    • Bethie Bea

      Wow, Randall. That scene is really intense. I want to know what happened to Joan. And I want to know about Janie’s past. Why is she so timid and uncertain. She obviously relies heavily upon Joan’s strength of character. Nicely done.

    • Jessica

      I can feel Janie’s resolve strengthen when she determined she had no other choice. I like the way you used someone other than the protagonist to help her make her decision. it will be interesting to see if she sticks with the choice she made–if her personal struggles keep wrestling against her choice and she changes her mind to calm her inner battle.

    • Juliana Austen

      I like the way this scene builds tension and sets us up for whatever is going to happen next.

    • Steve Stretton

      Did she call the police? I’m unsure of the ending. What did she have to try?

    • Powerful choice – wonder if she called the police or responded to the number on the phone. I’d like to read more of this story.

  • Bethie Bea

    Reading this article has brought to mind Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men. I felt that Llewelyn Moss was the protagonist, but my nephew suggested that it is actually Sheriff Bell. Of course, the antagonist, is really almost an anti-antagonist in the character of Chigurh, who methodically drives the story forward with his skewed, psychopathic ‘ethics.’ Has anyone else read this? I think Cormac McCarthy breaks all the rules but is genius in the way he does it. What do you think?

    • Interesting point, Bethie. I’m a huge Cormac McCarthy fan, but I haven’t read this yet (I usually need a year or two break after reading one of his novels, don’t you?). From what I’ve read though, I’d lean toward Moss being the protagonist. I think what you said about Chigurh is interesting. I do think Moss makes a decision (to take the money), but Chigurh is the consequence of that decision, and the consequence is severe, isn’t it. One of the classic ways to explain a story is, “Your protagonist goes up a tree. You throw rocks at him. He comes down.” Chigurh is the rocks, but Moss still had to decide to go up the tree. Does that make sense?

      • Bethie Bea

        Thanks Joe, yes your illustration is really helpful. I agree, I think Moss is the main protagonist and Chigurh is definitely a severe consequence! The interesting thing is the Sheriff’s place in the story. I guess he is the orbiting satellite character, if you will. But by far the most likeable of the three. I’ve only read two of McCarthy’s books, this one and The Road. After reading The Road, yes, I definitely felt I needed a break. Maybe this summer I’ll tackle All the Pretty Horses.

  • Bethie Bea

    Okay, here’s my attempt:

    They wouldn’t let me stop to think. I mean, they wanted me to decide right then and there! How can I know whether I wanted to take off and go to the party when I wasn’t sure if my brother would be arriving that night? I haven’t seen him in 5 years. I’ve almost forgotten what he looks like. It would be so cool to have him back here again. I remember he used to be my protector, my strong man on the playground when the other kids would pick on me. Everyone would be mouthing off with f this and m-f that. He would set them straight. “Hey, twerp, quit talking to Bobby like that. Don’t you know I can kick your butt?” That was when he was in grade 6 and I was in grade 1. Now I’m graduating and my friends want me to skip the last day of classes and go up north with them to some all weekend party. But my brother is coming home. I haven’t seen him in 5 years, don’t you understand? What if he only stays the weekend and I miss him. What if he says, “Screw you, then, Bobby, you couldn’t even wait around one weekend to see me?” Then he leaves. And I don’t see him again for 5 more years. Blood is thicker than
    water, right? I’d be crazy to go away for the weekend. What’s a weekend? But
    what if Will doesn’t show after all? He did that once before. About 3 years ago, he said he’d be coming to town, but never came to visit the family. Then I’m
    stuck at home with nothing to do, while my friends are having a blast. I’ll miss
    the graduation celebration. Should I stay or should I go? I don’t know….

    • Jessica

      so which does he choose? I thought this exercise was supposed to be about how the protagonist goes back and forth and eventually decides…

      • Juliana Austen

        Yes but maybe it’s up to us to decide! 🙂

      • Bethie Bea

        I think you’re right, I just got carried away with Bobby’s indecision. Of course he will stay home and expectantly wait for his brother. But will he show up??

