This is my first actual question, so I apologize in advance if I include something that is not suited for the forum, or if this is a duplicate of an existing west - though I DID try to find one that suits my case, without luck.

Here's the situation:

I'm writing a sci-fi story (only very little "fi"), that takes place in our time. I have a lot of characters "sketched out" already, and for a long time I felt that a certain one of these was the protagonist. This person is "randomly" pulled into the story (with a reasonable explanation within the universe), and ends up being a vital piece in an existing puzzle in the story.. However - and I realize that this may be solved by simply writing MORE - so far he's not very active in the plot...

I have a rather detailed outline for approximately 70-80% of the story, but have only written about 5-10%

In very short, the start of the story, and the way the "main" characters are connected, is as follows.

There is a certain "society", that consists of ordinary people who have achieved knowledge about certain things.

Peter (part of the society, young) has been kidnapped (which he is unaware of at first - makes sense in the story)

Adrian doesn't know Peter (or even anyone Peter knows), but obtains information from Peter (without knowing it at first)in a way that makes him valuable to the the other people connected to Peter.

Cleo (part of the society, but very young) is a Peter's niece, and meets Adrian "randomly" because of the information that he's now in possession of.. This information then pulls Adrian into the "society", which of course changes Adrian's life for good.

So far I have always thought of Adrian as the Protagonist, since hi's story is the one that makes the most sense in the way I want to reveal this "society", however I have heard that a protagonist is not the protagonist unless he actually consciously makes decisions.

Adrian WILL make decisions, but it's gonna take a while into the story...

Cleo undergoes a very interesting development during the story, and could potentially be the protagonist of a sequel, but I don't think it makes sense (so far) that she is the protagonist of this one...

I'm counting on Adrian and Cleo getting very close, and "sharing the adventure to save Peter"(just one part of the story of course), so I'm thinking that there may be more than one protagonist, but for the sake of my current point..

EDIT: Important note: I'm writing in the third person (I'm unsure if the terms omniscient is correct here, but I know what each of these characters are thinking and feeling), starting with Peter, then introducing Adrian and lastly introducing Cleo. They each get one of the first three chapters (if all goes according to plan). SO far I've written the first (Peter's) chapter, and some of the second (Adrian's) chapter. Also; knowing what different people think and feel is crucial to the story, since this i strongly connected to what the society is about.

Actual question: How do I know who is actually my main character of the story?

Will it reveal itself to me?

Should I simply trust my gut/original idea, or should I actively work on giving more influence in the story?

  • 1
    Try writing more of the story to see who emerges. Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 19:17
  • I definitely will! This is my first work, and my first draft at that, so everything is still very new /except for the my idea that the story is based on)... I just feel as if this might become an issue, if I don't make a conscious discussion about it soon.. Thank you (:
    – storbror
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 19:19
  • 2
    You can have multiple protagonists, it's totally fine. For example, take A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin--it has many viewpoint characters and man more than three plotlines.
    – CHEESE
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 19:32
  • Hi, and welcome to Writers. Your general question is good, but too many details are making it a "what to write" question, which is off-topic for us. Can you make this a little more generic so it can apply to others? Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 19:33
  • 1
    "I have heard that a protagonist is not the protagonist unless he actually consciously makes decisions. Adrian WILL make decisions, but it's gonna take a while into the story." In principle a reader could be interested in a protagonist who doesn't consciously make decisions. Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 2:15

2 Answers 2


To answer your question, I have to talk about the difference between a plot and a story. A plot is a sequence of events that happen. A story is an arc of rising tension leading to a resolution. (These terms are sometimes defined differently, and even exactly the opposite, but that is what I am using them to mean here.)

You could have a plot about Joe going to work. He catches bus A, then transfers to bus B. At work he talks to Dave who suggests he take bus C and transfer to bus D. The next day Joe tries it and finds it gets him to work five minutes faster.

This is a plot. It has events. It even has a problem and a solution. But it is not a story. It is not a story because we have no emotional investment in Joe getting to work five minutes early, and Joe had nothing at stake in his decision to follow Dave's advice.

A story requires that Joe wants something, that it is important to him, and that it is difficult for him to get it. We have to sympathize with his desire (not approve, necessarily, but recognize it as a human desire, and Joe as a human person, and become engaged with his struggle). The question then becomes, how far will Joe go to get the thing he desires. When something frustrates his desire, will he give up or try again? Just how much is he willing to do, willing to sacrifice, to get what he wants? How much is he willing to bleed? And in the end, either he gets his desire, or he doesn't, or he learns the futility of his desire and achieve something more worth having. An arc of rising tension followed by release.

Plot puts flesh on the bones of this story structure. But the story is the story of a person. The person whose story is the main arc of you novel is your protagonist, though there may be other characters with their own arcs.

So if you have a plot but you don't know who your protagonist is, then you don't have a story yet. And since story is the master of plot, and plot must bend itself to the demands of story to create an arch of rising tension and a satisfying resolution around the desire of a character, you need to figure out your story and your protagonist before you get too far down the road of defining you plot.

