Here's a summary of the plot:

The main character goes to a mountain to visit his half-sister. He hasn't seen her in years.

She went there to undergo a spiritual healing. Later he discovers her wound has something to do with their elder brother, and that she needs him (the protagonist) in order to recover from this affliction.

But that isn't all. While he's in the mountain he meets a girl who (apparently) doesn't possess a soul. She is often seen in the forest near ancient trees. After he meets her she tells him that he didn't only come to the mountain looking for his half-sister, but also looking for her. That he must help her to accomplish something. Something of utter importance.

He's sure he hasn't seen her before, though she looks a lot like a girl he met once when he was a kid.

I'm more or less satisfied with this plot, however, I can't shake off the feeling that the protagonist is more a "spectator" rather than someone who's playing an "active" role in the story.

This isn't happening in another story I'm writing. The story is about a man who tells his wife about a sexual fantasy he has. But that he's OK if she doesn't want to go along with it. However, the wife suddenly stops talking to him, and after that a series of surreal things start to happen to him: he's visited at night by a black bird, and meets a young girl in the forest nearby their house.

Unlike the first story, in this one I feel the main character is deeply rooted in the plot; the story is after all about his relationship with his wife and his sexual desires.

What can I do to solve the problem with the first story? Or should I just drop the entire project (or let it cool down, at least) and focus on the second one?

I've already written 16,000 words for the first one, and 5,000 for the second one (both are second drafts).

(I usually write two stories simultaneously. When I feel I'm "stuck" with one I jump to the other to "relax." Yeah, I don't have many hobbies.)

  • 4
    A detached narrator can be a literary technique.
    – Double U
    Jan 23, 2014 at 5:31
  • But if you use a detached narrator, you should keep in mind the protagonist is someone else. Jan 23, 2014 at 14:31
  • 4
    You could also considering changing the perspective to the half sister...if the plot will resolve around her its worth a look.
    – James
    Jan 23, 2014 at 14:32
  • This has a very Murakami vibe, to me (which is a good thing, IMO!) Did you ever finish it? Jan 22, 2021 at 23:58

10 Answers 10


Raise the stakes. Give him some urgent reason for doing something or being there. Take something away from him which he has to find, recover, or fix. Add a ticking clock.

  • Why is he visiting his half-sister now? Maybe their shared parent is dying? Maybe he's dying?
  • Why is he going to the mountain? Maybe he's been diagnosed as missing a soul, or his soul is dying, and something/one on the mountain can fix that? Maybe he had a dream that he had to give a soul to someone on the mountain, or he was told a prophecy?
  • Is there a deadline for getting off the mountain? The earthquake from Eri's story? Foresters, clear-cutters, a flood, a plague?
  • What's the "something of utter importance"? Can you tie it to something earlier in the story? Can you foreshadow something going on with his wife, husband, child, job, dog, house which only this soulless person can fix?

I'm just riffing, but basically your protagonist is detached because he wandered into the plot. Give him a reason to be there.

  • Thanks for you feedback. Well, he's visiting his half-sister because she asked him to. As for the reason he came looking for the girl without a soul, the truth is a mystery even for himself. However, the girl later explains to him that they are somehow "connected." A possible interpretation for this is that the girl symbolizes his own skepticism towards the existence of the soul. But I never reveal that to the reader. Not sure if that will do, though.
    – wyc
    Jan 23, 2014 at 11:08
  • So, as the girl looks for her place in the world as a soulless being, the protagonist is doing it also. Again I never tell this to the reader; I just throw subtle hints.
    – wyc
    Jan 23, 2014 at 11:14
  • 3
    @AlexandroChen Then you need to put in some foreshadowing. He should spend some time in Act I wondering about his soul, or scoffing about its existence, or someone should accuse him of being soulless, etc. You have to sow the seed so people realize you are making a connection. We can't know that he's skeptical unless you somehow tell us. Jan 23, 2014 at 11:29
  • I agree. This protagonist really needs to want something very badly.
    – Eli
    Feb 18, 2014 at 23:02
  • 1
    I'm not entirely sure the advice here is perfect for the story being told; and this is good advice for most writers; but this story/concept feels more 1Q84 than 1984... and because of that I think the author has to answer if the main character is meant to be a protagonist. Acknowledging: This is the popular answer (even off this site), this is usually good advice, I'm just not sure the story progression you'd have him write/follow is the one he wants to write or has to write or even should write. Alternatively: Raise the stakes visibly elsewhere.
    – Kirk
    May 11, 2018 at 20:02

Internal secret. Something about him that kept bothering him.