    • Steve Stretton

      I thought the dilemma quite compelling, but I would really like to know what the protagonist chose to do.

      • Bethie Bea

        Hi Steve, I think he stayed home to see his big brother. I sure hope he shows up! 🙂

    • Difficult choice, and then adding the pressure of an immediate decision. That ups the ante’. I like the internal dialogue that is used to make the decision.

  • Steve Stretton

    To jump or not to jump? He hesitated. Had his rival tampered with his parachute as had been claimed, or was it a bluff? This was the definitive dive of the comp. He had to succeed at this. The weather was almost perfect, they were almost at the drop zone, he had to decide in the next few seconds. Was his life worth a stupid sky diving championship? Decide, he angrily told himself. She would think him a coward if he refused. But that warning, it had sounded real. An anonymous phone call and his life was now completely changed. He usually loved the exhilaration of the anticipation of the jump, the serenity of the drop. Now, it was all at stake. Nothing would be the same again. He received the call, “Ready to go now.” He prepared himself, his heart in his mouth. One last chance to back out. He stepped forward.

    • Wow. That IS a decision! It makes me squirm. Good stuff Steve!

    • Now that is some choice. I would read further to find out the fate of the jumper.

    • Good practice! I’d like to know more of the backstory and what happens next.

    • Paul Owen

      Great reading, Steve. I loved the internal debate, and the final decision. Now I’m wondering if his ‘chute opened…

    • Audrey Chin

      Good stuff Steve. It goes right into the story.

  • Audrey Chin

    A question – what happens in the mystery genre? Is the investigator always the protagonist and the murdered the villian?

    • Good question, Audrey. I think that’s generally true, except the villain would be the murderer not the murdered, an important distinction. 🙂 I would love to find an exception to that rule though! Any ideas?

      • If the murderer was framed, or if it was self defense I think that would make the murderer aka the villian an unexpected protagonist,

        • Sure. Lots of stories are like this. The Fugitive and Enemy of the State are two examples I think of immediately.

      • In the case of The Lovely Bones, the murdered girl surely was the protagonist? So, sometimes your narrator can be protagonist, depending on the context. A protagonist doesn’t have to be the nicest person in the piece, you can have the antagonist become protagonist, albeit a negative one, if the story goes that way.

        • I haven’t read or seen that yet to say, but you may be right, Yvette. Good example.

      • Audrey Chin

        Joe, that was a typo! Or maybe, it’s a Freudian slip for my WIP?

        But yes your are right, I’m talking about the murderer as the villain.

        Yvette is also right that sometimes the Murdered is the protagonist (they got there because of their choices). “The lovely bones” is interesting because the protagonist mostly observes and didn’t have a choice about dying. I guess, she did choose to “leave” though.

        I guess, there are just so many possibilities, even in a murder mystery. I’m going off to play with that.

  • Mike Wilke

    Joe, thank you for this post.

    I am not embarrassed to say they I have always been confused by exactly what a protagonist is. Newbie that I am, I still thought the protagonist was the hero or main character.

    I get the distinction now!

    Again, thanks for your practical, helpful guidance

  • Just wrote this today – in my memoir I’m living with my sister after the courts take me from my home due to child abuse which includes incest. It is a challenge for my sister to have me in her home because she married early to escape her memories of abuse. I’m watching my nieces and nephews while my sister is at the doctor’s. In this scene, I’m a troubled, suicidal teen. My mom kept notebooks that were used to get me out of that house. Keith is a nephew – these things have been introduced earlier in the book. I’m curious if this reads emotionally charged, or if I need to evoke more emotions in the writing. Any suggestions as to how to make it come more alive is appreciated:

    I watch the kids play from the kitchen window while chopping onions and green peppers for Spanish rice with pork chops.

