About Your Protagonist

About Your Protagonist

Rex Griffin

Most of the time, when a writer says they don’t know what their story is about, it’s because they don’t know their protagonist well enough. Regardless of plot-driven or character-driven, your protagonist is the heart of your story. Knowing him/her will solve a lot of a writer’s problems.

Who is the main character of the story, your protagonist? What drives him? What does she seek
to accomplish? What does he look like? What things are most important to her? What are his standout qualities? Her major insecurities? What is he good at? Where does she suck? What does he lack? What does she need? What does he desire? How does she see the world? His past? Her future? His home? Her family? His country? Other people? Who are the people she relies on? What are they like? Who does he admire? Who does she despise? Who is his hero? Where does she go for solitude? For camaraderie? To celebrate? For solace? Who does he share these with?

People aren’t born on Page One. To make your protagonist—and all your main characters—live, they need what’s called “backstory.” In other words, they had families and childhoods and things they learned in that childhood, sometimes the wrong things. Lisa Cron, a famous writing coach, recommends writing three complete scenes from your protagonist’s childhood that give them a “misbelief” they will struggle with throughout your story. At the very least, fiction writers should envision the protagonist’s childhood, where they came from, what they learned, and how they grew up to become the person presented on Page One.

What exactly is this “misbelief?” It’s something the protagonist grew to believe in childhood that is, essentially, wrong—and something they will spend the rest of the novel fighting against until they finally see the inescapable truth.

But why should they have a misbelief to struggle with? Because the best characters are conflicted, continually struggling within themselves.

Think of Spock from STAR TREK. Half-human, half-Vulcan, his competing sides of emotion and logic continually battled within him. Perpetual internal conflict is something readers can identify with because we all are conflicted in some way.

Having your reader bond with your protagonist is vital. Protagonists vary as widely as our imaginations can take us, so it’s helpful to narrow them down to four different types.

First, there’s the everyman or everywoman. If they’re just like us readers, we bond with them immediately, right? No, not exactly. Do you bond with every regular Joe or Jenny you meet? No? But if there is something special about them, something admirable, you are attracted to that, aren’t you? James Scott Bell talks of protagonists having, “Grit, Wit, and It,” meaning perseverance, a sense of humor, or an alluring charm—all admirable qualities. Are you more drawn to the guy who pops the button on his pants and says, “I’ve got to go home and change,” or to the one who says, “I knew I shouldn’t have eaten that last donut!”? Show us the admirable quality in your everyman, give us something to look up to in your everywoman, something inviting, and your reader will bond with them.

The second kind of protagonist is the genuine hero, someone who has always done big things, carried high responsibilities or faced great danger. People like that are hard for an average guy like me
to connect with—unless there is something about him or her that makes him/her like everybody else. What’s ordinary about your hero? Does your Superman step in a wad of chewing gum every time he lands? I knew a guy that moonlighted as one of these “professional” wrestlers. He was a huge guy, about 6’3” by 285, big around the middle but not really fat. Funny as he could be, he was one of those “bad guys,” the kind that wears a mask that the wrestling fans hiss and boo. But he was terrified of spiders. He’d scream and run away like a little girl when he saw one. Your reader can connect with a hero that has fears, gripes, and problems like everybody else.

The third kind of protagonist is the dark, or damaged protagonist; somebody—or even some Thing—that is burdened, wounded, or suffering in some way. S/he may be human, semi-human, or non-human, but there is some burden they carry. The trick with the dark protagonist is that they yearn to be “normal.” Fighting to overcome that kind of burden will have readers pouring out their hearts to help.

Whether alcoholic or werewolf, readers will be side-by-side pulling for a dark protagonist that yearns to be better for themselves or for others, to overcome the burden, wound, or suffering that plagues them. If they have hope, so will your reader.

A fourth kind of protagonist is the shady protagonist, the person who pushes the edges, or even goes over the line, of what is legal or moral. How do you get an honest, law-abiding reader to empathize with someone who wrongs others? By making them aware what they do is wrong. A perfect example is Dexter, from the old TV series. He’s a serial killer, but he knows he’s a serial killer, and he knows it’s wrong. So he only kills other serial killers. (You would think the pool of victims would dry up—I mean, how many serial killers can there be in one place? But it is Florida, so . . .) By being self-aware, the Shady Protagonist becomes easier to sympathize with, especially if, like the Dark Protagonist, he yearns to change.

As people, we connect with others and with protagonists because we see something in them we see or want to see in ourselves, even if they’re not like us at all. What readers and protagonist share is Heart. Link them together, and readers will relish the experience.

Another thing to consider for your protagonist is “Layering.” That merely means layering one problem on top of another. A protagonist will have a Plot Problem, the problem that she has to solve to answer the story question. Add to that a secondary, Personal Problem for the protagonist, a problem any of us flawed human beings might have. Maybe he struggles with drug or alcohol addiction. Maybe she has physical limitations or liabilities. Maybe he can’t handle his money. Maybe she’s in the middle of a messy divorce, or has a gambling problem, or just can’t handle people. Finally, stick them with a Petty Prob- lem, like being inept with electronics, or collecting parking tickets, or clothes that just don’t fit right. If you can get other characters in the story to intensify these Plot, Personal, and/or Petty problems for your protagonist, it will add another layer of fascination and humanity to your protagonist.

It is vitally important to have a fully developed person as your protagonist. You should also flesh out your other major characters with a backstory and even your important minor ones. You don’t have to tell the reader what their backstories are, but you, the author, should know them to understand your characters.

Always bear in mind the more work you put in, the better your story will be.

The second most important character that drives your story is the person who stands in the
way of the protagonist—the antagonist! What is his motivation? What problems does she create for the protagonist? How is he better, smarter, more capable, or more dangerous than the protagonist? How is she compelling or likable? You can apply all the questions about the protagonist to the antagonist as well. And remember, antagonists are the heroes of their own story. Even if they’re villainous, by their own set of morals, they are doing the right thing. And some antagonists are not villains, merely people doing their job, even if that job is at cross-purposes with the protagonist.

Protagonist, antagonists, and all your characters are people. Each one has his/her own looks, attitudes, ideas, background, quirks, etc. They have ties to one another and should be your story’s first and most essential founding blocks.

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