Emphasize the fact "she looks a lot like a girl he met once when he was a kid." Recurring dreams. Weird events. Memories mismatching reality; flawed deja vu. Hint that he is not a normal person, and make it true in the end. Even if he's essentially a live McGufin to be delivered from point A to point B by other characters of the story, he's bound into the plot. Or write this as two stories, two threads - one external, the mountains, the girl, and another internal, daydreams, dreams, memories, irrational feelings and sourceless knowledge, the two threads converging towards the end.


If the character you have written does not seem to care about the plot hook then the chances are you and the reader don't care too much. Spend some time getting into the answer "why should I care?" When you have really gotten that answer clear then the characters will feel like they want to engage when you write them and story will engage the readers.

You say yourself that where the character is deeply rooted in what is going on arround him then the story comes to life. That because when your character is deeply rooted into the story so are you.


Consider that the first story might not be about your main character. He may be exploring a world that's going on, but nothing more really than a camera or narrator of the events that are transpiring. Where does that place him if that's the case and is that ok? I can't answer that; you'll have to as the author.

Before you decide, note having your main character not be your protagonist worked for The Great Gatsby, because Nick is not the protagonist of that book: Gatsby is. However, these books tend to be harder to approach, have a steeper learning curve and defy the basics of what people want out of a story. Still, they can be quite good and if the target audience is receptive, loved even.

I think you need to decide what the story is meant to be. Your character needs to be there for other people, but why does he want to be there? Make it more personal in terms of expressing what he wants and making him pro-active. If the story doesn't call for that, then be content to let the other characters be the protagonist and study what makes stories like that work (there's more than just The Great Gatsby).


The character or entity which acts to achieve a goal.


The character or entity which stands directly in the way of the protagonist achieving its goals.

Hero (which you may not have)

The person or entity who will defeat the villain.

Villain (which you may not have)

The evil entity which must be conquered.

Main Character or POV Character

The vantage point from which the audience views the actions of the other characters.

Why was that important?

Because nowhere in those definitions does it say the protagonist is the hero or that the antagonist is the villain; and if you can internalize that you can see that the main character/pov character doesn't have to be any of those either.

So long as you're giving the reader a good view of the events, tension rises, and you eventually conclude; it is possible to write a story from a different viewpoint which may give you access to more thoughts/ideas/perspectives that are ultimately more effective at whatever you are trying to do. If you use a main character who is not a protagonist, it gives you the option to see the protagonist through a lense that gives more perspective and distance; this allows the reader to question what is going on more as they don't self identify quite as easily with what the protagonist wants.

Examples of norms defiance:

  • (Jurrasic Park) Villain (Hacker) Antagonist (Rapters) Hero (T-Rex) Protagonists (Human Survivors)

  • (The Great Gatsby) Villain (None) Hero (None) Protagonist (Protag) Gatsby (Antag) Tom Buchanon

  • (The Prestige) Villains (Borden & Angier) Antagonists (Borden & Angier) Protag (Borden & Angier) Hero (Possibly None)

The point is that conflict exists somewhere, it is interesting and you can watch it. So, if your main character is disconnected or coming across boring spend less time in their head and more time with him observing and interacting with those who are dealing with the conflict in the moments they are dealing with the conflict. This is hard to do, but possible and clearly rewarding when done right.

OR: If you want to write something simpler, more streamlined, then change your story as described elsewhere or write something else.

  • "Main Character or POV Character" I would not say that those two are necessarily the same thing. Think omniscient third person POV, for example; I don't think anyone would consider that to be the main character (unless the story is about interactions between gods or something like that, perhaps).
    – user
    May 12, 2018 at 10:49

The problem here is there actually is no plot.

There's a vague sibling context, and everything else seems shoehorned around it.

Either we're not being told enough of the plot mechanics to understand it, or the plot doesn't actually exist.

IMHO you have two choices:

  • forget the plot and develop the characters further
  • develop the fantastic aspect further, until a plot emerges

Right now you barely have enough for a coherent short story.


I get the sense that your protagonist is not important enough to the plot. He is instrumental in the development of the two women, but he isn't doing all that much for himself. As such, the hero is clearly a "point of view" character but I'm not convinced that he is a real protagonist. I can think of two ways to fix this.

The first is to "make a virtue of necessity" and "demote" the hero to the narrator, while making one (or both) of the women the protagonist. Think of Nick Carraway in "The Great Gatsby." The story was more about Gatsby's development than Nick's, but Nick played admirably as a "sidekick."