    Before long, depressed thoughts drape my mind, so much for the few moments of joy with the kids. I lean against the sink and stare out the window, seeing nothing.

    Why? Why? Why should I keep trying? It’s hopeless. There’s no escaping my past. I want to crawl into a dark hole and curl up into a ball and die. All my dreams of love
    and safety are shattered into a billion pieces. All I wanted was to feel safe and feel things are under control. But it isn’t safe. There’s no one to talk to about what happened. Diane thinks I can just wipe my past from memory and get on with life, especially since, as she says, “I’ve gone out of my way to give you a good life and this is the thanks I get? Wish I never got involved.”

    Me too. I wish I never told her about those notebooks. Wish I could have amnesia. I can’t escape my past. All it takes is a word, a touch, a nightmare and it’s as if I’m back in that house. I wanted Diane to understand me, to hold me, to love me. She
    should know you don’t escape that easily. No matter how much I do or what I try, she still hates me.

    I wish I were dead. If I were dead my past wouldn’t bother me. I’d be out of Diane’s hair. I wouldn’t feel any pain. It doesn’t matter to anyone if I live or if I die. Death is so much easier than life. No one can hurt you when you’re dead. You slip into a sweet nothingness, no feelings, no hurt, no suffering.

    I rinse the rice, mix in the vegetables, place the pork chops on top, and slip the casserole into the oven. After I wash up, I hold the paring knife next to my wrist. One swipe and I’ll escape my past. I’m so tired of fighting. So tired of the nightmares of Daddy coming into my room. The dreams are so real I wake feeling the impression of his hands on my body. I place the knife on a vein. I’ll slice lengthwise, not across the wrist. There’s less chance of being saved.

    One slice and I’m free. Then none of this stuff will matter.

    Keith slams the backdoor, races down the hallway, and runs to the bathroom. I drop the knife I’m clutching. My hand’s shaking. What was I thinking? I need to find a place where I won’t be discovered. It wouldn’t be fair to the kids if they came upon
    a bloody mess.

    Keith runs back through the kitchen and I shout, “Don’t slam the door.”

    Bam. I think all he heard was slam the door.

    I’ve got to find place where I can be alone to die. I’m so tired of dealing with this shit. There’s no hope, no joy, no happiness, no nothing.

    • Bethie Bea

      Hi Heather, Wow, this story is so sad and unfortunately rings true for too many people out there. The internal monologue does evoke a good deal of the emotional turmoil that you want to bring out. I’m not sure if this is helpful, but I think if you change the narrator’s point of view during the descriptions of the action and then show – don’t tell. Or if you want to keep the first person point of view just try to avoid simply telling the action. In order for the reader to be drawn in you need to show what is happening. A quick example: “Diane left directions to make Spanish Rice for dinner. Outside the kitchen window Keith and _ are playing in the back yard. Keith is pushing his little sister on the swing. He’s so good to her. I smile thinking of how lucky she is. The onions make me tear up. I hate chopping onions.” Then you could go into your internal monologue: “Why? Why?… ” With your internal monologue just let it flow as you have done above. Does that make sense to you? I love the part “Bam. I think all he heard was slam the door.” It made the scene come alive for me. Hey, I hope the ending is happy!:)

      • I’m writing a memoir in first person, so that is the only POV I can use. I like your idea of including more of the senses in this. Yes, the ending is happy – it is a journey of healing and I am healed from my past, happily married and have three wonderful kids.

    • Steve Stretton

      Heather, a very powerful piece. Personally I think that telling the action is OK here, it is short and emphasises the inner turmoil. It tells a story of apparent normality that contrasts with the protagonist’s anguished reality.

      • Thank you for this. I’m working at getting back to those feelings. It’s been years since I’ve had that black despair. I appreciate the time you took to read this.

