Is your main character useless?

Having had occasion to read several stories by beginning writers recently, I noticed a common thread: the supposed protagonists don’t really do anything. Sure, lots of interesting things happen in the main character’s general vicinity, but he or she doesn’t actually affect how events play out. This is usually bad.

Take a look at your plot. Does your main character stand around watching and having things explained to her while other characters make all the choices that actually matter? If so, why is she the main character? Wouldn’t the story be more interesting if we could get inside the head of a character who’s actually doing things?

A lot of times, new writers create useless protagonists when their plots involve things like wars, where an ordinary person actually wouldn’t have much of an impact on the outcome. If an ordinary person is your main character, the war as a whole is not your plot. Your plot consists of the events that happen to the main character as a result of the war, and more importantly, the choices he makes that matter to his story.

Some protagonists don’t make choices at all because the story stops before they would have to. In other words, the author explains the situation that the protagonist is in, and… that’s it. Okay, so your main character has discovered that he has been abducted by aliens and is living in virtual reality while alien scientists observe his every move. As interesting as that may be, it’s a premise, not a complete story. In order to have a plot at all, you have to take that premise and ask yourself what the protagonist is going to do about it.

In certain cases, the useless protagonist can be done well. For example, a good portion of the humor in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams stems from the fact that the main character, Arthur Dent, is totally out of his depth and unable to do much of anything. But this is clearly intentional on Adams’s part. In a book full of quirky characters who take the infinite strangeness of the universe in stride, Arthur is the everyman to whom we can all relate. (If I were abducted by aliens just before the Earth exploded, I think I’d be out of my depth, too.) He’s quite aware that he’s somewhat useless, and not happy at all about the fact. It’s worth noting, too, that he does take action when he can, even if this is usually in pursuit of a sandwich and a decent cup of tea.

A protagonist acts. Whether she saves the world or gets herself a glass of water, or tries and fails to do anything in between, her choices make her story what it is. If that’s not the case in your story, it may be time to either revise your plot or let a different character take center stage.


Hi, I’m Sarah Brand.  I mainly write science fiction, though I have been known to dabble in fantasy on occasion.  I attended Alpha in 2006 and 2007, and I was on staff in 2008.

[Note: If you’re one of the three SF readers who haven’t picked up Ender’s Game yet, there are potential spoilers in the comments.]