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February 17, 2015

Should Our Protagonist Be in the First Scene?

A face hidden by a hoodie with text: When Should Readers Meet the Protagonist?

Most stories open with the protagonist on page one, but every once in a while, our story seems to work best if we start with another character. Is this a good idea? Can we make it work?

Today’s post was inspired by a question from Glynis Jolly, who asked me if I thought an author would sabotage themselves and their story if their protagonist doesn’t enter the picture until later. I thought that was a great question and decided to explore the scenario more deeply so we could all learn together. *smile*

Let’s take a closer look at why the protagonist usually works best as the point-of-view (POV) character for page one, scene one. Then let’s see if we can gather insights into how the exceptions might work—or how we might be able to avoid some of the pitfalls for those exceptions.

Why Do We Usually Start with the Protagonist?

The first step in figuring out when exceptions might work is identifying why we usually start with the protagonist. What does that structure provide the reader and the story that makes it the default approach?

Benefit #1: Anchoring

When readers start a new story, they’re essentially exploring a new world of characters, settings, and rules. We’ve discussed before the importance of giving anchors to readers for the setting.

The sooner readers know something about the setting at the start of a story (or scene or chapter), the easier they’re able to imagine the scene in their minds. Readers might skim—and miss important information—in their search for setting details to anchor the story in their imagination.

The same goes for characters. We usually start with our protagonist as the POV character because that gives the reader an “avatar” through which to experience the story. The POV character is the anchor perspective for the story experience.

Benefit #2: Forming Connections

Going along with anchoring, readers like knowing who to center their attention on and who they should be rooting for. The POV character on page one is usually the protagonist, so readers will likely assume that character is the protagonist.

They’ll start interpreting the story through that character’s filter, filling in the blanks of who and what the story is going to be about. Readers often look for reasons to “like” or connect with the POV character.

If we start with a POV character who’s not our protagonist, readers might attach their sympathies to the “wrong” person. They might not like the POV character and decide to close the book without realizing that character wasn’t the protagonist. Or they might feel cheated when they figure out the POV character isn’t the protagonist (like a False Start cliché).

Benefit #3: Establishing Story Problems or Questions

Stories usually start near the point when the story problems or questions are first established. Our protagonist’s job over the course of the story is to attempt to solve the story’s main problems or to answer the story’s main questions.

So by staying in the protagonist’s POV at the beginning of the story, readers will be there when the protagonist first encounters those problems or questions. Readers will have an “anchoring” touchstone for the story’s beginning.

Why Might We Want to Start with a Different Character?

That last benefit gives us the key to understanding when it would make sense to start with a POV character other than our protagonist. Sometimes, our story is structured such that the story problems or questions are established before the protagonist becomes involved.

In the thriller or mystery genre, stories might start from the antagonist’s POV because their actions kick off the story. The protagonist might not be assigned to the case until a scene or chapter later.

Similarly, those genres sometimes start from the victim’s POV because their experiences (e.g., their death) can kick off the story too. And the victim’s POV might not give away hints of who the villain is the way an antagonist POV scene might do.

In other words, a story starts just before things begin to change. Especially in plot-driven stories, if that plot kickoff event happens away from the protagonist, it makes sense from a story structure perspective to focus on a different character in the first scene, just so the reader can be there for the story’s establishment of the main problems or questions.

The same reasons that make a prologue worth keeping make a non-protagonist opening scene work too. A valid page-one scene with characters other than the protagonist is one that:

  • shows an event that foreshadows the story problems or questions, or
  • establishes the situation the protagonist will soon be dragged into.

In fact, some stories call these initial non-protagonist scenes prologues. The best prologues are those that establish the start of the story, so whether we call these scenes prologues or chapter ones, this structure can work.

When Wouldn’t We Want to Start with a Different Character?

Conversely, just like how we don’t want to include unnecessary prologues, we don’t want to include non-protagonist opening scenes if that’s not where the story starts. If the scene just reveals a piece of information that won’t come into play until later, it might make more sense to use a flashback or similar technique at that later point, when the information is actually relevant.

How to Make Non-Protagonist Story Openings Work

When we understand the benefits of starting with our protagonist—but we also know that a non-protagonist scene is where the story starts—we can avoid some of the pitfalls of “breaking the rules.”

As with any opening scene, we need to start with a hook—a problem, question, situation, dilemma, or choice to act as a “now what?” and leave readers curious. Remember that opening scenes aren’t about setting up the character and their situation. Beginnings are about setting up elements of the story’s conflicts.

If we’re starting with a hook at the point when the story problems or questions are established, we’ve automatically taken care of Benefit #3 listed above. Now let’s take a look at how we might be able to regain the two other benefits despite the fact that we’re not starting with the protagonist.

Tip #1: Tie Scenes Together to Provide the Anchoring Benefit

In a non-protagonist opening scene, we want to at least give hints for how this event ties into the main story and characters (i.e., how this event can/will affect the protagonist). Our readers will pay attention to these events, even though this POV character isn’t the protagonist, because this scene is immediately relevant to the following scenes.

