One of the most common plot flaws I run into is one I’ve dubbed the “boring hero problem.”
But wait, you say: “boring hero” sounds like a character problem, not a plot problem, right? Not so! Consider how character and plot are two sides of the same storytelling coin.
Your main character (or protagonist, or hero, choose your terminology) is the entity whose actions and experiences comprise the plot of your book. Without a dynamic central figure with a high-stakes goal, who is willing to act, choose, fight, risk, fail, rebound, suffer, sacrifice and transform in pursuit of that goal, you have no plot. This is true no matter how many unexpected incidents, bad guys, fight scenes and so on you cram onto the page.
Put simply: A passive hero swept up in a string of random events does not a plot make.
- If your hero is more often than not morose, depressed, sleeping, dreaming, inebriated, numb, lost, frozen (with fear, grief, indecision, etc.) waiting, confused, unsure….
- If your hero is often clueless about what’s happening around her, and is being led around the story by a more interesting “sidekick” who has all the information about where they’re going and why…
- If your hero aimlessly wanders through the tale without a clear, high-stakes goal, and is swept along by coincidence after coincidence ….
- If your hero is part of a group of co-adventurers, any one of whom are equally or more able to solve the central problem of the tale than your bland, just-an-ordinary-guy hero…
…you may have a case of Boring Hero problem. How to fix?
Try this instead:
- Your hero should make the big choices, risks, discoveries and sacrifices that drive the story forward. That means ultimate credit for any big turning point in the tale should be directly or indirectly traceable back to your hero. Example: in The Hobbit, Bard shoots the fatal arrow that kills Smaug, but only because Bilbo’s prior bravery in facing the dragon led to the discovery of the one vulnerable spot in Smaug’s armor.
- Make your hero uniquely qualified to address the central problem of your tale. Only Harry Potter can defeat Voldemort. Only Rikki (of “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” by Rudyard Kipling) can rid the garden of murderous cobras, because killing cobras is a mongoose’s job and Rikki is the only mongoose around.
- A rich cast of unforgettable secondary characters is a great asset to any story (think of Gandalf, Aunt Beast, Snape, etc.), but it’s no substitute for making your protagonist the most interesting, compelling and indispensable character in your tale.
Remember, plot is the line of cause-and-effect dominoes that connects who your protagonist is at the beginning of the tale to the irrevocably changed figure he or she is at the end. Keep your hero at the center of the action and let your plot rise organically and powerfully from the actions prompted by his or her deepest need for transformation. You might be surprised where it takes you!
Suggested reading about plot: The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler
Hero Plus Verb Writing Prompt
- Set a two-minute timer and make a list of dynamic, active verbs. For example, chooses, runs, escapes, battles, discovers, loves, outwits—think of as many as you can!
- Set the timer again. This time, give yourself two minutes per verb. Write your hero’s name, then add a verb from your list. That’s your prompt. For example, Hero chooses , Hero escapes, Hero outwits… etc. Keep writing until the timer stops! Repeat until you run out of verbs.
- Brainstorm freely, and don’t be afraid to go wild! You’ll end up with a list of scene ideas that show your main character driving the story forward.
Maryrose Wood is the author of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place books, the acclaimed middle-grade series from HarperCollins. The most recent installment is book five, The Unmapped Sea. She teaches fiction writing at NYU’s Gallatin School and in Stony Brook Southampton Children’s Literature Fellows program. You can read more about Maryrose Wood at www.maryrosewood.com or find her on Twitter @maryrose_wood
(Photo credit: Stacey Natal / Total City Girl, L.L.C.)
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