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I write short stories in Chinese, and give a new page to my teacher to correct every few days. This is the story I'm thinking of writing:

  1. We have a male main character. His wife is devoted to him, but he's needy and kind of an asshole. His personality changes wildly and unpredictably. In particular, he does not want his wife spending time with her friends.

  2. Plot twist: he died two years ago: the male protagonist only exists in his wife's imagination. He's not only not an asshole, but he died rescuing his wife.

  3. We now have a female main character (his wife). She has not managed to come to terms with his death; she imagines he's alive, and projects her feelings onto him. His wild personality changes stem from her uncontrolled grief-motivated mood swings. Her friends want to help her, but she's not ready, so her (imaginary) husband blocks her. She blames herself over his death, and tries to find redemption through satisfying his (imaginary) needs.

I'm not sure how I can do this, or even if this is feasible. I'm worried that the reader will become "disconnected" because of the change of protagonist.

I'm wondering if the Writers.SE readership could highlight some precedent, i.e., prior stories along these lines, where there was a major shift from the original protagonist to a second protagonist.

Question: How can I successfully change main character half-way through the story?

  • Is the start really from the man's point of view, or the woman's thoughts of what she believes he was thinking? Telling the story to her friend, while acting out the part as him? – sambler Jan 8 at 8:48
  • I want to present it as if the male character is the narrator, but we later realize he's just imagined. – Rebecca J. Stones Jan 8 at 8:49
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    So the real POV is the person imagining the story, and acting the part of him. – sambler Jan 8 at 8:50
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It's not usually the protagonist, but there are many stories where our preconceptions about a character are challenged. It's more common that somebody turns out to be the bad guy instead of the good guy, but the other way around works too. Often, it's more complex and the reveal is just about providing a different backstory from the one that was implied. Examples of prominent characters are Snape in Harry Potter or Amy in Gone Girl. For more examples, TV tropes calls this "Evil all along" and "Good all along" (although none of the examples concern point-of-view characters).

As for how to accomplish it, I would say the twist is the easy part. You just insert a break (***), and start afresh, as though you're beginning a new story. Let the reader slowly realize that they're seeing the same thing they've read, but from a different perspective, and then retell the story. In all the examples I can think of, this seems to be the approach. It sets up an interesting mystery, gives the reader time to adjust mentally, and then starts laying out the new narrative step by step. Make sure to take it slow, so the reader has time to mentally compare the first and second versions.

At the risk of going off-topic, I think the first half is the more challenging part of the story. Having an unsympathetic main character who behaves unpleasantly without reason makes for a grating read. The odd behavior is meant to set up a mystery that will pay off in the end, but the more likely outcome is that people will take it as bad writing and never make it to the twist.

Since the whole point is that the husband's behavior is a representation of the wife's chaotic mental state, his behavior has to be unmotivated and irrational, which makes him a poor POV character. He could still be the main character, seen through someone else's eyes, but that suggests sticking with the wife's POV all the way through the story and creating the reveal some other way; perhaps by flashing back to the time before his death, or by introducing some event that forces the wife to face her delusions (cf. Fight Club, Sixth Sense).

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    It does seem similar to Fight Club, and perhaps even closer to A Beautiful Mind. – Rebecca J. Stones Jan 6 at 1:59
  • the reveal could come after the wife's friends stage an intervention for her or a more hollywood-esque reveal would be having her committed to hospital and a nurse revealing the husband's death in passing conversation with another character – BKlassen Jan 6 at 16:11
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Hi Rebecca that is a really interesting concept and should be very feasible.

Introduce the wife first, apparently as a secondary or minor character.

Introduce the husband as though seen through the wife's eyes. For example, whatever he does is witnessed or experienced by her: don't show him in isolation as that would undermine the principle.

Along the way you can introduce hints that re-enforce the fact that the husband is never seen unless the wife is present. This may unconsciously prepare the reader for the revelation, and make a second reading more interesting when the reader is more likely to pick up the cues.

Take time to build the characters so that the reader has a relationship with both, so when the change in focus occurs, the change is not to a character who is under-developed.

Think about how the reader feels about each character. If the wife is completely feeble and downtrodden, she may not be engaging. If she has an element of strength, personality and good sense of morality then she may be more interesting. Also, what has happened in her past that makes her deserve this ghost?

Likewise, if the husband is a villain then he will be more interesting if he has redeeming features. Perhaps these can be exploited for the resolution of the story.

Presumably, the wife will ultimately confront him and either assert her personality, or fail with consequences. Either way could make for an interesting character arc - the goal being that both characters are able to change over the course of the story.

Also, understand the concept of the unreliable narrator. Consider that if you show the husband as projected from the wife's imagination, is her imagination accurate? Is he better, or worse than she remembers?

Crucially - know how you want the reader to feel by the end of the story. Is this a tragedy where the main character fails because of a flaw in their personality, or is it a story of redemption? For a satisfying conclusion the characters should probably get just a little bit less than they deserve. Redemption and achievement both have their price.

Hope this helps, and good luck!

  • I think it would be hard to write a main character that can only be present in the presence of another, also see PTm's answer regarding concerns for having the husband appearing too unsympathetic a main character – BKlassen Jan 6 at 16:14
  • An interesting constraint for a short story; he isn't really the main character, he just has more focus for the first half. – Michael Jan 6 at 18:56

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