  • Carmen

    We were driving along the road, it was paved but the growth either side was overgrown. Most parts of this country offer lush landscapes and rolling hills as far as the eye could see, but this inland for some reason offered only dried long grasses blanched to the colour of wheat by the summer sun. I was driving, Franz was in the passenger seat and Woody was in the back. Both were extremely hung over and fast asleep. So I drove, going that open road speed that is a little faster than legally allowed.

    There were no signs but I could feel the space between us and the town contracting. I felt like if I looked behind me I would see the world shrinking into void, leaving us stuck in our destination. I took a deep breath in and re gripped each finger on the steering wheel. I could not deny it, I had had this knot in my stomach since I first heard of this town. Some evil chill had run over me when I first read the headlines about the arson and crime and as we drove closer the chill was coming in on me again. I set my teeth together in determination, if there was something that needed routing out in this town I knew fully well that me and my companions were the ones to do, and had a responsibility to do it as well. I pushed my foot down on the accelerator, eager to get to the town quickly so I could not cave in to my apprehension and turn around.

    — I actually intended to write more where the ambivalence builds to quite a dramatic moment but I ran out of time! Anyway what do you guys think, can you feel suspense building or is it too subtle 🙂

    • It’s great, and yes, you’re building the suspense, esp, that line of not wanting to turn around, and pressing the accelerator down, for then of course, the reader accelerates along with you. 🙂

    • Steve Stretton

      Carmen, I think you could have gone a little further here, the suspense starts but I feel does not have time to build to a real climax. I don’t think the time limit is absolute, just a good guide. Also I would like to know a bit more about the protagonists. Who are they? Why are they going there?

    • Audrey Chin

      HI Carmen, I can feel the protagonists indecision and tension. There are 2 things that are confusing though.
      First – if this mission is so important why are Franz and Woody hung over and fast asleep.
      Second – the sentence “if I looked behind me I would see the world shrinking inot void” makes me feel like we were actually leaving the town, and I had to read it over.
      The rest get exciting though. Can’t wait to see what’s lurking at the destination.

    • Carmen

      Thank you guys so much for your feedback. Audrey and Steve, thank you for pointing out that the character development in weak in some parts, I had completely overlooked them in my focus on the tension building! And thanks Yvette, I am glad that the suspense was effective. I’ll keep all your comments in mind 🙂

  • Hi, Joe! It’s so nice to see your name by a post sometimes. 🙂
    Thanks for saying that piece about it being alright for the protag to take a while to decide. In editing this morning, I just told myself my protag was taking far too long to choose and so I deleted a few snippets of his back & forth. Whew, I think I needed to hear that it was okay at this point or I may have taken out a lot more. I think it is important to see the fullness of the protag’s process, so we as the reader are ‘prepared’ for the changes and growth that follows every minor decision.

    • It’s so nice to share a post, Yvette! I’ve moved behinds the scenes (which is where I’m more comfortable), but I’m still very involved, don’t worry. 🙂

      Exactly. The debate builds tension, reveals motivation, and illustrates consequences, which makes the actual decision so much more powerful.

  • MishaBurnett

    In my opinion, the job of the protagonist is to get the audience to care what happens. The most important thing for a protagonist to be is someone the audience can relate to. He or she doesn’t have to be somebody likable, in the conventional sense, but when something happens to the protagonist, the audience should be thinking about, “what if that happened to me?”

    That’s the number on thing I’ve learned from the reviews of Catskinner’s Book–the book stands or falls on James, my narrator. If people can relate to him, they like the book, if they can’t, they don’t.

    • Yep, relatability is definitely important. Thanks for mentioning that, Misha. And for me, James was both relatable and able to make a choice.

  • Paul Owen

    Peter stared at the decrypted email. How could the Group ask him to go out in the field again, so soon after the trials of the last mission? He’d barely survived that one, and one of the other agents was still in the hospital. The Group leaders might be former operators themselves, but Peter thought they were losing touch with just how difficult each mission was.