The second idea is to upgrade your hero. The two women, a sister and potential girlfriend are competing for his attention, and potentially pulling him in different directions, creating a potential conflict. How does he resolve that conflict? If that's what he does in the story, he is really the protagonist.

The protagonist is the most important person in the story. Ultimately his (or her) decisions and feelings are the ones that count most.


First question: how does the story end? If you know what you're obtaining, that should make the journey easier, as well as give you an idea of what you're doing with the main character.

Second question: What does your main character want, and how is he getting blocked? Reading the synopsis, I don't get a feeling that your MC has a personality, let alone goals, wants, or desires. He comes off as a blank slate that only exists, not someone that's exercising why he existence.

Third question: What factors impel your MC into action? Is the sister dying? Is he scrambling to find a cure? Is he covering up something? What's driving him to do what he's doing?

Without a clear sense of urgency, your MC isn't going to feel like someone to care about, and without a history, your MC will be the literary equivalent of a RPG character doing side quests.


In short: why does any of this matter to him?

Beyond that it's his sister, what is his personal motivation in the story?

A good ABC for character involvement are Disney films, as they often demonstrate the differences between what a character wants and needs.


Want - to become rich, have security and marry Jasmine, who he's in love with

Need - to stop pretending to be someone else so he can be with Jasmine as himself

King Triton:

Want - to stop Ariel getting involved with humans and stop her getting hurt

Need - to let Ariel be free to live her own life

In other words, the character's actions often derive from their 'want' - what they believe will make them happy. Eventually they have an epiphany and do something that will genuinely resolve their conflict.

So with the above synopsis: does the hero want to find his siblings to reconnect with them? Why does he want to help the mysterious girl?

What emotional want is he trying to meet by getting actively involved in the story? He'll be a participator if at each step his actions are clearly driven by some personal fulfilment.

And if you like you can turn the want into a need and show what he was really missing the entire time.

[Your mileage may vary depending on the genre of your fiction, but if we care about what the protagonist is doing because he cares about what he's doing, that's a good start]


Change Protagonist

Maybe you've got the wrong protagonist. What if the story was focused more on the half-sister, or the soulless girl? What if you told the story from one or both of their perspectives?

Get Him Invested

Alternately, if he really does need to be the protagonist, get him more invested. Why is he going to see his half-sister? Is it something he actively wants to do for his own motivations, or is he just doing what he's been told to do or thinks he's expected to do? When he meets the soulless girl, is he just reacting to her? Or does he actually want something in his interaction with her - eg to understand her, to figure out why she seems familiar, to get away from her, to date her, etc?

One idea I had, from just this summary, is that maybe he could start out aware that there's something he doesn't know about his life. He suspects family members are lying to him, he's experienced things he can't explain, he's asked questions and gotten no answers. So he decides to seek out his half-sister, who he hasn't seen in quite awhile, in the hopes that she'll be more forthcoming. This gives him a motivation and investment in the plot.

Perspective Character vs Protagonist

Usually, the perspective character is a protagonist, but not always. Moby Dick is a good example - Ishmael, the perspective character, is so forgettable I had to actively look up his name just now. The real protagonist is Captain Ahab. But the story works from Ishmael's perspective. It gives you the view of someone who is powerless while an insane authority figure derails a whaling expedition into a doomed quest for revenge that gets him and most of his crew killed. The story would have a very different tone if it was written from Captain Ahab's perspective!

Character Growth

Another option could be to make his investment a character arc. Maybe he starts out just reacting, doing things for others without considering what he, himself, wants. And it gets him things he doesn't like, and finally, he hits his breaking point and decides to rebel.


Stop making him passive, and make him a hero.

He doesn't "go to visit his sister," he learns about his sister's trouble and affliction, and drops what he is doing to go save her.

He doesn't "meet a girl with no soul," he is walking about waiting for something involving his sister, and sees a girl in the woods, but she runs from him. He investigates, asks about her. People tell him she has no soul, he doesn't believe it. He searches for her, and she needs help. she doesn't tell him why he is there, she resists his company, and he chooses to fix her.

Heroes are proactive. They may by necessity get told what to do, but as often as possible, have them choose, by their own light, to take the risks and accept the harm. Say he is attracted to this girl, she tells him what must be done to save her. He doesn't think anybody else will do it, and he wants to save her.

Now you have a hero's dilemma: He came to save his sister, now he has a love interest to save as well. What does he do? Can he do both?

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