Protagonist or Antagonist: Who to Introduce First

I recently got back a critique from a Beta reader.  When I send out a piece of writing to either an editor or a Beta reader I make sure that I’ve given it my best. I like what I’ve written and am looking forward to praise. Hurray! Ready to send out.

Not so. The piece of writing which I had sent out happened to be the opening ten pages. The stakes here are high, as you all know. Readers stop reading a novel for many reasons and when they do it varies from the first sentence to the first fifty pages or so, although I know readers who will read to the end of the book even though they are no longer interested in it. And sometimes the gems of a novel are found more towards the middle and end.

But most readers judge first on the book cover and then on your opening.

Let me mention that this Beta reader is also a published  romance writer and that we’ve been writing buddies for a good six or seven years.  I have a great deal of respect for her advice.

Still, after first reading through her  comments I felt resistance on my part. She doesn’t get my writing. She’s a romance writer and this is a crime novel.

That phase passed and I went through her comments reflecting on each of the flaws she’d pointed out.  She suggested that I begin my story with the protagonist rather than the antagonist as i had done. I know that a lot of books on writing recommend starting with the antagonist. But does it always have to be the case?

I like my chapter where I introduce my antagonist. I find it strong and maybe that’s why I chose it as the novel’s opening.

The chapter which introduces the reader to my protagonist lacked that  zap opening. Why was that? I wondered. It’s a scene between a mother and a daughter. Although I knew the daughter’s character well, I still needed to go deeper into the mother’s personality. Knowing that she’s a junkie/alcoholic who was raised in a Youth Protection Center since the age of four wasn’t enough.

I recently received the latest two thesauruses (or is it thesauri?) written by the Ackerman &Puglisi gals.   I already have the first one on emotions which is in the process of being dog-eared. I keep it close to my desk, cherishing it like an old sweater.

I went through the table of contents for both the attribute and the flaws books, going down each item, deciding whether the mother possessed that characteristic.  For the sake of efficiency,  since I was going through the lists I might as well go through them for other characters. I made a chart for six characters who play some role in the novel.

Sometimes the characteristic either just fit like a glove and at other times I came across some that I thought would be neat to include.  For example, the attribute quirky.

I’ve always liked quirky characters although I didn’t know how to write quirky but the gals’ books provided me with a list of behaviors, emotions, thoughts, conflict traits, ideas for scenarios and more. I decided to give quirky to the  detective, Alice Vireo.

I also wanted to make certain that my scene contained these five elements: action, thoughts, description, emotions, behavior.  

All of this took me about two hours but I now had traits for my characters that I can refer to as they appear in the novel as well as a clearer comprehension of these characters.

Whether this scene between mother and daughter was to become my opening scene or whether I would still keep the antagonist as my opening I could decide later. In any case, the scene needed to be re-written and even parts, as suggested by my Beta reader, to be created.

This took up a great deal of my time and I am still unsatisfied with it.

While reading K.M.Weiland’s book Structuring Your Novel I serendipitously came across her chapters on opening pages and hooks.

comingsoon

In reading her chapter I realized that I was not setting the tone of the story and that the conflict between the mother and daughter was not strong enough.

If you’ve read her post you know what a stickler Ms Weiland is on editing … http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/2013/06/how-i-self-edit-my-novels-15-steps-from.html

It has been two days that I’ve been thinking, reading about, making character charts and writing and re-writing the scene between Annie and her mother.

I’m still not done. Nor have I yet decided whether to begin with the protagonist or antagonist.

What are your thoughts? Do you think the protagonist always should begin a novel?

You can catch the Ackerman & Puglisi gals on http://writershelpingwriters.net/about-writers-helping-writers/

25 thoughts on “Protagonist or Antagonist: Who to Introduce First

  1. Up to now I can only speak for my short stories: They usually introduce the protagonist. This is certainly due to the length of the stories and that they are more or less urban fantasy. I am an avid crime fiction reader – and in this genre it can be very appropriate to start with the antagonist. This always depends on how the speed of the story is planned.

