Writing Tips: 4 Mistakes To Avoid When Creating Your Protagonist

We writers have a habit of falling for our carefully crafted protagonists. I mean, after spending 70,000 odd words with them, what can we expect? It’s only natural we fall in love and/or lose the ability to be objective. It’s one of many reasons why editors are so important to our mysteries/sci-fi/novels or short stories.

So when writing, you need to know how to avoid mistakes when creating a protagonist. There are four common mistakes you can easily avoid when creating your protagonists.

The most common are:

One of the biggest results of a lack of objectivity is a bloated manuscript. Those scenes spilling aeons of family history, or the minute details of your hero’s pug-puppy stamp collection, really aren’t necessary.


One of the biggest results of a lack of objectivity is a bloated manuscript.

Depth is somewhat subjective. What one reader finds beautiful, another may hate. But there are some easy wins you can implement to help you create depth.

Don’t give your hero an overwhelmingly positive personality – heroes who are overly positive make your reader feel like they’re being accosted by a perky cheerleader at the crack of dawn when they haven’t had caffeine. It’s a bit much, even for the most tolerant reader. We all have off days; it makes us human and gives us depth. Your hero needs the occasional off day too.

Your hero must make mistakes. Likewise, we all make mistakes. It’s how we grow. A hero that never makes a mistake can come across as annoying, patronizing and make the reader feel inadequate. LET YOUR HERO MESS UP AND LEARN LESSONS.

Your hero’s personality needs to be a consequence of his history – we are a product of our history. When a character isn’t, it can create an uneasy feeling in the reader.

The reason Indiana Jones is scared of snakes in Raiders of the Lost Ark, is because he fell into a pit of snakes as a kid. The audience knows this, so the fear makes sense. CONNECT THE DOTS. PLANT THINGS IN YOUR HERO’S PAST THAT BECOME RELEVANT IN YOUR STORY.

Actively drive the plot forward – your hero takes the risks and faces the greatest danger. It’s Harry that kills Voldemort. IT’S YOUR PROTAGONIST WHO MUST DRIVE THE ACTION FORWARD AND MORE IMPORTANTLY, MAKE THE FINAL BLOW DEFEATING YOUR VILLAIN.

A failure to connect can happen on two levels: disconnecting with the audience, or the hero disconnecting with the other characters and the story. The cause and cure are one and the same.

The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.Your protagonist is the manifestation of your story; the web that pulls all the elements together: flaw, theme, supporting characters, plot, obstacles, change arc etc. should all be linked.

The entire story is connected, which is why it connected with readers.

Essentially, what you need to remember is this:

While your villain is the source of page-gripping tension, when the words are read and the dust has settled on your back cover, it’s the hero that your readers remember.

The hero should connect every element of your story. He should grow and change and drive the plot forward all the while representing our ‘flawed’ human nature.

Let your hero make mistakes. That way, when your hero has the ‘ah-ha’ moment, your readers will too. Much as it makes me weep, eventually, villains are defeated. But heroes are like puppies. They’re forever, not just Christmas.

Are you prone to some of these mistakes when writing your protagonists? Please leave your thoughts below.

Why We Write

Why do I write? Because I can’t stop writing. It’s simply part of me.

Like many of us, creativity and self-expression are fundamental to who we are — we’ve been listening to and telling stories from way back. In my case, since I was in kindergarten.

We aren’t the only ones who sees a story as essential. Freud saw it as central to human experience and as the means of healing wounded psyches.

Jung saw it as a way of dipping into the collective unconscious, the stream of experience that underlies all of history and humanity.

So, if creativity is so fundamental to our being, what makes it so hard sometimes to write what we see in our minds?

Sometimes life gets in the way. And sometimes we get in our own way by not understanding that there are stages to the process, which, like any other natural stages, cannot be hurried or one put before the other.

I understand both ways of slowing down the process. I have also learned about the way writing works: It’s an organic process that resembles the stages of butterfly development.

The way I think about this now is a ‘model.’ In the cycle of change model, people go through predictable stages of change much like a butterfly does.

Our natural tendency when writing is to push when we should be resting and to resist the difficulty when the process calls for discipline.

