How Do I Involve the Main Character in the Plot?

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In my current concept, I have a “steampunk” world that is centered around class-based slave labor, in which “modern” ideologies about freedom either never happened (history splits about 1600-1700 AD) or are severely suppressed by the established powers. As an “extreme” amateur, I do not trust myself to effectively get the story off the ground, and was wondering how to get the story off the ground, without being too cliché, as in “oopsy, this resistance person accidentally lets these incriminating documents fall into the hands of a 15-year-old “Worker” (slave)(the main character),” but does not go beyond my scope of experience in terms of literary/intellectual complexity.

My experience is considerably limited, as I am only a high schooler with a keen interest in the literary arts. I am not handy with prose or very complex plots, and my personal brainstorming has really only come to very cliché things, like him getting something he shouldn’t, or outlandish and obviously beyond my abilities, like aliens, and post-apocalyptic government conspiracies, etc. I am looking to find a way to convincingly establish the plot away from the menial opening sequence, and establish the main plot of cat and mouse across the American countryside.


Hey Paul, thanks for writing in!

Getting a story started is surprisingly difficult, as every writer discovers when they first put hands to the keyboard. There are a number of different methods available, but the key is to start by giving your protagonist an important problem they need to solve. In some stories, you can introduce the main plot right away and just get going. In other stories, that doesn’t work, and so you need a smaller problem that will lead into the main plot. It sounds like your story falls into the latter category.

With that in mind, I recommend looking at Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for inspiration. While not a perfect book by any means, Sorcerer’s Stone does a great job in this area. It opens with the problem of Harry being miserable with the Dursleys. After strange letters start appearing, Harry eventually solves his problem (for the time being) by going to Hogwarts. This leads into the book’s main plot, which is about Harry learning to be a wizard while the mystery of the Sorcerer’s Stone builds in the background.

You could adopt this to your story a number of ways. Perhaps your protagonist spends long evening hours after his work shift searching through junkyards for valuable salvage. As slaves, they and their family likely don’t have enough to eat. Pickings have been worse than normal lately, forcing them to travel further afield, and this day they discoverer the wreck of a steampunk vehicle, the pilot barely clinging to life. The pilot hands your protagonist a set of documents critical to the resistance, then dies. This links your opening problem with the main plot, assuming the main plot is resisting class-based slavery.

The important thing is that whatever problem you open with has to feel related to your main plot. Otherwise, readers will feel like it is a waste of time. Sorcerer’s Stone does this by having its opening problem center around Harry getting weird letters delivered via owl: something that’s clearly magical. It wouldn’t have worked if the beginning was just him feeling bad about school and then getting his Hogwarts letter.

My partner Chris also wrote two posts that might be helpful to you:

One other thing I’d advise you to keep in mind: in any setting where slavery exists, slaves will want to be free. While ideas from the Enlightenment period contributed to European abolitionism, slaves wanted to be free long before that. While it totally works to have a setting where slavery is widespread, it’s important to remember that slaves don’t need complicated ideologies to know their situation is bad.

I hope that’s helpful.

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  1. Feral

    I also think it’s really important to note that it’s ok to have cliches. You’re just starting your journey and that’s awesome! What’s most important right now is that you go for it. Take the ideas that excite you and run with them! No one’s first draft is perfect; definitely no one’s first draft of their first story or book is perfect. Don’t get so bogged down with trying to have a story that matches someone who has been writing stories for decades that you don’t write your story at all!
    Best of luck!

    • Cay Reet

      What Feral says!

      First drafts are horrible, but necessary, and you’re on a journey. You will work, you will write, and you will grow. Do your best with the tools as you have them right now and strive to find better tools. If you need cliches at the moment, if you need to resort to a stereotype or two, then do so for now, but be aware they’re a crutch and you will leave them behind eventually.

      Write and you will get better!

  2. Tifa

    Ooh, this is a really good question. I haven’t thought about it much myself before, actually.
    One important thing that I learned was not to have your protagonist just pushed from event to event like a pinball, at least for more serious works. Everything changes with comedy, after all.

  3. JackbeThimble

    I think it’s worth mentioning that this part of the story is where an audience is most willing to suspend disbelief. There’s almost an expectation that the precipitating event of the plot is going to be something extraordinary, unlikely, or extraordinarily unlikely so you have a fair bit of leg room. Also in spec fic since you’re just introducing the setting the audience doesn’t yet have a clear idea of the setting’s rules anyway so they’re gonna be taking their cues from what you show them more than any already developed ideas. The trick is not hanging yourself with all this free rope by unwittingly introducing things that throw off the balance of your setting or blinding the audience with too much information early on.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, everyone expects the main lead to get into the plot, so they’re more likely to accept a wonky explanation for that than for a lot of other things.

  4. greg

    Star Wars: A New Hope is a decent example. In this case we have Luke, who is sympathetic to the Rebellion, but actually chooses not to help until his family gets killed.

    I can see a scenario where your protagonist is too afraid to get involved. Maybe he or she hides the important papers somewhere, or even throws them away. But the bad guys still think the protagonist has them, and forces the hero’s involvement anyway. Or maybe it’s the good guys that are chasing the main character – but we don’t know that right away. Or maybe the protagonist is caught in the middle and has to choose a side.

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