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Here's a summary of the plot:

The main character goes to a mountain to visit his half-sister. He hasn't seen her in years.

She went there to undergo a spiritual healing. Later he discovers her wound has something to do with their elder brother, and that she needs him (the protagonist) in order to recover from this affliction.

But that isn't all. While he's in the mountain he meets a girl who (apparently) doesn't possess a soul. She is often seen in the forest near ancient trees. After he meets her she tells him that he didn't only come to the mountain looking for his half-sister, but also looking for her. That he must help her to accomplish something. Something of utter importance.

He's sure he hasn't seen her before, though she looks a lot like a girl he met once when he was a kid.

I'm more or less satisfied with this plot, however, I can't shake off the feeling that the protagonist is more a "spectator" rather than someone who's playing an "active" role in the story.

This isn't happening in another story I'm writing. The story is about a man who tells his wife about a sexual fantasy he has. But that he's OK if she doesn't want to go along with it. However, the wife suddenly stops talking to him, and after that a series of surreal things start to happen to him: he's visited at night by a black bird, and meets a young girl in the forest nearby their house.

Unlike the first story, in this one I feel the main character is deeply rooted in the plot; the story is after all about his relationship with his wife and his sexual desires.

What can I do to solve the problem with the first story? Or should I just drop the entire project (or let it cool down, at least) and focus on the second one?

I've already written 16,000 words for the first one, and 5,000 for the second one (both are second drafts).

(I usually write two stories simultaneously. When I feel I'm "stuck" with one I jump to the other to "relax." Yeah, I don't have many hobbies.)

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A detached narrator can be a literary technique. – Double U Jan 23 '14 at 5:31
But if you use a detached narrator, you should keep in mind the protagonist is someone else. – Marc Wolvesheir Jan 23 '14 at 14:31
You could also considering changing the perspective to the half sister...if the plot will resolve around her its worth a look. – James Jan 23 '14 at 14:32

Raise the stakes. Give him some urgent reason for doing something or being there. Take something away from him which he has to find, recover, or fix. Add a ticking clock.

  • Why is he visiting his half-sister now? Maybe their shared parent is dying? Maybe he's dying?
  • Why is he going to the mountain? Maybe he's been diagnosed as missing a soul, or his soul is dying, and something/one on the mountain can fix that? Maybe he had a dream that he had to give a soul to someone on the mountain, or he was told a prophecy?
  • Is there a deadline for getting off the mountain? The earthquake from Eri's story? Foresters, clear-cutters, a flood, a plague?
  • What's the "something of utter importance"? Can you tie it to something earlier in the story? Can you foreshadow something going on with his wife, husband, child, job, dog, house which only this soulless person can fix?

I'm just riffing, but basically your protagonist is detached because he wandered into the plot. Give him a reason to be there.

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Thanks for you feedback. Well, he's visiting his half-sister because she asked him to. As for the reason he came looking for the girl without a soul, the truth is a mystery even for himself. However, the girl later explains to him that they are somehow "connected." A possible interpretation for this is that the girl symbolizes his own skepticism towards the existence of the soul. But I never reveal that to the reader. Not sure if that will do, though. – Alexandro Chen Jan 23 '14 at 11:08
So, as the girl looks for her place in the world as a soulless being, the protagonist is doing it also. Again I never tell this to the reader; I just throw subtle hints. – Alexandro Chen Jan 23 '14 at 11:14
@AlexandroChen Then you need to put in some foreshadowing. He should spend some time in Act I wondering about his soul, or scoffing about its existence, or someone should accuse him of being soulless, etc. You have to sow the seed so people realize you are making a connection. We can't know that he's skeptical unless you somehow tell us. – Lauren Ipsum Jan 23 '14 at 11:29
I agree. This protagonist really needs to want something very badly. – Eli Feb 18 '14 at 23:02

Internal secret. Something about him that kept bothering him.

Emphasize the fact "she looks a lot like a girl he met once when he was a kid." Recurring dreams. Weird events. Memories mismatching reality; flawed deja vu. Hint that he is not a normal person, and make it true in the end. Even if he's essentially a live McGufin to be delivered from point A to point B by other characters of the story, he's bound into the plot. Or write this as two stories, two threads - one external, the mountains, the girl, and another internal, daydreams, dreams, memories, irrational feelings and sourceless knowledge, the two threads converging towards the end.

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If the character you have written does not seem to care about the plot hook then the chances are you and the reader don't care too much. Spend some time getting into the answer "why should I care?" When you have really gotten that answer clear then the characters will feel like they want to engage when you write them and story will engage the readers.

You say yourself that where the character is deeply rooted in what is going on arround him then the story comes to life. That because when your character is deeply rooted into the story so are you.

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The problem here is there actually is no plot.

There's a vague sibling context, and everything else seems shoehorned around it.

Either we're not being told enough of the plot mechanics to understand it, or the plot doesn't actually exist.

IMHO you have two choices:

  • forget the plot and develop the characters further
  • develop the fantastic aspect further, until a plot emerges

Right now you barely have enough for a coherent short story.

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I get the sense that your protagonist is not important enough to the plot. He is instrumental in the development of the two women, but he isn't doing all that much for himself. As such, the hero is clearly a "point of view" character but I'm not convinced that he is a real protagonist. I can think of two ways to fix this.

The first is to "make a virtue of necessity" and "demote" the hero to the narrator, while making one (or both) of the women the protagonist. Think of Nick Carraway in "The Great Gatsby." The story was more about Gatsby's development than Nick's, but Nick played admirably as a "sidekick."

The second idea is to upgrade your hero. The two women, a sister and potential girlfriend are competing for his attention, and potentially pulling him in different directions, creating a potential conflict. How does he resolve that conflict? If that's what he does in the story, he is really the protagonist.

The protagonist is the most important person in the story. Ultimately his (or her) decisions and feelings are the ones that count most.

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