    Maybe it was time to leave this line of work altogether. Peter had certainly paid his dues. He’d met the Group’s official criteria for “retirement” a couple of years ago, but still liked being part of the work. He felt a momentary chill as he remembered several former colleagues who had left the Group for what they thought would be a more peaceful life, only to have it cut short through an accident of some sort. Those events still seemed plausible, but Peter wondered what really happened. The Group planted hooks deep into its agents, and didn’t want to let go.

    Could he just disappear, and start over somewhere new? That wasn’t a new thought. In the past, Peter had quickly dismissed that idea, and he did so again this time. The Group had some of the best trackers in the business. Trying to hide from those bloodhounds was a foolish idea, although at least one former operative appeared to have done it.

    Peter felt the tension rising up his neck as he read the message again. He took several deep breaths and relaxed slightly. The thing was, he still believed in the Group’s work. Carrying out these missions gave him purpose, something to prepare for and execute. The fact that sometimes people got hurt in the process, well, that was just part of the work.

    He read the message one more time. He started mentally unfolding the likely scenario. He’d done this type of mission many times, and he’d shown he could do it well. It seemed well contained and quick. Maybe it could be a clean last job before he moved on.

    Peter logged into his account, pecked out a terse reply, and clicked “Send”. Closing up the laptop, his mind was already blocking out anything but the mission. He had two hours to get ready.

    • Audrey Chin

      This is chilling. Is this going to continue Paul? To hook the ready, I’d put in a last sentence that’s a glitch… like maybe his daughter calls him or something that makes him think it wasn’t the right decision to continue.

      • Paul Owen

        Thanks, Audrey. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, either! To be continued, perhaps…

    • Steve Stretton

      Wow Paul, what a set of choices! Peter could almost toss a coin, but in the end he does what he must. He’s clearly in an impossible situation. Makes it hard for the protagonist, unless there is a hidden choice he is expected to make. Its a great place to introduce an unexpected solution.

      • Paul Owen

        Thanks, Steve. Now I’m curious what unexpected solution might pop up if I develop this. Who knows? 🙂

    • Paul, I as sucked into this story line about choices. I love spy/espionage thrillers and anything to do with secret organizations. You did a great job making me feel Peter’s conflict. That’s what it’s all about. You laid out the choices/options and built on the conflict he was feeling. He knows he has to choose, yet you leave us wanting to know which way he goes, and the journey that he’s going to need to take in order to get their. Good job.

      • Paul Owen

        Wow, thanks so much for the kind note! I’m happy you enjoyed this piece.

        Paul

        • Happy to oblige. I am very sorry about the poor editing on my part. I seemed to have left off a “w” for the word “was”… Not making excuses, but I have a new laptop and getting use to the spacing of the letters on the keyboard has been a bit of a challenge! 🙂

          P. Torres

  • Hi!! This is my first practice, and I’d firstly like to say that I really love this site. I beg your pardon for my english, maybe you’ll find some mistakes but I’m italian so..forgive me;)
    Have a good reading!

    The typewriter is ready, as well as the uncut sheets of paper are predisposed well ranked on the old desk. Our protagonist, in fact, keeps well away from computers that kills creativity. And the charm of the writer, of course. James strode along the room, back and forth. The parquet floor has become a rut darker because of the constant coming and going of the young. Why yes, James is an avid budding novelist, and is grappling with the most difficult choice of his still short career.

    His gaze falls on a crumpled letter, leaning on the arm of a chair near the desk. He stares for a moment before shooting it in his hand for the umpteenth time. The words, written in good andwriting and with almost excessive serif, show the tips Liam Matterson, James’s mentor. These remind him that if he really wants to learn from the best, he musts write a short story, a few dozen pages, that satisfies Matterson and those old bookworms that he has enough talent.

    Throws the letter on the armrest, unconcerned that this drop to the road. He’s had enough of those few lines full of arrogance and skepticism. What to do? Write something, risking ridicule himself in front of the academic world? Or drop everything and spend on other things?