From a plotting perspective, the next scene should usually be a “therefore” or “but” transition and not an “and then” or “meanwhile” transition. We might be able to get away with an “and then” or “meanwhile” transition if the following scenes tie together quickly enough or if there’s a strong enough hint that they will tie together.

The point is that we don’t want the reader to feel a disconnect and wonder why the story started with the non-protagonist scene. If the reader is left wondering for too long why the other scene existed, we can create an impression of sloppy writing, and a disconnected reader is more likely to close the book.

On the other hand, a strong tie between the scenes will act as a baton pass for the reader. They’ll know how to translate one character’s POV experience to another character’s POV experience because they’ll know how the scenes are related.

Tip Summary: Tie scenes together to create an anchor that will pull the reader from one POV character to another and avoid causing a reader disconnect during the transition.

Tip #2: Set Reader Expectations to Provide the Connection Benefit

Another problem that causes a reader to disconnect from the story is when they feel misled. Readers experience a disconnect when they assume the first page POV character is the protagonist, only to discover that character was actually the antagonist, the protagonist’s friend, a victim who’s now murdered, etc.

Genre expectations can help with this. As I mentioned above, some genres frequently start with a non-protagonist scene. For the rest, we can use a combination of the anchoring technique and the back-cover blurb. In other words, we should give context to the reader and avoid misleading them.

For example, if the reader knows from the book description that the main character’s name is Sue and the story opens with the non-protagonist character talking about Sue, the reader will realize this POV character isn’t Sue and will also have a hint of how the characters (and scenes) are connected. Or if the reader knows the main character is a detective, they’ll understand why the story starts with a crime victim.

We might cause problems, however, if our blurb doesn’t make it clear who the protagonist is (name, occupation, description, etc.) or if our opening scene doesn’t make it clear how the POV character isn’t that same person. For example, a book description about a female teacher wouldn’t help if the story opens with a different female teacher. Readers might not catch that the characters aren’t the same.

The point is that while we want readers to care about the events of the opening scene, we want them to care about the events (and POV characters) in the “right” context. That means not misleading readers into rooting for a character who turns out to be the story’s villain or imminent murder victim, etc.

Tip Summary: Give context to readers so they aren’t misled by assuming the first POV character is the protagonist and avoid a reader disconnect when they realize the truth.

To go back to Glynis’s question, there are plenty of examples where stories start with a non-protagonist character, especially within certain genres. For others, sometimes a flashback will fill in the story blanks. For the rest, we sometimes don’t have a choice: The story works best with that non-protagonist structure as the opening scene.

When that’s the case, our main goal should be to minimize “speed bumps” in the story, plotting, or POV that cause reader confusion. The less disconnected we make the reader during those crucial opening scenes, the more likely they are to stick around for our whole story. *smile*

Have you ever written a prologue or chapter one that featured a non-protagonist POV character? Why did you decide to start it that way? Have you wondered how to tell if that was the best approach? Do you have a story that needs this type of opening but you weren’t sure how to make it work? Do you have any other tips or suggestions for how to make this technique work?

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What do you think?

30 Comments on "Should Our Protagonist Be in the First Scene?"

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Melinda

Hi Jami,
Wow! What timeing on this one. I’ve been trying to figure this exact situation out for a bit now and was not sure how to go about it. Now I can start my story with a little bit more confidence.
Thanks for the advice.
Melinda

Kim

Thanks for this post! I’ve been struggling, trying to decide if I want to keep a Prologue with a non-POV character or not. This particular person and setting is also the ending of the novel and plays a huge part in the spiritual/emotional growth of my POV character. The scenes and this character are like bookends, BUT, I think it’s also a little confusing at the beginning. I need to take your advice and make it really clear that the character in the first scene is not the POV character…if I even keep it.

Kim

Anne Briggs Buzzini
Anne Briggs Buzzini

Excellent post. I appreciate you linking ideas to previous posts. That helps a lot. I appreciate your coherent step-by-step explanations.

Robert Doucette
Robert Doucette

Thanks for this posting. One Tip to be included:When you don’t begin with the protagonist make sure they are worth the wait.

