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?Pin It