The term isn’t mine, but the problem is one that lots of writers fall into. The Donut Problem describes what happens when your main character is nowhere near as interesting or as active as all the characters that surround her.
There are several reasons this may occur.
One is that you want your protagonist to be the “every-person” and therefore you make him extremely vanilla. Another reason may be that your surrounding characters are very silly, two-dimensional even, and so to give your protagonist three dimensions you’ve effectively rendered them inactive – the “Hamlet” effect if you will. (Of course, Hamlet isn’t inactive at all, he’s just often discussed that way.)
A third reason you might have created a boring protagonist is because she is an avatar for you, the writer. When writers place themselves into a story, they run the risk of creating characters with no flaws, no quirks, no harsh POVs. Again, this makes characters into ciphers, especially compared to the surrounding characters who might be filled with lots of flaws, quirks, and exciting points of view.
Finally, another cause of the Donut Problem is the Ingénue Problem. The ingénue is a stock character in musical theatre, generally a girl or young woman – now expanded I think to include boys and young men – who are endearingly innocent and wholesome. They are often involved in the love plot of a show. It’s for this reason that they were often not the main characters in storylines, but rather the “B-plot” characters. However, Rodgers and Hammerstein flipped this on its head and moved them front and center. Thus we have a legacy of main characters falling in love with each other.
Now, ingénues are not in-and-of-themselves a problem, but they can be traps that lead writers into the pitfalls of the Donut Problem. This has to do with that initial definition which labels these characters innocent and wholesome. Innocence and wholesomeness can often become plain old boring and inactive if you’re not careful. Even if you decide you want to create a character with these traits, at some crucial point – early on in the piece – they will have to take an action contrary to their innocent wholesomeness. Cinderella will have to go to the ball, Alice will have to go through the looking glass, Oliver will have to ask for more.
Now that we’ve identified the issues surrounding the Donut Problem, we should look at why it is that the surrounding characters are often viewed as more exciting in these instances.
I have some theories on this as well. If the writer is doing her job well, she has created supporting characters that pull the main character in opposite directions. This requires the supporting cast to have starkly difference stances on whatever themes the writer might be working out in his piece. When you have a drastic, very defined point of view, especially if it’s odd or unpopular, we as the audience are immediately intrigued. We find ourselves asking, “What kind of a person thinks that way?”
Another theory, particular to musical theatre, has to do with songs. Often we want our main characters to sing about complicated things, love perhaps. These songs tend to be emotional, fraught ballads. Therefore, to add variety, we give our supporting characters funny, uptempo songs. Also, because we may only see a supporting character sing this once, we want to give them a really memorable song. The main character, however, sings maybe three or four or more times throughout the course of the evening. It doesn’t matter as much if we remember every single song they sing, we’re spending the whole night together with them.
If we’re doing our job well as writers, in order to justify these supporting character songs, we make big choices about who these characters are. People might describe these characters as “wacky” or “funny” or “bombastic.” Put next to our main characters, these supporting folk end up walking away with the scene or even the whole show. There’s nothing wrong with supporting characters being great and memorable, just as long as your protagonists are at least giving them a run for their money and putting up a good fight.
So how do you avoid the Donut Problem?
I have a simple solution, which is: make your supporting characters the main characters.
As discussed above, it isn’t as though writers in this situation are unable to create compelling characters. They’ve created a bunch of them! It’s only that none of them happen to be in the driver seat. However, the same thought process that lead you to create your colorful supporting cast can lead you to create wonderfully colorful leads, too.
The secret is thinking big. Push your leads to the extremes. Give them big points of view and then challenge them. Give them big flaws. Find out what their weakness and vulnerabilities are and then make them face them and don’t let them off the hook. Discover what their quirks are, which is to say discover what they geek out about. Everyone has things that makes them look foolish, but they don’t care. What are your main character’s things? Once you find them, create scenarios that allow those things to shine. Or better yet – choose quirks that you know will play exactly into the traps you’ve laid for them in the plot. You’re the writer, after all. They can be whatever you decide!
Another trick to creating more compelling protagonists is to tell the audience more. Oftentimes the main characters are very complicated and compelling, but only in the writer’s head. “But don’t you see?” the writer will insist, “He doesn’t want to join the navy because his younger brother drowned and he has an intense fear of water!” Well, no we don’t see unless you tell us! So make sure you’re giving us all the clues, and don’t be subtle about it either.
Give your main character fantastically unique intricacies and then find ways to show them all to us, and in return we will be forever fascinated.