Creating Character: Protagonists

Protagonists are crucial to a memorable story. No matter how you go about crafting your protagonist, you have to pause at some point and get to know the person telling the story so that you can be sure he’s the right character for the job. Too often I see fluffy protagonists that really could tell any story. They’re yawn-worthy, and this is sad because a bit of work might have made them fantastic.

The protagonist is not necessarily your viewpoint character. He may or may not be the narrator of the story. If you’re writing in first person, then of course he is, but in third, second or omniscient, he could be the protagonist, but not the person actually telling the story. The protagonist is simply the person about whom the tale is told, either in voice and mind or in the action. What? He should be the person the reader follows most closely. The reader sees not just his actions but also why he behaves the way he does and how he interprets events around him.

We don’t want a Mary Sue either. We want a real, believable, flawed-but-not-too-flawed person to live the story through.

So what makes a good protagonist? Begin by asking yourself four simple questions:

  • Who is the story about?
  • What do they want?
  • What stands in their way?
  • What are they going to do about it?
There needs to be a reason why these characters deserve our attention, why we bond with them or at least stick with them for the duration of the story. A protagonist must appeal to us in some way, but you have several options in what that way might be.

Protagonist is a neutral word, let’s not forget. He doesn’t have to be a hero or “good guy.” We’ve been told that the protagonist must be appealing and we assume that good and nice is what readers want, but this is so not true. The protagonist must be relatable, and that’s not the same thing. The protagonist doesn’t have to be a hero or good or nice. He just has to be someone the reader can understand on some level. The goodness or badness of your protagonist isn’t as important as his activeness. Protagonists must be relentlessly active. They know what they want (or at least they think they know), they have a good idea of what’s in their way, and they strategize and work to figure out what to do about it. Without constant action from your characters, you lose the dynamic energy that moves the plot forward. Without a plot that moves forward, you no longer have a compelling story. Instead, you’ve got a lot of boring crap that annoys your reader.

A compelling story hinges on creating a good protagonist, which makes sense because if you have a protagonist that is constantly working to overcome obstacles and changing his strategy as needed, the plot will unfold because of him and his actions, and not because something is happening to him.

This is the essential purpose of a protagonist, is it not? He should be an intrinsic part of the story, not someone standing passively on the sidelines as it breezes by him. I read many books where this basic purpose is lost. The protagonist is passive, boring, static; not part of the plot. It seems obvious that this is not a compelling way to write, but it’s an easy mistake. Why? Because as writers, we observe life in order to capture every detail in our work. We get away with it in books most often because we’re writing the story from a point just outside the protagonist. We’re describing for the reader what he’s doing, seeing, and thinking, but we forget sometimes that the action is what makes the story compelling. I read somewhere that novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Action is character” and he’s exactly right.

The protagonist must be actively involved in the plot. If he’s merely observing, then what’s the point? You might as well knit a sweater. It serves as much purpose for the reader as reading his story. If there’s no investment for the character, there’s no investment for the reader. The protagonist must have a personal stake in the outcome of the story. I’ve read many books where the protagonist is involved in the plot, yet risks nothing to get to the final outcome. That’s shitty characterization. It’s lazy. There must be some reason he’s involved and it must be personal.  

But how the hell does that work? How do we know our protagonist is active enough?

We have to make sure he wants whatever he wants desperately. I mean, everybody wants something, right? But the protagonist must want it more than anyone else because that is what makes the story move forward. If he didn’t want something so badly he could taste it, well what’s the point of writing the story at all? The whole plot is structured around getting your protagonist to the point where he can achieve his goals. So to create a memorable protagonist, one that belongs in that story and that story alone, you have to be clear on what he wants and clear that he’ll do whatever is necessary to get it.

Now, we ask ourselves why he wants what he wants. This is often described as his inner goal and many writers forget that why is as important as what and how. What’s his motivation for wanting to achieve his goal? This is the internal thing our protagonist may not be able to define necessarily, but it is implied in the protagonist’s quest to achieve it.

When we figure out his purpose, we should think about what is standing in his way.

The key to creating a compelling story is conflict. If the protagonists goals are easy to achieve your story is boring because there’s no purpose, no challenge. The reader must see him work to get what he wants, and the harder he works, the more your reader is engaged. I think this is often why I find antagonists so much more appealing than many protagonists: they know what they want, they know what stands in their way and by God they’re going to stomp the shit out of it to succeed. Your protagonist’s goal should require some serious effort to achieve; otherwise your antagonist should be your protagonist.

But this doesn’t mean the goal has to be a ridiculous or unbelievably hard. It just can’t be easy. I mean, if it’s easy, and he’s having a hard time getting to it, the reader walks away thinking he’s a useless tit, and we don’t want that. Or perhaps you do, but usually that doesn’t work. When the protagonist knows his goal and the thing (or things) that stands in his way is not easy to overcome, then the question of what he’s going to do about it becomes that much more interesting.

And don’t forget that the reader wants to put herself in the protagonist’s shoes, so give her someone she might like to be for a short time, or someone she can imagine being. Someone like her, but completely different.

You don’t have to follow any of these “guidelines” of course, because nothing in fiction is really set in stone, especially character. This is just my personal observations of what build a memorable protagonist. I think keeping these things in mind as you craft your protagonist and your story helps you avoid tedious lines of emotional narrative or prose that goes absolutely nowhere. If the protagonist does not have these basic things going for him, your reader has no reason to give a shit what he does. A brilliant protagonist gives the reader a reason to invest in the story you want to tell.

And I should add that you’ll want to make sure you’ve selected the right character for the role. There’s a simple way to decide this: Put another character into the protagonist’s role. If it works with minimal tweaking, you’ve got the wrong character. The protagonist you choose should be the only one that can play the starring role in the tale you’re telling.

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