It’s easy to think we understand the role the protagonist plays in a story. We’ve seen movies and read books, after all. We know the protagonist when we see him. However, as I coach and edit authors, I’ve found that while many authors may be able to spot a protagonist, they don’t necessarily know how to create one.
And this is a huge problem.
In a traditional story, the protagonist has several very specific requirements, and if your protagonist doesn’t meet those requirements, your story will break down.
Definition of Protagonist
The protagonist can also be called the hero or main character, but these terms are imprecise, and for some stories, plainly false. The protagonist of Macbeth, for example, is clearly not a hero. Nick Carraway is the main character of The Great Gatsby but he is not the protagonist.
My favorite definition of the protagonist is from Stephen Koch’s Writer’s Workshop:
The protagonist is the character whose fate matters most to the story.
The protagonist centers the story. She defines the plot and moves it forward. Her fate determines whether the story is a tragedy or comedy.
You may not know who your protagonist is until you are halfway through writing your novel. You may think your protagonist is one character, only to find out your villain is actually your protagonist. You do not need to know who your protagonist is before you begin writing, but as you look at your work in progress, ask “Whose future is most important to this story, to the other characters in this story? Whose future is most important to me?” If you can answer these questions, you have found your protagonist.
How to Characterize a Protagonist
How do you make a protagonist more interesting? How do you bring depth to the protagonist’s personality?
The best way to characterize the protagonist is through an antagonist. An antagonist, or villain, is not necessarily evil or “the bad guy.” Instead, the antagonist is the protagonist’s opposite, their shadow or mirror.
The human mind loves to compare. It especially loves to compare people, and by characterizing your antagonist, you naturally create a comparison that characterizes your protagonist.
Here’s a trick: When you are writing your villain, the stronger you make the antagonist, the better your protagonist will look when he wins. The more you increase the values of your antagonist, the more interesting your protagonist becomes.
Is There Only One Protagonist?
While there is usually only one protagonist in a story, this isn’t always true. In romantic comedies and “buddy stories,” there can be two protagonists. For example, in Romeo and Juliet it is the fate of both characters, not just one of them, that matters to the story. Same with Lethal Weapon and The Odd Couple.
I love stories with multiple viewpoint characters, stories like The Yacoubian Building or The Joy Luck Club or 44 Scottland Street.* These stories have multiple characters who could be protagonists, but while the stories begin with several possible protagonists, by the end, the author has led you to just one or two.
The Most Important Requirement for the Protagonist
This is the single most important element of your protagonist, and thus one of the most important of your novel as a whole. If your protagonist fails to do this, your story will fail. Seriously.
Your protagonist must choose.
Protagonists must make decisions. A character who does not choose her own fate, and thus suffer the consequences of her choice, is not a protagonist. She is, at best, a background character.
Donald Miller says story is, “A character who wants something and is willing to go through conflict to get it.” If your character does not want something enough to choose to go through conflict to get it, your reader will walk away disappointed.
Your protagonist may reject the choice at first. She may debate back and forth between which option to choose. She may spend a hundred pages waffling. This can actually be a good thing. Choice is hard! However, she must choose.
Readers will bear with a protagonist who isn’t very likable. They will endure selfishness, pride, and even cowardice in a character. However, readers will not endure a protagonist who does not decide.
What do you think? What is the most important trait for a protagonist?
Your protagonist is presented with a choice, perhaps a choice to accept or reject some type of quest.
For fifteen minutes, show her internal or external debate between the two options. Which does she choose?
When your time is finished, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to give feedback to a few other writers.
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