Like all good rants here, this one is spurred because I read a book. (And isn’t exactly a rant, just more food for thought.)
It wasn’t a bad book. It didn’t send me screaming with some terrible portrayal of mental illness. It was a sequel to a book I’d previously read (and enjoyed enough to read the sequel). It took half the book to figure out what was bothering me about it.
You see, it was the wrong character’s book.
All of the interesting scenes were happening off the page, the main character only getting bits and pieces when she encountered the side character. The main character also spent most of her time either standing there doing nothing or reacting. It wasn’t until the climax she was actually given something to do, and up until that point most of her decisions were smart, careful, and…made for a really dull story.
Not only was the side character involved in the more interesting scenes off-page, but most of the interesting things later could’ve had her taking the lead and doing them without the story losing anything at all. There was no reason for the protagonist to be the protagonist.
It would be like if a Nancy Drew book followed Ned instead of Nancy, basically; here’s the poor guy sitting at home while his girlfriend is solving mysteries and falling into danger.
I don’t know if the writer realized this, or if anyone mentioned it to her. (I am surprised that a published book going through so many pairs of eyes wouldn’t have someone else notice this, but maybe no one spoke up or the author didn’t want to rewrite it.) I do know that even if she did realize this, she might’ve felt written into a corner because the first book was first person and it was natural to follow the same protagonist.
Writers…I am here today to implore you to a. know whose story you’re telling, and b. just fucking tell it, regardless of how it changes the series.
Switching narrators is a risky proposition (outside of romance, and even then…well, yeah, sometimes readers do not adjust well to a new couple). I know this. I’ve done this, and I’ve paid for it ever since.
First book? A love-her-or-hate-her narrator; if you loved her, you REALLY loved her and wanted more (if you hated her, you ranted about “unlikability”, as if I’m here to make friends; FYI, I’m not). Second book?
I knew how the story went. I tried to write it from the first heroine’s POV, really. But it didn’t work. It was not her story. Third book? Same deal. A different character’s story.
I could jammed that first square peg into a round- and triangle-shaped hole respectively. Brought out a hammer and mashed it in. Some people might’ve been happy, but in my opinion, all those readers who wanted to continue following the first heroine would’ve felt something was wrong. The stories would’ve been less compelling because they weren’t her books.
As a writer, it’s easy to feel like you’re god. That you make things happen. That you control everything.
I am going to clue you in on something: you’re not god.
The story is.
You are going to have to take risks. You are going to have to make unpopular decisions. You are going to have to do what’s right for the story.
The first rule: know whose story you’re trying to tell.
How do you know if you’re telling the right person’s story? The most concise advice about that is: the story belongs to the character who changes the most. (I do not know who first said that; if you do, let me know, as they should be credited.) If your protagonist doesn’t grow/change much during the course of the book, find the person who does. If your protagonist is not around when interesting shit is going down, find the person who is. Odds are, they are one and the same, and likely your true protagonist, because in the story conflict changes us. Going through hell makes us different people. It’s hard for your protagonist to change if the conflict isn’t centered around her.
Alternatively, if you don’t want to change your protagonist, you might have to rebuild your story from the ground up. This means throwing out your existing plot and trying something new. Put your main character through the wringer. Give her fresh scars. Make sure the cool shit isn’t happening off-page.
The only thing more disappointing than a bad book is a meh book that could’ve been great. Telling the wrong person’s story is one of many ways that can happen.