    His right hand played unconsciously with the unkempt beard, while the left is fully inserted into the pocket, in a vain attempt to block the thrill. The loud whistling of a teapot announces that the tea is ready, and he thanks to this little break. Takes the opportunity of drinking something relaxing to think. Doubt squeezes the stomach. The fear of missing out on an opportunity is so great, at least as the fear of being laughed at by some old letters.

    He still has the teapot in hand, when taking a decision on instinct. Spontaneous, uncontrollable. Why to wear out a passion that has always had? Leave shooting what he was doing, to run to the chair opposite his desk. Rolls up his sleeves to the elbows, while the tolling of a small endulum clock mark the five. Luck would have it, a signal that it is time to stop agonize.

    His fingers began to beat on the keys of a typewriter. The ticking is almost hypnotic as it is measured. Harmony of sounds is very different to the expression from that madman James in his face. The expression of who won his fear, and can not wait to compete with something that, until now, considered bigger than him.

  • Sarah Ruiz

    This is wonderful advice. I can’t think of how many WIPs I’ve read where the supposed protagonist is a character to which things happen. I actually had this as an issue for a while in one of my projects and this has helped me to realize that just because he’s the one I think the audience should care about, if he’s nothing more than a pawn, another character is sure to upstage him.

    • Sarah Ruiz

      Victor weighed the salt and pepper shakers in his hand, glancing back and forth between the two, then staring closely at the labels, then holding them as far as he could from his face and squinting.

      “If I were a banana…” he intoned, then trailed off as a glimmer to his right caught his eye.

      He watched for a moment as a horsefly lazily explored the kitchen, its buzzing quite audible in the otherwise silent trailer. Enthralled, Victor followed it around the refrigerator, hands clasped behind his back to squash any improper desire to touch the beast.

      Only when he watched it take a brief dip in the gooey, gelatinous mixture sitting in a mug on his counter, did Victor shake his head and shout.

      “Good golly!”

      He waved his hand above the fly, which only sunk deeper into the batter that was to become its grave.

      “No, no, no, no!” he said.

      Grabbing spoon out of the flour covered sink, Victor spooned the dying creature out of his project and set it gently on the counter.

      “Gosh darnit.”

      Victor threw up his hands as he noticed the two spices he had previously been deciding between. Gritting his teeth, he shook both over the cup, then, using the spoon sans fly, he stirred the mixture.

      Clapping his hands, he sighed.

      “This gonna be the best banana bread I ever did make. Yessire!”

  • Catherine

    Come with me.
    His words resounded off the walls of her mind.
    I’ve told you everything I know. Maybe it’s time you found your own answers.
    The idea was so tempting and yet…this whole thing was ridiculous, insane! She tried to dismiss the memories of last night as a cocoa induced, all too vivid dream. However, she couldn’t bring herself to do it. As fantastical as it was, it had been her reality. Alexandra had managed to put the decision off in the corner of her mind in order to get through her day. There was no use in fretting, thus incapacitating herself. Although, despite her efforts, the upcoming decision did weigh heavily on her heart.

    Now, as she sat up in her bed at 11:30 at night, after her entire family had gone to bed, only half an hour remained for her to make up her mind. For, the grandfather clock downstairs would then strike, setting off a chain reaction that would result in her living room’s metamorphosis from an ordinary parlor littered with presents and pine needles to a miniature battlefield humming with an intoxicating, extraordinary energy that can only be described as magic.

    She still couldn’t wrap her mind around how it all happened, but she figured that all the physics classes in the world couldn’t help her understand how last night came to be. However, it had happened. She had the scars to prove it. It would happen again shortly, but this time the outcome of this night would hinge solely on her decision, which she now had a mere fifteen minutes to make.

