Why Your Protagonist is Dragging His Feet

Contrary to popular belief, characters can take over a story and write it on their own. I’ve experienced this firsthand, so I know it happens.

In keeping with the same popular belief, the only thing you get out of your characters is what you put into them. They can’t do anything except what you’ve created them to do.

Nonsense? Contradictory? *rubs hands**cue ominous music* We shall see.

All villainous dramatics aside, I should confess that my current protagonist has been a nightmare. If you’ve ever had to deal with a character who constantly drags his feet and doesn’t seem to have motivation for ANYTHING, you know exactly what I’ve gone through.

Now do that times three, because that’s how many times I had to re-do him.

It wasn’t that he didn’t have strong enough motivations. It wasn’t that he didn’t have a million things he wanted and was driven to pursue. It wasn’t that I didn’t know where I wanted him to end up, and what lessons he would learn, and how he would change along the way. I knew all that. He had everything he needed; absolutely everything.

Except one tiny thing I was forgetting.

All humans have it. It’s the key ingredient of change— the key reason we get up and pursue life instead of just letting it clobber us over the head. All characters need it, and yet so often we authors overlook it entirely:

Desire for fulfillment.

Think about it. The most dynamic and compelling characters are the ones who change, right? Change is story. Story is change. In pursuit of their goals our characters should also find something richer— truth. About themselves and about the world and about their place in it. The character who rides off into the sunset is not the same character who galloped on stage in the beginning. He’s changed. Hopefully, he leaves the stage fulfilled.

Yeah yeah, we know this. It’s all basic. But we tend to assume change has only two ingredients— where you begin, and where you end up.

Not so. When we do it this way, we’re stuck between two islands without a way to cross from one to the other. The character must be willing to change; to exert himself and take risks and put the status quo on the line before change is even possible. He has to be willing to sweat and toil to build the bridge that will ultimately lead him to the end result.

He must desire fulfillment.

Without that desire, he just buckles under the strain of everything we cruel authors throw at him and becomes a mess of crippling fear, depression, anxiety, angst, and inertia.

All of those sins are forgivable except the last one. Readers understand fear, depression, anxiety, and angst. But the instant the protagonist starts dragging his feet, he loses his heroic charisma and becomes nothing more than an annoying brat who wants to whine or run his way out of every tough situation. He won’t run the story because he doesn’t even want to run his own life.

Desire for fulfillment is the one desire that keeps him going. His goals can (should) change. His idea of fulfillment can (should) change. He grows wiser. He better understands what’s worth having; what true fulfillment is.

But he must yearn to find it from the very beginning, even if he doesn’t know what he’s looking for. This gives him the courage to go out and face life and not be broken by it. To pick up his feet, pick himself up out of the mud, and face every challenge head-on even when life knocks him bloody again and again.

Whatever our external quests, inside we’re all looking for real happiness. This desire is the one ingredient that makes your character stand up and take his life in his own hands, and your story with it.


7 thoughts on “Why Your Protagonist is Dragging His Feet

  1. “Whatever our external quests, inside we’re all looking for real happiness.”
    *raises one eyebrow* Ah, but what is real happiness? I know that you would agree with me that the world is full of empty happiness; so how can we know when, and if, we’ve found real happiness? And is it worth the pursuit? And if we find it, how do we keep it? Is it possible to maintain it even in the midst of a bitter struggle?
    *coughs* Sorry. I’ve been in a weird philosophical mood the last couple of days. XD
    The post is great! Thanks for sharing. 😀


    1. *grins* I knew you were gonna say that. XD

      I totally agree. Real happiness and true fulfillment can only come from God’s truth and saving grace. I have posts planned on that too. XD


  2. Ahhhh. But what if the whole point is that the character starts off dragging his feet, (EiL 1) then is forced into change that makes him actually start reacting and changing, but unwillingly, (Mid point) then he’s more deeply convicted and has to actively believe what he’s doing in order to overcome the obstacle. (EiL 2/ Resolution)

    Soooo, I’d say that it is good to /start/ with the character dragging his feet a bit, if that’s his negative trait. Don’t do that if his problem he needs to change from is charging head first into trouble. Only change what needs to be changed.

    But yeah. I know what you mean. You don’t want a character who just flops down on the ground outside the dragon’s lair and complains because his servent went missing and he doesn’t do anything until even the dragon gets sick of him and comes out and eats him.

    So yes. Dragging feet is no good, unless it is only the beginning.


    1. You actually touched on one of my absolute favorite topics.
      You are one hundred percent correct— but you’re describing a /passive/ lie. There are two kinds. Passive and Aggressive. Aggressive are my favorites and I try to avoid Passives at all costs because they slip very easily into a wimpy, whiny protagonist, like here. They do have their uses though. I plan to do a post on that too. 😀

      See, just because the protagonists EiL is wrong doesn’t mean he doesn’t act on it with conviction that it’s right. Aggressively. Unless the wrong EiL is something like laziness, it’s a strong belief he’s going to act on with decision. We can forgive a character for being wrong if he’s enthusiastic enough (and as long as he learns.) It’s in the character’s attitude more than his beliefs.

      So much post material… *dives into notes and starts scribbling*

      Liked by 1 person

  3. THANK YOU FOR THIS POST. I really needed it.

    Now I understand one of my big problems with this one character: he just wants to maintain a status-quo. No drive, except for this one… but I won’t bore you with the details.

    Luckily, I have other plans. *devious smile*

    Liked by 1 person

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