As writers, we love exploring the internal struggles that shape our characters. During formative moments, emotional turmoil may need to take center stage, as with Thomas in Nadine Brandes’ Fawkes. Usually this scene happens near the story’s middle, when everything—including the protagonist—seems to be falling apart. Turning points deserve emphasis; otherwise the deep change in the character’s arc will seem artificial or glossed over.
However, sometimes the character’s inner world takes over the story. Instead of complementing the external conflict, it either stalls or sidelines the plot. Because the story is traveling in two different directions—or not moving at all—readers lose interest.
A character-driven story does not require constant angst and melodrama (I’m looking at you, Divergent sequels). So, when your character sucks the plot into his own head, how do you yank it into the open where it belongs?
1. Tie the Internal to the External
When nothing significant occurs, the story gets bogged down. A character’s thought patterns need to have a cause-and-effect relationship with the plot. When the protagonist finally embraces heroism instead of running from it, that’s an inward decision. But his attitude shift can be showcased more effectively through an action scene.
On a larger scale, think of Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay. Her progression toward becoming the Mockingjay, the powerful symbol of District 13’s revolution, is intertwined with the plot. The misgivings she wrestles with are relevant and compelling because her acceptance of the role will impact the world around her. When she steps into it wholeheartedly, the rebellion gains traction in other districts, and a grassroots movement forms.
In contrast, Katniss’s anguish over Gale and Peeta slows the story because romance is largely disconnected from the plot. While her fondness for both guys may seem like a necessary trait to develop, entangling characters in extraneous problems is unwise. Every choice must have consequences, whether big or small.
2. Use Indecision to Set Up Tragedy
Sometimes a character seems incapable of making up his mind. In the face of a moral quandary, he gets trapped in a mental debate. If your story’s theme is important, and you’ve built up the dilemma, his next move will be legitimately difficult. But you can’t let the story lag because of that.
The world is bigger than the protagonist. Wheels are turning that may be invisible to readers, so a delay could give the villain time to strike. Not only does this shove the plot forward, but it deepens the protagonist’s motivation to respond faster in the future. Sometimes hesitation is a decision in itself.
When Frodo putters around the Shire instead of listening to Gandalf, readers know he’s procrastinating until the last possible moment. This causes the first episodes of the journey to be hair-raising and edge-of-the-seat. Again and again, the hobbits escape the Black Riders by a hair’s breadth—and one stabs Frodo with a cursed blade at Weathertop. Exhausted and battered, they reach Rivendell, no thanks to Frodo’s initial dillydallying. Notice that Tolkien does not remove the protagonist’s indecision but balances it by making him pay for it later. Slower moments should lead up to white-hot tension.
The next time your characters refuse to act, look for ways to punish them. This can quickly transform a passive character into a powerhouse of momentum.
3. Introduce Intense Physical Hardship
Writers tend to enjoy putting their characters through unimaginable emotional trauma—loved ones dying, a friend’s betrayal, or a spouse being tortured. This orients the story on the character’s inner landscape, where the plot is prone to stagnate. Many YA dystopian novels include scenarios like these, but the authors keep the story in motion by throwing trouble at the characters that they must fight now. If they hope to survive, they have to suppress their grief until the pace allows them to process it fully.
After finding Boromir dying and the hobbits captured, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli have to run nonstop for days to catch up with the Uruk-hai. Similarly, in her first Hunger Games, Katniss cannot properly mourn her friend Rue because she must continue evading the other contestants who are out to kill her. The driving force of both these situations overrides the character’s internal torment. If they could indulge in their pain right away, the story would be less poignant.
4. Revamp Your Main Plot
Occasionally stories veer into the protagonist’s head because the plot isn’t working. Our writing instincts are often stronger than we believe. We sense that the plot is weak, so we subconsciously try to shore it up by focusing on the complex inner worlds of our characters. But if the foundation is shaky, no amount of extra support will prevent it from crumbling.
If you frequently linger inside your characters’ minds, you may need to revise your plot. You can adjust the external conflict so that it coincides with the internal conflict, which will unify the story’s trajectory and goals. However, you risk feeding the angst that created the issue, rather than confronting it. To avoid that, follow the advice in point number three and place more obstacles in your protagonist’s path.
Seizing the Reins and Moving Forward
Not every story will benefit from all these tips. You may only need to implement one or two of them to overcome your angsty character and bring the plot to full speed again. Ask yourself why your story has gotten stuck inside the protagonist’s head. Figuring that out will lead you to the correct solution.
Searching for the weak spots in our writing can be disappointing, particularly when we’ve invested so much effort. But remember that every mistake is a lesson you can tuck away and apply to future projects. It’s no different with characters whose internal drama begins to overwhelm the story. All problems can be remedied with time, attention to artistry, and a healthy dose of hard work.
Editor’s Note: Post originally published on November 4, 2019. Updated March 13, 2023.
Martin Detwiler is mostly normal. For a writer. He is, like most of us, a mess of paradoxes. Dreamer & cynic, philosopher & clown, hopeless romantic & grim realist—if there’s a contradiction, you’ll find it in him somewhere or another. But at the heart of it all, Martin is a man made new by Christ, the Author of that cosmic tale we call history. He has had a passion for stories from his earliest teen years, and the transition from reading others’ stories to writing his own seemed a foregone conclusion. His greatest inspirations are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom stirred a passion for stories that combine the aesthetic and the true in such a way that the reader is given an experiential glimpse of God’s reality.
Martin lives with his wife in South Carolina, where she keeps his sky-high hopes and dreams firmly rooted in the humble yet beautiful soil of reality.