1. The Hero Lacks Agency
A main character’s choices have to affect the story. That doesn’t mean they always need to succeed, but even in failure, their decisions need to matter. If the hero is simply bounced around from scene to scene by forces beyond their control, they aren’t a good protagonist. The best they can hope for at that point is to be a McGuffin.
Child characters are probably the worst offenders when it comes to lacking agency. Children are noticeably less capable than adults, and it’s generally understood that grown-ups have a responsibility to keep kids from harm. These factors together make it difficult for younger heroes to participate in dangerous conflicts unless the author has carefully set up a situation where the child’s skills are useful and adults are out of the picture.
A lack of agency is also common in fish-out-of-water characters. It raises tension when your hero isn’t prepared to deal with the conflict they face, but if they’re too unprepared, then their decisions are unlikely to matter.
Sadly, another major contender is the female protagonist with a male love interest. Various toxic-romance tropes often conspire to create stories where a hot bad boy does everything important while the story’s heroine stands on the sidelines.
If your protagonist lacks agency, the first option is to give them some. But you may often find that another character already has the agency, and it’s easier to make the story about them. Parents and mentors are especially likely to occupy this space, and it’s often less work to make the story about them than it is to retrofit your protagonist with agency. I don’t recommend this for agency-stealing boyfriends though, as that’s just surrendering to sexism.
2. A Side Character Has Bigger Problems
By default, audiences will care more about conflicts with higher stakes. This is why storytellers don’t typically put dramatic tea parties in the middle of an alien invasion unless they’re trying to create an absurdist comedy. If there’s a murderer on the loose, an old high school rivalry won’t seem as important. Stories can still feature problems with different intensities, but it’s important to understand that tenser problems will steal the spotlight.
If your hero is trying to repair a damaged relationship with their sibling, that can work as a main plot. But if your hero is rubbing shoulders with a daring rogue who’s fighting to overthrow an evil empire, pretty soon audiences will be wishing they could follow the rebel instead. Even if you do a really good job with the sibling plot, at best you’ll end up with a split audience, at which point you won’t be able to satisfy either group.
The best way to handle this problem depends on your goals. If the higher-stakes conflict is important, you can combine it with the lower-stakes one and keep your current main character. Maybe your hero joins the rebellion specifically to make up with their estranged sibling, and they bond through fighting the empire. Or, if you really want to torture your hero, their sibling could be fighting for the other side.
If the higher-stakes conflict isn’t important, you can usually remove it. Authors sometimes get the idea that they have to include life-or-death stakes for their story to be compelling, but that isn’t true. You might have trouble carrying an entire novel with one relationship arc, but in shorter works it’s no problem.
On the other hand, if fighting the empire was the entire point, then maybe it’s time to drop this sibling thread altogether and focus more on the dashing rebel pilot. It all depends on what kind of story you want to tell.
3. The Hero Has No Candy
Candy is anything that glorifies a hero or makes them seem cool, and it’s common for storytellers to give their characters too much. You’ve no doubt seen this before: a hero with a never-ending suite of powers, perfect hair, and a cutie on their arm. But the opposite can happen too.
Characters with too little candy are dismal to watch or read about. They plod through the story, making us feel uncomfortable via association. They’re also a good sign that you’ve picked the wrong protagonist because authors tend to give candy to the characters they like. Often, this isn’t a conscious choice; authors are just depicting characters they think are cool doing cool stuff.
Even authors who love to watch their characters suffer usually feed them some candy along with it. The hero might lose everything, but they’ll at least gain some cool powers or skills along the way. If your protagonist does nothing but suffer and lose, there’s a good chance you just don’t like them very much, especially if a side character is getting all the candy instead. Even if you do like your suffering protagonist, it won’t look that way to your disappointed audience.
To fix the problem, you can either give your hero some more candy or switch to another character you like better. Be warned: there’s a good chance your new character will actually have too much candy, but at least you’ll be working with the right protagonist.
4. A Side Character Gets More Development
Characters need to be developed for the audience to invest in them. We need to know things like where they come from and what their problems are. That way, we can understand and sympathize with their choices. A well-developed character is also vital for satisfaction. Audiences need to feel like they know a character before they can share in the sweet taste of victory or the bitterness of defeat.