I started reading a thriller recently and the heroes did not show up until around page 40. Meanwhile, several other characters were introduced with interesting quirks and back stories. When I finally met the characters whose names are on the cover and in the blurb, I wasn’t impressed. They stayed two dimensional for another 20 pages when I quit. This was the fourth or fifth in the series, so apparently the author felt he had told us everything worth knowing in the previous books.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Well, I honestly don’t have any stories that start with a non-protagonist yet, but ONE OF MY STORY CHARACTERS writes a story that starts with a non-protagonist. XDDD Okay so my author character is called Yang Mingshan, and he initially writes about this guy called Feng Qilian who is in prison. The reader later finds out that he was in prison because he fell in love with this girl (who was his “sworn older sister”, something like blood-sworn brothers, blood-sworn sisters, blood-sworn siblings) who was not in love with him; in his fury, he killed the girl’s crush and thus ends up in prison. One day, a male friend, Lian Lubing, rescues him from prison and lets Feng Qilian live at his place. A female cousin (Tang Miansu) of Feng Qilian’s visits too. After another period of time where Feng Qilian broods over his unhappiness and feels remorseful over what he did, Tang Miansu tells him that the girl he was in love with, Wei Lifang, is willing to exchange letters with him, though Wei Lifang still doesn’t want to meet him in person and doesn’t know if she would ever be able to forgive him enough to be sworn siblings with him again. Anyway, this is the story about Feng Qilian and his unrequited love, which thankfully gradually fades away (after about half a year…) During this section of the story, my author character Yang Mingshan also writes about side adventures/ stories of the other characters, especially of Tang… Read more »
Killion Slade

Hi Jami! As always … such a wonderful, timely post 🙂

As I’ve been contemplating the opening scene for book three in the series, I have pretty much decided on an anchor hook scene where my two main protags are not in the first scene. The scene is an impactful event happening to humans which is the driving force behind my characters motivations.

I may tie it up where the consequences of that scene directly affect the main characters, but they won’t be in it. It’s definitely a style that warrants taking a look. But the payoff for that prologue has to pay off. 🙂

Thanks!

chemistken

In the original version of my first story, the main character didn’t appear until the third chapter! Of course, the first chapter was little more than a prologue, but still… I eventually went back and moved him into the first chapter.

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[…] You can’t have a story without characters. Jody Hedlund gives us a 5-point checklist to help writers get to know their characters thoroughly, and Jami Gold discusses whether our protagonist MUST be in the first scene. […]

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[…] have that out of the way …. I read a post on Jami Gold’s blog earlier this week titled “Should Our Protagonist Be in the First Scene?” It was a great discussion of cases when you might make an exception and begin your story with a […]

Glynis Jolly

You answered my question perfectly, Jami. Thank you. Seeing that the story is a mystery, this puts my first chapter in a good light. Still, I didn’t tie the protagonist into it, which needs to be done and is something I can easily do. I will also have to make sure my back cover blurb identifies the protagonist and a little about how she fits into the story.

Again, thank you so much. 😀

Pat Ireland
Pat Ireland
Thank you for this post, Jami! My WIP has a short (500 word) prologue from the antagonist POV that has been playing “To be or not to be” with me. (All the warnings about bad prologues have left me somewhat anxious.) The prologue’s raison d’être is to establish, up front, the fact that there will be both first-person POV (the villain) and limited third-person POV (the heroine). (I’ve read stories that featured both, but the second POV didn’t appear until the novel was well underway, and this created exactly the kind of disconnect for me that you describe here. But I’m hoping I can get away with the switch itself if I warn the reader within the first 3 pages, lol.) The prologue features my bad gal hacking into an unspecified computer network, and the main story opens with a computer glitch at the police department. I’m hoping that the reader will assume the two are related, so that the “hacker-hacked” relationship can provide a link between the scenes. But writing the “bad gal” in first person is forcing me to describe her actions in their most charitable light. (Is anybody ever a villain in their own eyes?) And I had been worried that readers might mistake her for the protagonist … especially since she spends the entire prologue ranting about her “search for justice”. And I need to write her in first-person, because writing her POV in third person makes it very hard to avoid gender-revealing pronouns (and I… Read more »
Serena Yung
Serena Yung
It’s me again! I happen to be reading a book that doesn’t start with the protagonist that is done very well! Basically, the first few chapters are in a non protag character’s perspective, and from hearsay, the non protag’s brief acquaintance with the protag, and from the protagonist secretly helping him (but out of sight of the non protag), we get an impression that wow, the protagonist is a really cool and amazing guy. And when we finally meet the protagonist, he is indeed very cool and awesome, and when we spend more time with him, we see that he is even cooler and more awesome than we imagined! So this setup for us to anticipate the protagonist worked very well, especially as he exceeds even my very high expectations. 😀 I love this guy a lot, haha. But for a while I wasn’t quite sure if the protagonist really was the protagonist, or if we would go back to the first character who appeared in the book because the latter is the protagonist. I really hoped the protag really was the protag, because though the first guy we saw was a decent, a little bit amusing person, he didn’t interest me very much. Now this book has no blurb (noooo! 🙁 ) but I did watch the TV adaptation of it when I was eleven, but since I was only eleven, I remember absolutely nothing about the plot, not even the ending! Reading the book now didn’t trigger any… Read more »
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[…] is Jami Gold on whether our protagonist should be in the first scene and when maybe it’s okay if they aren’t. In my stories, it usually is a protagonist in […]

Mike

Thanks for this analysis. I tend to favor showing your protag in the opening scene. The benefits of anchoring that you discuss are vital to pulling the reader into your world.

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[…] Issues that Can Wait for Revisions: Should our protagonist be on the first page? Should we avoid prologues? What about first-page […]

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