I find when I’m writing I forget to eat I’m so focused on what I’m writing. I forget to get something to drink. I forget everything, mainly because writing requires concentration. Without focus or concentration, you’ll be distracted by your spouse, your kids, your job or just the fact that you haven’t made dinner or cleaned the bathroom.

Sue Powers has an array of publishing credits, among them Saturday Evening Post, New Millennium Writings and Another Chicago Story. She’s the recipient of a fellowship & grant from the Illinois Arts Council in Prose and two of her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She works part-time for the Association of Legal Administrators.

Editing your Manuscript

There are three stages of manuscript editing that will lead you through a progressive journey to creating the best book to offer your readers.

Each editorial process addresses separate issues of the story.
• Content edit. The big story picture.
• Line edit. The language you use.
• Copy edit. Grammar, spelling and syntax.

Each phase of editing addresses different aspects of your manuscript and they work in sequence. There’s no point editing for commas and typos if your story needs rewriting and additional plot points.

Hiring an editor is an investment that costs money. You can reduce those costs by first working through the three editing steps yourself. Every change you make saves the editor time and saves you money. But, the biggest benefit is learning how to think critically about your story and the manuscript.

As you work through the three phases, you’ll have a better understanding of how each process works and why editorial input will enrich your manuscript.

How to start editing your manuscript:

Creating a critical mindset is the first step in the editing process. As an editor, you will examine every part of your story to make it seamless and engaging from the first sentence to the last. You need to establish a distance to apply your critical eye to your novel. You can build your critical distance with a few steps.

• Put your manuscript away for at least a week. Several weeks are even better. You’ll want to apply fresh eyes to your story.
• In the meantime, read for excellence in your genre. Pick three writers you consider masters of your genre and then choose what you consider each writer’s best work. While your novel is set away, read each of these three books while practicing your critical approach. You already know these stories, so practice being an editor for your favorite professional author. Make notes. What improvements would you make? What are the writer’s strengths?
• After rereading these works, without looking at your manuscript, make a list of the ways you would like to improve your story and your writing based on the positive discoveries you’ve made in your reading.
1. Content editing
Plan on making changes. As wonderful as your story is, you can make it better. Your aim is to make your novel as professional as possible.

You’ll be going through your story at least three times. The first pass at editing focuses on the story elements. There’ll be time enough for details like punctuation, spelling and grammar after you make your changes.

The story editing, often called the content or development edit, looks at your story structure, character arcs, dialogue, and scene sequence. Keep asking yourself, does this work in the story?

Print out your manuscript formatted for lots of white space — wide margins, double-spaced. You will hold it in your hands, make marks, and read it as a book. You’ll be entering “track changes” in your word processing software later.

Structure questions:
In this first editorial read, you’ll be scrutinizing your story. If you find smaller issues like grammar or spelling mark them knowing they may disappear as you rewrite. Be looking for ways to make your story sharp and crisp.

Does the first page hook you? Does it plunge you into the story? Does it clearly reflect the genre? Do your protagonist’s words and actions introduce his or her character?

Notice pacing like chapters or scenes that rush the story or get bogged down with detail or long descriptions.

Does each scene move the story forward? If not, mark it for improvement.

Does the story have a clear three-act structure? (or another form of structure that leads the reader through a book to a satisfactory conclusion).

Is your protagonist confused and thwarted in the first part of Act 2? Does she take the reins after the midpoint? Once the story reaches the climax, does it take too long to wind down?
Is the story predictable? How could you improve the twists, turns and reversals to challenge your protagonist?
Do two characters have names that start with the same letter? If so, find a new name for one character.
If your story feels overpopulated, combine two characters with similar motivations to keep your reader from being confused.
Do your subplots integrate with the overall story? Are they spaced throughout the storyline?
Is the voice consistent throughout the story? Is one passage in a different tone?
Do you need to research a location or an object to give it more punch?
Does each character speak in a recognizable voice? Would your reader know who is speaking by the way the character speaks? Does the dialogue reflect subtext rather than always being on point?
Is the point of view consistent throughout? Is each scene told from only one point of view? If your story is told from multiple points of view, is it clear who is “speaking” in each scene?

Content editing can be a long process. But it’s well worth going through your story looking for every way you can tighten your manuscript to give your reader the best experience in your genre.

