Make Your Protagonist Lose

Ron Estrada is published in several magazines, including a regular column in Women2Women Michigan. He contributes to the My Book Therapy and Inspire a Fire blogs. He’s been writing novels for longer than he cares to admit but is finally releasing his first, Now I Knew You, in March. You can find out what he’s up to at

George Washington lost every battle of the American Revolution until he won the war.

This bit of historical insight would make a good blurb for a novel in which old George was the protagonist. Actually, I think it is a blurb on one of the hundreds of books written about the General. 

Here is something you’ll never hear about George: he laid low until Yorktown presented him with a grand opportunity.

That would make for a boring general and lackluster revolution. It also makes for a boring protagonist and story. Here’s Ron’s lesson of the year: your protagonist always needs to do something.

I know. No kidding, right? But I received some feedback on my first YA novel from a multi-published YA author friend of mine who pointed out that my protagonist did a lot of nothing in an otherwise well-written novel.

“What?” said I. “Look, here he is, umm…avoiding his ex-girlfriend who he still loves. And here again, in chapter 6, he’s, wellll…sinking into despair as his ex-girlfriend walks away.”

Here’s a hint: sinking into despair is not action. Avoiding is not action.

Action is, well, action. Or dialogue that changes the direction of the scene. Easy editing tip: if your character is exactly the same at the end of the scene as she is at the beginning, try the “select all” and “delete” functions of your laptop. There, you’ve just made a vast improvement to your story.

Does that mean your hero does something heroic in chapter 3? Oh, heck no. George Washington was still losing battles in chapter 3. So should your hero.

So let’s go back to my boy in my YA novel. After  making use of my “select all” and “delete” functions, I had him do what any self-respecting teenage boy would do in that situation: grab the first guy he saw talking to his ex-girlfriend and punch him. Perfect. Now he not only has an ex-girlfriend, but an ex-girlfriend that thinks he’s an immature louse. Battle lost.

In another scene I yanked him from his car, where he’d been pondering (again, pondering is not action), and had him do the old pebble against the heroines’s window to get her attention. Actually, it was a Nerf ball, but same concept. She told him to get lost again and he looked pretty stupid, but at least he made the effort.

After going through every scene in which my protagonist simply surrendered his goal and prompting him to take action, often terrible-choice action, my novel rose from the ashes of the sullen, inactive, hero.

Do this now. Yes, right now. Find a scene in your WIP in which your hero or heroine is denied his or her goal for the scene or story. What is the worst possible choice your character can make here? Have her do it. Hey, you’ve always got the “select all” and “delete” functions, so what have you got to lose?

Here’s to defeat. May your protagonist find it over and over again.