  2. I am a huge fan of great antagonist. I read a lot of books where I ammore geared for the bad-guy than the good. I won’t even watch the final Harry Potter movie since they made he-who-must-no-be-nammed fist fight. They ruined him! Ack! Start with a good villain and I am a happy girl. This also reflects in my series I started off with two of the major antagonists and no one has pointed it out yet. Compelling characters will take you a long way. ❤

  3. Excellent post Carol and always a good question. I don’t know if I agree with either way is the right way. I think it depends on the type of book and the type of characters involved and their strengths as we begin the story. I know in my book (which is now published, yay) I began with the antagonist. 🙂

  4. Usually, yes. But every rule deserves to be broken by the deserving. And doesn’t Elizabeth George start some of her novels with those prologues from the viewpoint of someone other than the detective?

    • Someone pointed out to me that to start with the antagonist is like using a prologue.

      I agree that rules need to be broken. Otherwise our novels are just carbon copies of how someone thinks we should write.

  5. Carol, you say you needed to go deeper into the mother’s personality, Knowing that she’s a junkie/alcoholic who was raised in a Youth Protection Center since the age of four wasn’t enough. I suggest you take a look at the personal stories at the end of the AA Big Book and you will find all kinds of traits that alcoholic/junkies have.

  6. As long as there’s no fear that readers could mistake the antagonist for the protagonist, I think all’s fair – whatever works. I do, however, also feel as a reader that I want to meet the protagonist pretty soon. Protagonists are important to me and I want to know what he or she is like. It’s going to affect whether I keep reading.

    • Thanks for your feedback. I’m still undecided. I find the antagonist part so much more intense. I’m in the process of experimenting with shorter chapters and go back and forth.

  7. I think there are so many factors that there is no right way to begin as far as who to start with. I write most of my stories in first person, so it’s only natural that I would begin with the protag. But I’ve read great stories (thrillers in particular) that begin with the antagonist that really pull me in.

  8. Hi Carol, I hadn’t any idea that one or the other was right or wrong. Thanks for sharing this with me, and also for sharing the site. I have started a few novels but never seem to get to the end. The Tattered Rose is the name of my first novel. Title of my, WordPress. site, as you know. I have put it aside for some time as you are supposedly taught to do. I think I have almost forgotten about it though. How long do you set your work aside is tricky as well. Just a thought!

  9. Carol, thank you so much for the mention–I am thrilled you were able to brainstorm your character so deeply and it helped fill in some of the blanks! Also, and I love seeing Katie’s (KM) book here as well, because it is absolutely fabulous!

    Wishing you all the best on your novel 🙂

    Angela

  10. I’ve been trying to get past the 1st chapter of my first novel/novelette/whatever. I have it starting out with the protagonist. It’s genre is adventure so I really don’t know if I have any other choice anyway. It’s been an almost impossible struggle for me.

    For a crime story though, I would think starting off with the antagonist will be sure to keep the reader’s attention at least to the third chapter.

    I was wondering about the thesauruses by Ackerman & Puglisi. I have them on my wish list at Amazon trying to make up my mind on whether to buy them or not. Now that I have a writer’s opinion (yours), I think I’ll go ahead and buy them. Thanks for the heads up on K.M.Weiland. I’ve subscribed to her blog.

    • You won’t regret the Ackerman & Puglisi thesauruses. I think there’s a deal if you buy all 3.

      As for your novel just keep writing and don’t bother yet where to begin. In your revisions you can think about that.

  11. Carol – A thoughtful post on a basic fact of life in the successful mystery. Was it Hitchcock who said a story is only as good as its villain? For me I like introducing the protagonist early on. That said, the genre I often write in, the cozy mystery, doesn’t even reveal the villain until the end, which creates its own set of challenges … 🙂

    • I don’t know if Hitchcock said that but I think it’s very true. I can image the effort and work it must take in planning how you’re going to reveal the villain at the end. Agatha Mystery was the queen of doing just that. I’m trying to do that in one of my novels. It’s title is A Cry For Cora. I’m trying that genre out just for the challenge. To see if i can. It is awfully hard work.
      Thanks for reading and commenting, Bryan. 🙂

  12. I know this article is from 2013, but a reader of mine was concerned that I put the antagonist in the first chapter. In fact, it is all about her. I do that with the idea that her story outlines the themes, conflicts and sets up the story to come. And in fact, the real antagonist is society at large.

    That said, I am going to try a prologue introducing the two protagonists and some of the background.

    Thanks for the interesting and relevant piece.

    Peace,
    Tex Shelters

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