How to Write a Character Who Drives the Plot [Novel Boot Camp #2]

A great protagonist drives the plot by being proactive about his or her goals. In today’s video I discuss how you can write a main character who acts as the primary driving force behind the novel’s action.


Video Highlights:

  • The protagonist should be the main driving force behind your novel. The bulk of the story isn’t happening “to” them, but rather they are driving the story.
  • The protagonist needs to take active steps towards his or her goal, even if those steps are interfered with or aren’t helpful.
  • Your protagonist’s flaw will most likely cause him or her to get into more trouble when the protagonist’s proactive behavior is counterproductive.
  • Even characters who avoid conflict can take active steps in their avoidance.
  • Victims of abuse, bullying, or circumstances are particularly vulnerable to becoming inactive. It’s important to make sure a victimized character is still taking steps towards a goal.

Questions to Ask About Your Novel

1. What proactive steps does your protagonist take towards his/her goals?

It’s vital that the protagonist put effort into pursuing her goals so she doesn’t sit on the sidelines waiting for someone else to solve her problems. The protagonist must be striving to accomplish her goals by taking concrete actions.

2. Is your character overly reliant on other characters?

Make sure your character has enough bravery and tenacity to move towards his goals. He might have lots of negative traits and his actions might move him deeper into trouble, but he shouldn’t only be taking orders from other characters or relying on others to solve his problems. He has to put on the big boy boots and do most things by himself.
If you have any questions about creating a character who drives the plot, please post it in the comments below.

Comment Question: Does your character take charge or does he or she have a tendency to watch from the sidelines?

Workshop #1 critiques will be posted later today and every day this week. If you didn’t get a chance to submit last week, the submission form is still open!

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8 thoughts on “How to Write a Character Who Drives the Plot [Novel Boot Camp #2]

  1. Brett Mumford says:

    My protagonist has definitely been the active agent in trying to achieve her goals, but I think I have found a potential weakness in how I am pushing this. I am a bit concerned that I am having my character not rely enough on other characters. If I had done that deliberately, I would not have a problem, but looking back, I realize that I have ended up doing it this way for no particular story based reason.

  2. Suzy Ince says:

    This is why Grimm’s fairy tales are so short. The prince always rescues the princess .
    Thanks for posting these videos it’s really making me rethink my protagonist. She was too smart making, amazingly, all the right decisions and my ms was way too short and boring.
    You rock Ellen.

  3. jrbupton says:

    Comment Question: Does your character take charge or does he or she have a tendency to watch from the sidelines?

    My character does a bit of both, though I might just be confusing terminology.
    I’m not sure if by proactive you mean doing things in general, or being assertive and taking steps to change one’s circumstances.
    My protagonist takes action from chapter 1 (though I do need to edit thanks to the helpful overview from yesterday), but he’s mostly reacting to the situation he’s found himself in. Eventually he is going to be presented with the opportunity to take control of his… ‘destiny,’ so to speak.
    I think this jells with the bruise example; hiding the bruises under makeup is reactive to the environment, taking steps to get out of that situation is proactive.

  4. Bjorn Schievers says:

    Ellen Brock: Does your character take charge or does he or she have a tendency to watch from the sidelines?

    I think my character definitely takes charge throughout the whole book even though larger events take place around him. When the new emperor completely breaks with the policies of the old one that Aryas loved so much, he has to find his place in this new world. His biggest goal is to restore the dreams he shared with the murdered emperor and his biggest conflict is to continue serving his empire or defect and join the enemy in their fight against him in order to achieve his goal. But he’s always thinking, always on the move. By the end of the first novel he will have made his choice.

  5. nicolelochoa says:

    This was a tough one for me to answer. My main character is a teenage girl in love with an older boy. I can see ways now that I can make her more proactive and I really liked the idea of protagonist being counterproductive. Who doesn’t like to groan a little bit at other’s mishaps? I think adding a little more interference will add a lot to my story and even give way to a few humorous situations.

  6. danaeldred says:

    This is really helpful to hear because part of the evolution of my character is her realizing that she is capable of taking her own destiny into her own hands and then trying it. She tries and fails and tries and fails but then she starts succeeding. Hopefully she veers from reaction into action early enough in the story for her to still be a good protagonist that readers will root for.

  7. Pam Portland (@TruckingWriter) says:

    My protagonist absolutely takes charge! She is driving towards her goal, often times literally. She relies on no one but herself to reach the goal. She wants to travel and see all fifty states. But as she reaches it, she feels more and more scared.

  8. TKL says:

    How can a writer put the protagonist more in charge in a coming of age story? There’s not usually a big goal the hero is working toward in that genre, or maybe I’m missing it?

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