1. The Mentor
Mentors have to begin the story more skilled than the protagonist, or they won’t make good mentors. Then authors want the mentor to seem cool, so it’s clear the protagonist can benefit from their training. Finally, the mentor usually needs some personal investment in the protagonist’s success; otherwise, why are they going to all the effort?
Put that all together, and you have a character who can easily outshine the protagonist. If the mentor is such a badass, why don’t they just go and solve whatever the problem is? At best, the audience will feel like the protagonist should have just stayed home. At worst, the mentor will accompany the protagonist on their quest, easily solving every problem they come across and robbing the story of all tension.
Example After a few training montages, Miko’s nemesis, Emma Bluehill shows up and tries to capture Miko. Instead of an exciting battle, Sanja steps in and easily sends Emma running. Sanja’s a world famous swordswoman, doncha know.
ExampleProtagonist Miko Blackspear is apprenticed to the world famous swordswoman, Sanja Redcloak. After years in seclusion, Sanja has agreed to teach one warrior her secret technique, and Miko is the lucky student.
After a few training montages, Miko’s nemesis, Emma Bluehill shows up and tries to capture Miko. Instead of an exciting battle, Sanja steps in and easily sends Emma running. Sanja’s a world famous swordswoman, doncha know.
How to Fix It
The classic solution to an over competent mentor is to kill the mentor, but that’s so common that it has now become an eye-rolling cliche. When a mentor appears, audiences know death can’t be far behind. Sometimes killing the mentor doesn’t even work. If they were really cool, the audience might spend the rest of the story wishing the mentor had lived instead of this lame protagonist they’re stuck with.
You can also try for the Last Airbender approach. That show is full of super competent mentors, but it uses the complex politics of the Fire Nation War to make sure the mentors are always somewhere else when serious trouble starts. The weakness there is that not all stories have the capacity for such complicated plots.
An easier solution is to give the mentor some built-in, immediate reason why they can’t deal with the protagonist’s problems for them. Age is a good option, especially in stories of physical danger. An 80-year-old fencing master might know every technique by heart, but they’re likely to break a hip if they get into a fight with the big bad. The mentor could even already be dead, passing on their lessons from beyond the grave. Or they might be cursed to remain forever trapped within a circle of mushrooms.
ExampleThis time, when Emma shows up and demands Miko surrender to her, Sanja arrogantly draws her sword. Sanja’s the greatest swordswoman in the realm, she’s not about to let her student be kidnapped. But Sanja is pushing 70, and the numerous wounds she’s taken over the years have slowed her down. Emma easily defeats the aging master, and only Miko can get herself and her mentor away from the enemy.
2. The Love Interest
In order for the audience to empathize with a love story, authors must make the love interest seem desirable. In most cases, a pretty smile and a winning personality aren’t enough. The love interest must be active, accomplishing deeds and solving problems in their own right. Normally this is a good thing, because passive love interests are boring and often send problematic messages.
Unfortunately, it’s possible for the love interest to become so active that they take time the protagonist needs. If a love interest is too competent, it can seem like they should be the one solving whatever problem is going on instead of the hero. This can happen no matter what the gender makeup of the romance is. When a male love interest steals a female protagonist’s spotlight, it comes off as paternalistic. When a female love interest steals a male protagonist’s spotlight, it makes the audience wonder why the love interest wasn’t the main character in the first place. Non-heterosexual romances will have the same problem.
ExampleThe protagonist Prince Marketh is madly in love with his chief bodyguard, Sir Elizabeth. Elizabeth is super good at fighting, and she demonstrates it by single-handedly defeating an assassination attempt on Marketh’s life.* Then she demonstrates it again by leading Marketh’s army against his enemies and telling Marketh it’s not safe for him to leave the palace; he should stay inside and work on his hobbies.
No matter how I arrange the genders here, you can see how Marketh is no longer the hero of their own story.
How to Fix It
A common solution is to damsel the super competent love interest at the last minute, but that’s really just exchanging one problem for another, especially if the love interest is a woman. Too many badass ladies have been nonsensically captured by the villain because authors couldn’t think of another way to make their protagonist relevant. This is a cliche that often damages the love interest’s agency along with the story.
A far better solution is to make the love interest competent in an area that isn’t useful for solving the main conflict. If the love interest is an ace pilot, the story’s climax should take place underground. If they’re a powerful sorcerer, then the main confrontation should occur in a zone of wild magic where any spell could rebound on the caster. If you absolutely must damsel the love interest, make sure they have some agency in their own rescue, even if it’s something small like finding a secret way to signal the protagonist.
