Today I want to talk about creating an active protagonist, but here’s a little backstory to start. Before I ventured into publishing, I was a Theatre major in college. (Well, I was concurrently an English major, but I thought about theatre before I thought about publishing.) As part of my thoroughly impractical training, I bought and read the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, which was wonderful but, at times, definitely not fun. The historical tragedies were my favorite sleeping pill after a late night performing, you know? And as much fun as it was to be a student of the thea-tah (!), I was simply terrible at it. It wouldn’t be until I started public speaking at conferences that I realized something: I am pretty good at writing and delivering my own material, but when it comes to pretending to be anybody else, with anybody else’s words, I’m pretty hopeless. That didn’t stop me from trying, but that’s another story for another day. But Hamlet was one of my absolute favorite Shakespeare works. And I’ve recently found myself citing the following quote in editorial notes:
The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
Wikipedia explains the meaning better than I can:
It has been used as a figure of speech, in various phrasings, to indicate that a person’s overly frequent or vehement attempts to convince others of something have ironically helped to convince others that the opposite is true, by making the person look insincere and defensive.
Ditch the Denial When Creating An Active Protagonist
When I give this note, it usually goes hand-in-hand with my thoughts on characters in denial, another idea that I cite a lot in my editorial work. I’m also not trying to be sexist, because both male and female characters can “protest too much,” but admittedly it does happen more often with female POV manuscripts, especially when it comes to romance. It can apply to all manner of things where the writer wants the character to stay in disbelief just a liiiiiittle while longer, but the reader is already catching on. But yes, overwhelmingly, this applies to crushes and chemistry.
Writer, please. We have all read enough romantic subplots in fiction to know that the protagonist and the cute new guy are going to get together at some point. That’s what makes it so difficult to render believable characters in this scenario. Because we’re all waiting for it, especially if there’s a girl and a dude on the cover with their lips hovering inches apart. The challenge then becomes acknowledging reader expectation while at the same time creating an active protagonist who has a full experience.
Bridging the Gap Between Expectation and Experience
My piece of advice here would be: We know where you’re going, so get there sooner. Don’t rush through the establishing parts of your plot, but don’t also dwell in the time before the inciting incident and character buy-in by employing denial. Often, writers put off giving a certain plot component the green light until other parts of the story have caught up. This often happens with romance. They really can’t hook up until chapter seven, but the guy has been around (and brooding) since chapter one because he had to make a grand entrance to hook the reader in the first ten pages. (Need help beginning your novel?) So how do we bridge the gap? There are two options.
Have your protagonist “protest too much” that there’s an attraction:
A limo has been picking me up from school every morning, my locker is stuffed with a new dozen of red roses every day, and Garrett wrote “Will you go out with me? Love, Garrett” in skywriting, but I just don’t know how he feels about me because he’s so popular, and I’m not. Plus, I have way too many freckles for anyone to find me attractive.
I don’t know about you, but I want to take a chainsaw to this particular piece of writing. It’s overly obvious to communicate a point, but even in its subtler incarnations, this type of “protest too much” rhetoric really does sound this fake to me. It’s right there in the Wikipedia definition…this sort of breathless denial does nothing to create believable characters, which distances us from the protagonist. We don’t want to know more or guess more about the story than s/he knows (or is willing to admit). And once we do find out something the protagonist doesn’t know, we’re just waiting for him or her to figure it out so we can be in harmony as reader/character once again.
Allow the character to admit there’s a spark but use internal and external conflict to keep the characters apart…for probably less time than you’re comfortable with. Internal conflict can go like this:
The truth is, I’d love nothing more than to date Garrett. To give in and say “yes.” But I just can’t. He’s new here. He doesn’t yet realize that he’s made a horrible mistake. It’ll be social suicide for him to be seen with me, and he’s just too nice to realize it. For his own good, I need to stay away.
There we’re layering in some self-confidence issues where she ADMITS that there’s an obvious romantic desire between them, but blocks it. Then plot can come into play as well to keep them apart. For example, she can do something really embarrassing at an assembly and this, for her, confirms how “awful” she is. So she distances herself even further. This is a much better option for creating an active protagonist and believable characters.
Don’t Deny the Obvious
But if two characters are hovering around one another with steamy dialogue, nearly kissing the entire time, and then the girl is like, “Nope. He can’t POSSIBLY be into me…” Well, I find that a little hard to believe. If there are any instances of characters protesting too much in your work, they are probably even more obvious to your potential readers than they are to you. Writers tend to over-explain to make sure readers get it (they do), and when it’s something a writer wants to keep hidden, the tendency to deny deny deny is magnified.
If you have a critique group (and you should), and you’re worried about this issue, ask them to read your manuscript with an eye toward what was so glaringly obvious that it was frustrating until you addressed it. That might help you inject some agency/action into your protagonist and tighten up your work.
Hire me as your freelance book editor and I’ll help you build believable characters who commit to their decisions.