Many writers hire a developmental editor at the story outline stage before they have a completed manuscript. Starting with a sound story structure speeds up writing time.

[Before you go to the next stage of editing, rewrite your story making the changes you noted during your critical editorial reading. Take as long as necessary to make your changes. Remember you are doing the hard work of becoming a professional writer.]

2. Line Editing (Language)
Once you’ve made your story changes, it’s time to look at the language you use to convey your story. Now you are looking to refine the language in the text.

You are not looking so much for mistakes as the best way to structure your sentences and paragraphs to improve the readability.
You want the language to be fluid, clear and pleasurable for your reader.

Language questions:
• Are your words precise rather than general? Have you avoided clichés?
• Do you repeatedly use the same words or sentences?
• Are there run-on sentences? Sentence fragments?
• Is the same information repeated more than once?
• Does the tone shift?
• Is the phrasing natural?
• Is the language bland causing readers to skip a passage?
• Do you use strong verbs rather than describing an action with adverbs?

After you read through to line edit your manuscript, you can use software tools to help you with your language editing.

Grammarly examines text for several writing style elements including readability, grammar, clichés, diction and dialogue.

Other people/ beta readers:
Once you have performed your content and line editing, is a good time to get feedback from other people. This is an extra step in the editorial journey but worth the time.

It is easy to get lost in your own story. Feedback from other people who read in your genre can help you spot content and language gaps you may miss.

If you are a member of a writing group, you can present your new passages for feedback and comments from members of the group.

This is a good time to get beta readers involved in your story. These are non-professionals who read in your genre and will give you honest feedback about your story.

You want these readers to share anything that gives them pause while reading your story from a passage that isn’t clear to a typo.

[Note: Be careful about involving too many other voices. YOUR voice is the most important in your project, so beware of ‘writing by committee’ that might just drown your voice out.]

3. Proofreading
This final editing process takes a fine eye for detail. You’ll want to do this in small batches because it is easy to overlook details if you spend hours working through the manuscript. You’ll be looking for consistency as well as grammar, spelling, punctuation, and syntax.

The Chicago Manual of Style is one option for guidelines around proofreading and editing your manuscript.

What to look out for:
• Double check spelling, grammar, and sentence construction (syntax).
• Make sure your usage is consistent. Throughout your book hyphenation, numbers, capitalization, and fonts appear in the same manner.
• Check for ambiguous statements or incorrect facts. Remember how you checked your research during the line edit?
• Internal consistency. Is your blonde always blonde? Does your stutterer lose his stutter? Is your setting consistent when it shows up in various places in the story?
• Mark your printed copy and then go to your writing software to make changes. The search and replace function will help you spot every use of a word to make it consistent throughout your manuscript.
• It’s next to impossible to find every error. This is especially true because your mind plays tricks and you see what you think is right.
• A copy editor has never seen your work before. Every sentence, comma, and character name is new. They bring an objective, professional view of text that is new to them.

One last check. Read your book aloud.

However diligent you are throughout your editing process, hearing your story read aloud can help you find awkward sentences, repeated words, and typographical errors.

You have several options to help you listen to your story. Text to Speech Reader has a Chrome extension that will read your text. Natural Reader provides several voices so you can hear your text read by male and female voices with different tones and inflections.

Open your manuscript so you can make edits as you listen. Before you send it out, approach the publishing process as a professional. Every step in the editing process refines your story to appeal to your target readers. They are the readers who love your story and become your fans.

As excited as you are to get your story out there, taking the time to go through the editing process. It not only improves your story, it gives you a better understanding of what it takes to make yourself a professional.

Keep in mind that best-selling authors take these self-editing steps and then work with a professional editor to find the spots they missed. Publishing houses will always assign a professional editor to your book.

Using professional book editing services works in the same way as beta readers but with a trained professional focus to give your book the best readability and flow.

If you are serious about your writing career, hiring an editor for each of the three stages of the editing process is a satisfying investment in your author career.

Just as you create story, characters and worlds, the professional editor has an eye for your story, your language, and the tiny details. Think of it as merged energy between you and your editor to create a professional manuscript.

Sue Powers has 21 publications in various publications or zines. She won a Fellowship and Grant from the Illinois Arts Council in Prose and two of her stories were nominated for a Pushcart Prize.