ExampleSir Elizabeth is still a lovely badass who’s protected Prince Marketh from an ugly death by assassins’ knives, but now the monarchs of a dozen lands are visiting and she’s out of her depth. Elizabeth is a fine soldier, but she doesn’t know a thing about politics. Fortunately, Marketh is born to the courtly life. The climax is his moment to shine as he figures out who’s behind this evil conspiracy that keeps sending assassins everywhere, while Elizabeth guards his back, of course.
3. The Trickster
A trickster character is essentially a comic relief that acts upon others. They don’t just do funny things; they create amusement by embarrassing other characters. A trickster might just be a rascal who ties the protagonist’s shoe laces in knots, or they might be a powerful spirit who takes the protagonist’s sword just before battle. Often, the trickster will take the form of a cute animal to increase novelty.
Another common trait of tricksters is that they pass on cryptic clues to the protagonist. You know, the kind of clue that seems important, but it doesn’t actually make sense until the climax, when everything suddenly falls into place.
In order to fulfill their double duty of pranking the hero and/or passing along cryptic information, tricksters need a certain amount of power. After all, if they were too frail, people would stop them from pulling pranks, and if they didn’t know the secrets of the plot, they wouldn’t be able to give cryptic hints.
Unfortunately, many authors make the trickster more powerful than they need to be. Authors like tricksters you see, because they provide a break from all the seriousness of epic spec fic, and increasing the trickster’s power can seem novel and entertaining when it’s really just annoying. Authors also can’t resist cryptic clues – they’re so deliciously dramatic! Soon the trickster is so capable and knows so much, it’s a wonder any of the other characters even showed up.
ExampleLieutenant Wu is the protagonist of a scifi police drama, and Spades is the adorable robotic puppy who’s always giving Wu cryptic hints about where the Binary Killer will strike next. But more than that, Spades has the ability to hack Wu’s hovercar so the Lieutenant can narrowly avoid danger. Because Spades is so capable, and knows so much, it’s not long before the audience starts to wonder why Spades isn’t the main character.
How to Fix It
Contrary to the belief of many authors, stories rarely need a trickster character. The trickster is often used to make otherwise boring scenes interesting or feed information to the protagonist and audience, but this is a crutch. It’s often better to make sure the story has no boring scenes and that the information is learned naturally, rather than using a trickster as an ad hoc solution.
If the story must have a trickster, it’s important to put major limits on them. The reason they can only deliver cryptic clues is that they’ve been cursed by the antagonist, or the trickster has been driven mad by visions of the Great Old Ones. The trickster’s ability to mess with the main character should be limited, and the trickster should occasionally receive some comeuppance for their bad behavior, to avoid making the audience think the trickster is magically untouchable.
Alternatively, the trickster can be an antagonist in their own right. At that point, their cryptic clues aren’t clues at all but mere nonsense meant to confuse. Their antics can go on for some time without the protagonist being able to stop them, because the trickster actually is magically untouchable.
ExampleLieutenant Wu is getting really fed up with always arriving too late to stop the Binary Killer. Then Wu finds out that the danger that Spades so conveniently got Wu out of was in fact engineered… by Spades. And that Spades the adorable robot puppy was owned by each of the Binary Killer’s victims. Wise to the true culprit, Wu saddles up to hunt a trickster.
4. The Villain
A story is only as good as its villain, so the saying goes. It’s true, to a certain extent – stories that don’t have villains notwithstanding. Villains provide a story’s conflict; they are the force against which the protagonist must act. By their very nature, villains get a fair amount of screen time, and so a flat villain can ruin a story.
However, a villain that’s too active can completely steal the show for themselves, eclipsing the hero entirely. This is easier than it sounds. In most stories, the villain is acting and the hero is reacting. That equation favors the villain already. Also, the villain is usually the more powerful of the two, another point in the villain’s favor. And if the author wants the villain to be sympathetic and gives them their own point of view, it can be game over for the hero’s importance.
The worst-case scenario is when the villain is fighting to address a systematic injustice, and the hero is trying to stop them. Even if the villain has clearly gone too far, their goals are inherently more sympathetic than the hero’s goals of maintaining the status quo. Then any ending where the hero wins is completely unsatisfying to the audience, because they wanted the villain to triumph!
