Creating Distractions for A Protagonist

Siamese kitten looking distracted

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

Larry Brooks of StoryFix frequently offers helpful posts for writers. He wrote a post recently for the Kill Zone blog called “Three Quick and Easy Tips that Will Make Your Novel Better.”  One of the tips he listed was to “give your hero a distracting personal relationship.”

This is one element that can be used in a lot of different helpful ways in your story. It helps make your protagonist seem real and helps create reader empathy for the protagonist. It also can make for a nice subplot to weave through the course of the story to help keep readers reading to see how it will resolve (sometimes as a reader, I’ve found myself more interested in the subplot of a book than the main plot).

It’s especially helpful as a continuing arc in your series, if your series is to be read in order. It can be one thing that remains a constant in the series as crises and supporting characters and settings change.

The distraction could be a lot of different things. I think it makes it especially good if it’s something that resonates with readers because it’s a typical problem: helping aging parents, being a single mom or dad,  struggling with an addiction,  trying to balance work and a relationship, dealing with a difficult manager, handling a health issue for yourself or a family member.

Is your distraction any good? You can test it by asking yourself a series of questions: writer Janice Hardy has created a nice list to check your subplot (which is what your distraction is) against.  They include “does it explore a new problem and raise the stakes?”

You can even take this distraction a step farther. One of the posts I’ve got saved on my Evernote is Allen Palmer’s post on Cracking Yarn: “The One Subplot You Really Need.”  He’s a screenwriter, but his advice works well for novelists. He points out that:

Emotionally powerful movies tend to have those 3 narrative elements:

  1. The want that’s about external achievement
  2. Subplots that complicate the quest for the want
  3. A need subplot that’s at odds with the want ” 

Your protagonist’s distraction could both complicate his quest (and I think most distractions would do this…some more than most) and provide the ‘need’ that conflicts with the ‘want.’

Palmer offers concrete examples of how to pull this off well.

What distractions do your protagonists have in their lives while they’re saving the world?

Why distractions are important for our protagonist: Click To Tweet

Photo via Visualhunt


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12 thoughts on “Creating Distractions for A Protagonist

  1. Anything that pulls the main character in a different direction would add to the story. A distraction could be a more subtle obstacle than just the typical roadblocks of the main story. A bit of fun to write, too.

  2. This is a really helpful set of ideas, Elizabeth. The fact is, we’re all distracted by things in real life. It makes sense to have them in a novel, too. I think it has to be done carefully, so it doesn’t, well, distract too much from the main plot. But it’s really useful.

  3. I should be good at this, distracting my protagonist since I follow “butterflies” all the time. My ADD is horrible. True to life, I think relationships are the biggest distraction for a person: wayward children, romance, over the top love for animal rights. Speaking of animals. Millie’s distraction is her sense of smell. IF she smells something, she hears nothing or sees nothing from me. Very annoying.

    1. Millie is cute enough to get away with it, though! I’m like you…frequently distracted by life in general. I think a lot of writers are that way! Hope you have a great weekend!

  4. Very interesting! I hadn’t thought about it this way, and it’s really helpful to think specifically about what these characters are doing: “Your protagonist’s distraction could both complicate his quest […] and provide the ‘need’ that conflicts with the ‘want.’”

    I can see that many romances feature at least one distracting character – another love interest that the hero or heroine doesn’t choose in the end. This person is definitely a distraction and usually gives the H/h a need that he/she finally realizes isn’t a need any longer or that the new, real love interest now gives him or her in a new way.

  5. Hi Elizabeth – another … now I see why I don’t write novels! I imagine these would be red herrings perhaps for a murderer, or another love interest … interesting – cheers Hilary

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