re: What Does “I Don’t Relate to Your Protagonist” Mean?

posted 6/13/18

Dear Editor…

What does it mean exactly, when an agent says they “don’t relate to the protagonist”?



Dear Jenn…

I bet this is about core emotional Need. Every character has a Need and a Want. Example: A girl Wants to win a gold medal … and Needs to win it to feel worthy of love. Her Want drives the plot, while her Need is the emotional heart of the book. It’s her driving force and a crucial connection point for readers. We yearn to empathize with a protagonist’s Need—to relate to it. The agent’s empathy wasn’t triggered. Maybe it’s not a Need she can dig into. More likely: Your Need is hazy and needs clarification, or it’s underdeveloped and needs fortifying, or you overlooked it because you focused on plot without probing motive. This is revisable! First, articulate the Need behind your character’s Want. Then fix by adding (more) incidents and relationships that show the Need going unfulfilled. And actively attack the Need! For example, raise the stakes for the Olympic hopeful so if she fails to medal, she’ll feel unworthy of love and lose the one person giving her the next-best thing to love. You mean I’m worse off for my efforts? Ow! We all fear worse-for-trying. And what’s fear great for? Empathy!

Happy writing!
The Editor

P.S. For more on this topic, read Characterization, General fiction, Submissions
posted by: The Editor
under: Characterization, General fiction, Submissions
Comments to "re: What Does “I Don’t Relate to Your Protagonist” Mean?" | Add a Comment
    1. Lou McCoy wrote (on 06/13/18 at 5:59 pm) :

      I agree with what you say wholeheartedly! I think this is a problem for new writers.
      From a woman’s perspective, I’d say that people want to connect emotionally with their book’s characters and to do so, the protagonist must be put in difficult situations or face struggles of some sort.
      New writers have difficulty getting into their characters’ heads. This is truly a challenge for anyone. But, they, also, seem to resist plunging the character into action. They want to ‘tell’ what happened (the Rebels won the battle or Jack was brave during the sea rescue)) without much action or reactions on the part of the characters. Throw your protagonist into the deep and allow him to churn up some trouble! I’ve worked with several new writers, editing their manuscripts, and this seems one of the more difficult challenges.
      A protagonist has to be important to the story, so he must become a real person and all that that entails in the mind of the reader. If you can make yourself, as writer, identify with the protagonist and almost share his breath, (an osmosis, of sort) you can breathe vibrancy-and the suspension of disbelief-into the pages of your book.

    2. The Editor wrote (on 06/13/18 at 10:56 pm) :

      Putting the characters is difficult situations forces them to reveal flaws and dig deep for strengths and/or change. Delicious!

    3. Shelley wrote (on 06/14/18 at 5:09 am) :

      This is the best and clearest description of need/want and why they are important, ever! Thank you!
      If we can identify early on what the “want” is, I believe it will make our writing more purposeful.
      Thank you!

    4. The Editor wrote (on 06/19/18 at 6:59 pm) :

      Excellent! Thanks, Shelley.

    5. MaryAnn M. Butterfield wrote (on 06/18/18 at 12:31 pm) :

      Succinct answer! You’ve got the Want of what we Need to help develop our characters. 🙂

    6. The Editor wrote (on 06/19/18 at 6:57 pm) :

      Glad you’re finding it helpful, MaryAnn 🙂