Preventing Phantom Protagonist Syndrome

Have you ever had a really great idea for a story that somehow seemed to die a little more with each word you tried to write? Ever had a thrilling plot with no obvious holes in it that you just couldn’t seem to get off the ground? Perhaps, in addition to your thrilling and seamless plot, you also constructed a world so detailed, so complex and so marvellous that it would give Terry Pratchett and J.R.R Tolkien a run for their money; an antagonist whose diabolical scheme is sure to keep the reader on the edge of their seats; you’ve even managed to weave in a romantic subplot (which admittedly still seems a little half-baked, but it’s showing real potential)… and yet still, you just can’t seem to really ignite all that hard work into a half decent manuscript.

If any of this sounds familiar, there’s a good chance that your story is suffering from a chronic case of what I have dubbed Phantom Protagonist Syndrome (PPS). PPS is a condition which occurs in stories where the protagonist (that is, the main character) has not fully developed into a believable person but is only ‘half there’. Other symptoms of PPS may include excessive backstory in your manuscript (especially in the opening pages) giving complex details of the social, economic and political situation for the last thousand years of your fiction world; numerous failed attempts to audition your protagonist; feelings of despair and frustration (in the author) and an overwhelming urge on the part of the author to delete the whole story and work on another project (knitting, or some other non-literary pursuit). Symptoms of PPS usually become apparent in the mid-late planning stage of development (although it has been documented at all stages, including several untreated cases in published works) and typically affects almost every other part of the story.

‘Is it serious!?’ I hear you cry.

Why, yes it is. Terminal, in fact. Remember, your protagonist is the driving force behind your story. Think about the busiest place you know; your office, your living room or your kid’s school playground. What do you think happens when there is nobody there?

That’s right. Nothing happens. The same is true in fiction. No protagonist, no story. Your story hangs on your protagonist’s every thought (because this affects what he does) and his every action (because this affects what actually happens), so the more he seems like a real person, the better.

‘How is PPS diagnosed?’

PPS, by its very definition, is caused by having a half finished (or even non-existent) protagonist. Therefore, it is the protagonist himself we must put to the test. Begin by consulting your protagonist’s character profile and ensure that it is complete. At the absolute bare minimum it should include:

  • The character’s full name (including aliases)
  • Age and D.O.B
  • Place of birth
  • Gender
  • Religion (be specific about this. Even atheists believe something to be true; for instance, they might believe religion is the scourge of humanity to be actively opposed or they might have a more ‘live and let live’ approach to religion, while still rejecting it for themselves. When answering the question of your character’s religious beliefs, be sure to know what he believes, rather than simply what he does not believe).
  • Sexual orientation
  • Nationality (if you can whittle this down to a particular town, street and house number, so much the better)
  • Physical description (including dress)
  • Family (spouse, children, siblings and parents at least)
  • Career (both their actual career and their dream career) and hobbies
  • A little back story on how he or she got to where they are now
  • A list of personality traits
  • A list of likes, dislikes, hopes and fears.

If any of these are missing or incomplete then your character is still a mere phantom, not a fully formed person. I’m very sorry, but it’s PPS.

If, however, you’re satisfied that you’ve got all the basics in place, then we need to perform a more invasive test on your protagonist. We need to get right inside his mind and find out what our protagonist’s motivation, goals, conflict and epiphany will be. These not only add substance to your protagonist, but they also form the backbone of your plot. Each of these four things follow on, one from the other: motivation influences goals, goals determine the conflict, which in turn determines what the outcome of your story will be and, consequently, what your protagonist will learn (the epiphany).

For instance, Johnny swears by his morning cup of coffee to get him through the day. He’s often late for work and his boss has told him if he is late one more time, he’ll get the sack. One morning, Johnny wakes up and – oh no! – his bus leaves in ten minutes! He quickly decides not to have the cup of coffee he swears by but jumps into the first set of clothes he can find and runs to the bus stop. He makes it to work just in time where he does such a good days work that he gets a promotion. And I did it all without a single drop of coffee, he reflects on his way home.

This story (simple though it is) works, because we have all four of the above elements feeding in to each other:

Motivation John wants to hold down his job
Goals To this end, he aims to drink a cup of coffee and get to work on time. He believes both are needed to satisfy his motives.
Conflict Time (an abstract sort of antagonist, if you like) has conspired to make him lose his job by forcing him to choose between his two goals.
Epiphany Having got to work on time, he realises he can live without coffee after all.

Johnny had two goals in this story: to have his morning cup of coffee and to get to work on time. His motivation, however, is to hold down his job and this determines his every action, including his decision to abandon one goal in favour of another. A common cause of PPS is giving your protagonist plenty of goals (i.e., get to the bus stop at all costs) but no motivation. Johnny would never have reacted in such haste if he wasn’t motivated to keep his job. He might not even have bothered about the coffee. He would have stayed in bed and learned nothing. How much more unlikely is it that your protagonist is going to try to assassinate Hitler or propose to his friend’s sister unless they are motivated? Johnny had goals because he was motivated. Conflict arose because the ‘antagonist’ (time, in this case) forced him to choose between his two goals. The choice he made, based on his motivation, determined the outcome of the story and, in the end, taught him a valuable lesson that made him a better person (but why not click here for the alternate ending?).

That, dear reader, is a character driven story and the most powerful vaccination I know against PPS.

6 thoughts on “Preventing Phantom Protagonist Syndrome

  1. Have you ever had a really great idea for a story that somehow seemed to die a little more with each word you tried to write? Ever had a thrilling plot with no obvious holes in it that you just couldn’t seem to get off the ground? – Oh yep. One of the worst things. When it is so clear and there, but for some reason it wont come out, is really hard to take.
    Either calls for start from scratch or coming back to it with a different mindset.

    As for PPS its very easily done to get a long way through and realise things have gone off track and only realise at that point lol.
    Lots of editing and it can work out,nthe beauty of the malleable natire of writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Fleshing Out Your Story Idea | Penstricken

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