A lot of things can contribute to a character’s development, but some common ones include:
- Learning the character’s backstory
- Finding out their motivation
- Revealing their greatest fear
- Seeing complicated desires that pull them in different directions
- Watching them grow and change
Since stories are finite, it’s difficult to fully develop every single character. Fortunately, you don’t usually have to do that. Not only is it more important to develop the protagonist than anyone else, but that’s also a good way to signal who the protagonist is in the first place. So if you’re giving more development to someone who isn’t your protagonist, that’s a problem.
This can happen for a number of reasons. Like with the previous entry, it might be a sign that you actually like this side character more. It can also happen when a character’s backstory is overly complex, or it might even be a sign that the author is trying to make us think a character is super important before killing them off.
No matter what the reason, it will rob your hero of much-needed development time and bore your audience. They aren’t here for a detailed biography of a high school rival, not when they barely understand the main character’s motivation. If this side character is actually who you’re most interested in developing, then center the story on them. If not, it’s time to revise and refocus.
5. The Hero and Conflict Are Unrelated
Sometimes the hero feels like they don’t belong in a certain plot. Maybe they have no connection to the villain they’re supposed to be fighting, or they have no personal stakes in the conflict at hand. It might be a case of mismatched aesthetics, like the party’s swordfighter taking on the enemy scholar rather than crossing blades with their sworn rival. Alternatively, your hero might be actively stealing another character’s thunder, solving a problem that was clearly meant for someone else.
I’ve noticed this problem most often in TV shows, as production constraints force suboptimal storytelling choices. If a villain gets more popular than anticipated, the writers might want to up that villain’s importance, but it’s impossible to go back and revise earlier episodes and create a connection to the hero. The same thing can happen with good guys, like if the writers decide they all love the wisecracking sidekick, and suddenly the jokester is taking over the protagonist slot.
However, that doesn’t mean prose stories are safe. Authors can go back and revise their stories when something like this happens, but that doesn’t mean they always do. The cause is usually an author slowly growing to like a character more than they originally did. If that character isn’t the protagonist, they end up usurping that role. If they’re already the main character, then they crowd outside characters until they have the spotlight all to themselves.
You may have guessed by now that the only solution is revision. In this case, you probably already know which character you want to write about: the one who keeps straying out of their lane. Now you have to either revise them so they fit with the plot or revise the plot so that it fits with them. If you’re lucky, maybe they’ll meet in the middle.
6. A Side Character Is More Active
Contrary to what you may have heard, protagonists don’t always need to be proactive. They need to have agency, but that’s not the same thing. A reactive character can still have agency so long as their choices matter. Neo from the Matrix is a good example. In the beginning, he’s reacting to events around him, but he still makes choices, whether it’s to follow a white rabbit or not to climb a dangerous scaffold.
That said, protagonists need to get proactive eventually. Neo does this when he hatches his plan to save Morpheus. Frodo does it when he and Sam leave the rest of the Fellowship behind. Protagonists need some goal other than thwarting the villain. Even superheroes, an archetype notorious for maintaining the status quo, usually want to lock the bad guy up in addition to stopping the evil plan.
If your story is approaching its end and another character is still more active than the hero, that’s likely a problem. It signals that your hero hasn’t evolved into their final form and is still stuck at the larval stage of reacting to whatever the plot throws at them. That doesn’t sound like something an important main character would do, so maybe the story is actually about something else?
This is one area where the villain could actually feel like your story’s main character, especially if you’re using a villain who has a point. Even if their methods are abhorrent, such villains are generally trying to accomplish something laudable. If the hero has nothing to offer but the status quo, audiences will often find themselves latching on to the villain. Alternatively, this might be the stage when a secondary good guy pulls ahead of the hero, taking active steps while the protagonist is still waiting for an invitation.
If your villain is the one stealing the spotlight, you’ll need to either revise the protagonist to be more active or revise the story to be about the bad guy. On the other hand, if someone on Team Good is the active one, you might be able to shift them into the protagonist’s shoes without too much trouble. It’ll depend on the specifics of your story, but different characters on Team Good are often similar enough that their roles can be easily rearranged to feature whichever one you like best.
If your story is about the wrong character, you typically have two options. Option one: change the plot. Option two: change the character. Which one you pick will depend on what aspect of the story is most appealing to you. Either way, look out for when your plot and main character don’t mesh.