ExampleAdmiral Mei Song is the villain of a space opera. She spends the story mobilizing the pirate fleets of the Oort Cloud to throw off the oppressive yoke of a mining company that is literally grinding her people’s icy homes into dust for profit. Meanwhile, the hero is Police Commissioner Farid, intent on stopping Song because her rebellion will kill thousands of innocent civilians.
Farid’s reason for opposing Song makes logical sense, but Farid’s victory will send readers home with a bitter taste in their mouths.
How to Fix It
The first step is to make your protagonist as active as possible. The villain should still be more powerful than the protagonist – otherwise, the conflict is boring – but the protagonist should do more than react to whatever the villain throws at them.
Second, when dealing with a sympathetic villain who has understandable goals, make sure your protagonist also understands those goals. When the story ends, your protagonist needs to do more than defeat the villain; they have to at least begin addressing the villain’s original grievance.
ExampleCommissioner Farid doesn’t like Ice Mining Incorporated. He thinks they’re destroying people’s homes in the name of profit. But he can’t stand by and let Admiral Song detonate bombs that will kill thousands of workers. When he finally arrests Song, he uses the sensor data from her ships to hand Ice Mining Inc a summons to appear in court on charges of unsafe mining conditions.
5. The Partner
While side characters are fairly standard, some stories have a side character so important that they are essentially a partner protagonist.* The easiest way to tell the difference between a partner protagonist and a side character is whether or not the character in question has an important emotional arc that must be resolved. If they do, they are firmly in main character territory.
While having a partner protagonist isn’t automatically a bad idea, it’s incredibly risky. It turns the story into a constant balancing act, requiring that the author pay just enough attention to both main characters. You may have guessed by now that many authors fail in this regard. It’s too easy for the author to develop a favorite protagonist and leave the other to languish.
When this happens, the neglected protagonist doesn’t get the development they need to conclude their arc. But their arc was still raised at the beginning, so now the audience is left with half a story that just didn’t resolve properly.
ExampleElly and Sophie are best friends at magic school, and partner protagonists to boot. Elly’s arc focuses on her anger at a mother who abandoned her, while Sophie’s journey is about her trying to overcome a lack of natural talent in magic. Over the course of the story, the author realizes they have much more fun writing Elly’s sarcastic wittiness than Sophie’s somber contemplation, and so Elly ends up with more and more of the screen time. At the climax, Elly reunites with her mother while Sophie is still struggling with basic spells like she was at the beginning.
How to Fix It
In many cases, the partner protagonist can simply be removed. They aren’t necessary nearly as often as adventurous authors like to think. If not removed, the partner can be downgraded to a normal side character by removing their need for an emotional arc. Sophie might still be Elly’s contemplative best friend, but if the story doesn’t make a big deal about Sophie’s need to overcome a deficiency in magic, then her lack of resolution at the end won’t be a disappointment.
If the story really needs more than one protagonist, give them complementary skill sets, so then it’s impossible to solve the conflict with just one of them. This keeps an author from leaving one partner behind. At the same time, that won’t be enough if only one of the protagonists is interesting to write. An author should make sure they really enjoy all their protagonists before proceeding down this path.
Finally, the best practice is to tie the partners’ arcs together, if at all possible. This avoids the temptation to resolve one while leaving the other to drift in the wind.
Example But there’s more to their relationship than mutual competence. Sophie is secretly jealous that magic comes so easily to Elly. At the same time, Elly is jealous of the time Sophie spent learning saber fighting from Elly’s mother. That’s time Elly felt she was owed. This jealousy eats at both of them until they finally reconcile in the story’s climax.
ExampleIn addition to being best friends at magic school, Elly and Sophie have complementary skills. Elly can cast spells really well, while Sophie is wicked good with a saber. Because the challenges they face require a combination of magic and muscle, the partners must rely on each other.
But there’s more to their relationship than mutual competence. Sophie is secretly jealous that magic comes so easily to Elly. At the same time, Elly is jealous of the time Sophie spent learning saber fighting from Elly’s mother. That’s time Elly felt she was owed. This jealousy eats at both of them until they finally reconcile in the story’s climax.
If your protagonist doesn’t get their necessary time in the spotlight, the story will fall flat. No matter how awesome the rest of the story is, an overshadowed protagonist will make it very difficult to enjoy, because the protagonist is the audience’s window in the story. Make sure you shine enough light on that window!