    What if she followed him? Would she discover that the rest of the legend was true as well? And if it was, what would that mean for her? What would that mean for him? Was she to believe he was some cursed prince of a candy kingdom…or was there something more? The image of the boy from her recurring series of dreams kept flashing in her mind. It hadn’t occurred to Alexandra that her dreams were anything more than the concoctions of a hyper-active imagination, but after her Nana gave her those cryptic words of advice, she couldn’t help but feel that the boy in her dreams was but another puzzle piece.

    11:53- time was almost up, but Alexandra felt just as clueless as last night, if not more so! Hopping down lightly from her bed and onto the cherry hardwood floor, she let out an exasperated sigh and made her way to her closet. She quickly changed out of her Mickey Mouse pajamas and into a pair of jeans, her favorite red turtle neck, a blue denim jacket, and a pair of black tennis shoes. She then took three tentative paces towards her bedroom door, but just as her trembling fingers were about to wrap themselves around the metal door knob, she flew back to her bureau drawer and dug out her floral print dream journal from underneath the mountain of lonely, mismatched socks and worn t-shirts from her middle school days.

    She clutched the journal tightly to her chest with one arm while reaching out to meet the doorknob’s frigid touch with the other. She took a shaky breath as she cracked open her door just wide enough to slip her dancer-like body through. The door closed behind her with a soft click, cueing her descent down the stairs and into the living room. She walked up to the banister and used her free hand to grasp the railing to steady herself and her nerves. Not soon after she had taken but five steps, the clock struck midnight and the air was filled with the sound of tinkling bells. When at last Alexandra had reached the final step, the bells died away altogether, only to be replaced by the sound of a familiar voice.
    “I knew you’d come…”

    • Catherine

      Oops, the first and third lines were meant to be italicized. Sorry!

  • Ruth Hope

    I stared at my hands, folded in my lap. My lips stuck together with balm, my skin prickled with concealer. I wanted to feel ready. I wanted that urge, that desire, that impulse to do what I knew I had to do. The problem was, I wasn’t sure what I had to do. I was stuck in a place before choice, floating in vague, insecure, internal melodrama. I groaned and knocked my head back against the headrest. Ow. Dr. Marisa Dumont, my therapist, was probably waiting inside, waiting for me. Drinking tea, wearing Marc Jacobs perfume, applied heavily. I didn’t want to waste her time. I didn’t want to leave my car. What the fuck? Was that all I was trying to figure out? Why couldn’t I even think? I’ve had my brain longer then a few days. Maybe it was the pills. Dr. Dumont said they would help. Maybe hyped up confusion isn’t better than sluggish confusion. After ten solid minutes of ifs and buts and urges to talk to myself out loud, I said one word: “Sorry,” I disturbed the amniotic silence, and I turned the key in the ignition and started to pull out of my rock star parking space outside of Dr. Dumont’s building. Once I got home I sent her an email: “Hey, it’s Lauren, sick, can we reschedule?”. I wasn’t sick. I was just sick of myself. I was too tired of dealing with my lethargic, resistant to life attitude to want to try to actually deal with it. It didn’t feel like a part of me I should accept into the actual me, if I could even divide myself that way. Objectivity is a touchy thing. And Dr. Dumont… I didn’t want to bother her with any of that. No. Not today.