The heart of every story is X wants Y and can't have it because of Z. Find those elements and you have your story, and once you have your story, you know who your protagonist is.

  • Thank you for that thorough answer! The thought that "I do not have my story" yet somewhat terrifies but also excites me.. I have some personal development already sketched out for some of the characters whith would be more 'story'- than 'plot'-material(right?), but I realize that it may very well be too early for me to know who this story's protagonist(s) is/are. I have no doubt that some characters are gonna play important parts, but since this entire project so far has been about creating a story that introduces the reader to 'this world', the characters and story are still 'new'.
    – storbror
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 20:29
  • Follow-up question: If Cleo (Character nr. 3 so far IN the story) ends up being my protagonist, would it be disturbing for the reader to be introduced to her as the second character? She is mentioned already in the first chapter because of her connection to Peter, but it takes a while before we "follow her"..
    – storbror
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 20:31
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    Imagine you go to a play. As the curtain rises, you see an incredibly elaborate set. Instead of the play starting with a character coming on stage and speaking, the director and the set designer walk out and spend half an hour talking about the set. How many days before that play folds? Building a world is a wonderful thing, but it is just a stage on which to act our your play. The audience will come to understand the importance of your set and its features as you characters interact with it, but when the curtain rises, the play must begin.
    – user16226
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 20:39
  • That makes sense. However, I'm not really describing the stage directly, but introducing characters that make it obvious that we need to understand the stage. The two first characters are very important to the story since they are "the goal locked away" and "the key to unlocking that goal", but so far I have thought of "the key" as the protagonist, because he's the one who gets introduced to the "society" that the story gets to take place in... I will keep writing at my current stage and hopefully this question will be easier to answer later..
    – storbror
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 20:46
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    @storbror It depends on you as a writer. If you can make the reader care about the world, then by all means. It's been done, and done well. In fact, there are stories where the person we (the readers) believe will be the protagonist shows us the ropes of the world, only to die in chapter 3. In fact, he dies in the arms of his girlfriend, who's the actual protagonist. It's all about how well you tell the story, and how much you can make the readers care.
    – Fayth85
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 0:00

I'm not sure I can be as technical as other writers about this. I (hope I) know the theory, but I'm more of an organic writer. So let me explain what works for me. (and please forgive me if Mark Baker took some of this already)

The protagonist is the person the reader needs to care about. If you want a low risk, fluffy story, then it could be this middle school girl aching for her crush to see her. Why does the audience care? Because her struggle is relatable. It may not be as epic as saving the world, but to a fourteen year old girl, living in a no-name town in the middle of nowhere where nothing exciting ever happens, this IS the whole world.

Another example. High fantasy setting, our heroes are on an epic quest to 'save the world' from... who cares, Gargamel! Each of these heroes is the 'protagonist', and yet different readers will care about each differently. Maybe one of them is the 'cute one', another the rebel, yet another reminds them of this girl they met at a diner that one time.

Whether world-shakingly epic, or just an adolescent crush, it's the writer's job to make the readers care, to make them want to invest in the wellbeing of one (or more) fictional people that they know is fictional. No matter the stakes, they need to feel important to the protagonist, and because the reader cares about said protagonist, they will care by extension.

Two examples to show my point.

  • A girl finds herself in a cage. It's pitch black around her. All she feels is the chilly, stagnant air around her, and cold bars beneath her. She's in a cage, but she cannot see well enough to know for sure. She doesn't know how she got there, or even where she is. She breathes in deep, to calm her nerves (and not vomit from said nerves) and she smells blood. And gore. And...

We don't know much about this girl. But we know she must be panicking -- who wouldn't panic in this situation. The protagonist, here, is simply the lens through which the write showcases the fear and panic and helplessness of a situation that could happen to 'anyone'. The stakes aren't too high yet, but the tension is. It won't take much to make this scene the opening to a horror story, or a grand escape.

  • He stands at the foot of the hole. A hole, he knows, will soon be filled with his mother's casket. He doesn't know what to think, to believe... to feel. He hears footsteps crunching the dirt and pebbles behind him, six pairs. His father pulls him out of the way, unintentionally turning him to find six of his cousins as they carry the lacquered mahogany encasing the only woman he's ever loved. The only woman he will ever love. "Don't worry, momma. I won't be long," he murmurs.

Can you tell I like heavy scenes? I place both protagonists in danger. One from the world she finds herself in, the other from himself and the grief he just can't cope with. The reader doesn't need to lose their mother to empathise with this kid. In neither case do we learn a lot of the protagonist. Too little words to really sculpt them. But in both cases, the stakes are clear: life or death.

Hope this helps ^_^

  • That makes sense and thank you for your answer. I like your heavy scenes! I believe I'm creating characters that other people and I will actually care about (or rather they are creating themselves). I already care about Peter to a certain degree and quite a lot about Cleo, since I've been working on these characters and their arcs for quite som time. Adrian's arc is still very new, so hopefully he will develop in a similar fashion, growing into the role of (on of) the protagonist(s)!
    – storbror
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 9:38

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