  • P Torres

    Olivia stared into the green eyes of the man she had been dating for the last year, and was unable to speak. There was a ringing in her ears and she started to feel lightheaded and a bit nauseous. The tall, handsome gentle giant that stood before her was waiting for an answer. In his hands was a tiny black velvet box. A shiny, gorgeous diamond ring sat nestled inside. She was having a hard time catching her breath, which was making her brain do strange things. Why was she hesitating? Sam loved her. He was perfect. All of her friends and family were in love with him. He had a great job; he treated her with respect and she knew every single sweet thing about him. So why was she just standing there like an idiot. Any young woman would have jumped in his arms and said yes before the question was even out of his mouth. Olivia’s stomach was churning; she was sweating and felt what must be a panic attack coming. She had no idea what one felt like but was certain she was about to find out. The look on Sam’s face was slowly changing from confidence that his girl was going to say yes, to an anxious concern that maybe she hadn’t heard him correctly. Why were the questions coming now? Olivia had loved this man since their 5th date on a snowy day on Winter Break from Boston University. Olivia wasn’t able to go home to Arizona on the Winter break. Sam was leaving the next day for New Jersey and they decided to take a walk around Boston in the freezing cold snowy day. It had been perfect. That was a year ago. So why was she questioning herself and hesitating on the most important decision she would make in her life? Was this really the man she wanted to commit to for the rest of her life? Did she want to build a life and family with this man? Was she the right choice for him? Marriage was a serious thing. She came from a long line of love. Her grandparents had been married 80 years. Her parents 30 years (only because her dad had died). When you made a vow before God and family, it was until death do you part. Sam’s face was completely serious now…he slowly closed the little black box and let go of her hand. Olivia opened her mouth , sucked in as much oxygen as she could; waited for the dizziness to pass, and reached for Sam’s hand as he started to walk away. “Sam, please wait. We need to talk.”

  • Abigail

    I set the clothes on my bed and sat, staring at them, debating. I could risk the entire rest of my life to pursue this. I’d risk my dignity, my family name, my late father’s social standing. All for simply finding out who was responsible for my brother’s death. Why? Why did I need to know? Was I thirsting for vengence? No, that was certainly not it. I wanted to do something. And I couldn’t here… But was I needed? Charlie’s unit was undoubtedly trying to find the traitor. My presence would be unnecessary. I stood and picked up the trousers and shirt. No, I would stay here where it’s safe and…and where there’d be no chance of me helping our country. I threw the clothes down in a fit of anger. Mother already decreed that she’d be cold in the ground before she let me become a nurse. I began to change out of my confining dress. I would go. I would become a soldier for the Continental Army. And nothing but divine intervention could convince me otherwise.

  • LaVinia Houghton

    Ok, so this seems like fun. I need everyone’s opinion too. Here goes…

    He sat there wondering how in the world he would get that manuscript back. He knew he should have made a copy, but he was too excited. This was the best thriller novel ever written, and it was sure to get the proper rank.

    He would have to break into the editor’s home, get the print, fix everything, and return the pages before the editor notices that they were missing. He couldn’t very well tell the editor that he needed the manuscript back because the main character has crossed into the real world, and is actually going to kill someone unless he can rewrite the story. He really couldn’t say anything to get it back. That would definitely show the editor that he was ill prepared, and he would lose the editor’s business that he’s had for the 17 years of his writing career.

    So if he was to pursue this this unbelievably insane idea, he must put together a plan. He had no choice.

  • Rester Reese

    “What are you waiting for ?”, he said to the person standing in front of him, aiming the gun that once he was holding on
    After all those crimes he had done, it was a fitting end to be cornered on a rooftop. He turned his head to see what is beyond the edge of the roof. The rain darken the air, showing him the depth of the abyss.
    “Give up now, turn yourself in please. I made a promise with her.”, said the detective
    Her, which he assume refering to his sister, whom left for his quest of revenge for those that assaulted her. He could only remembered fragment of the past few days, but he know it very well that he had murdered 5 of them and crippled one. And now, chased by a dear friend to this very rooftop, the idea of ending it all is very tempting.
    “Please, Ren, She only have you as her family, you can’t leave her alone”
    Alone? That’s true. She’s still recuperating in hospital, sleeping in comatose state after that incident. I could’s hold my anger when i found those boys. But then, he couldn’t near to face his sister after failing to protect her in the first place.
    Then i answered
    “Tios”
    “Ren”
    “Please take care of her”
    And thus, i walked back and watched his last reaction of panic.
    And the edge welcomed me.

    Hello guys, this is my first try on a short story, thx for reading and any tips are appreciated 😀