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Documenting my odyssey into the wonderful world of fantasy writing and beyond. Can't promise I will always be on topic as the world is vast and full of such wonderous, and sometimes terrible, distractions. Email me: cassandra.jade.author@gmail.com

09 July, 2009

Character - The Protagonist

When we are young and are first encountering the idea of a protagonist we are frequently told that the protagonist is the 'hero' of the story. Fair enough as usually they are, but this is not always the case and can lead to a little confusion about what role the protagonist actually plays. Essentially the protagonist is any leading character - though traditionally there should only be one.

This leaves us with a few questions. What makes one character a leading character? How do you make your protagonist interesting? And, how important is a well developed protagonist to the story?

1. What makes one character a leading character?

Before I say anything on this, I would like to point out that every book is different and every story is different. There are always exceptions. That said, something I read when looking at how to write query letters stuck with me. I was told that if I couldn't explain what my book was about in 100 words, then I probably didn't know what the point of the story was. And they were right. Boil an entire novel down to 100 words and you get to what is actually important, what you want the reader to get out of the story.

We can transfer this same idea to characters. Yes, you have a wonderfully diverse cast of interesting characters, all do amazing and inventive things to keep your plot rolling along. Someone asks you who your main character is and you say... Um...

I may start to infringe on the answer to question three but most readers like to know who they are reading about. They like a single character to stand out that they can follow, or relate to, or get inside the head of, or experience things with, or whatever.

So, what makes one character a leading character? Some simple questions to help you narrow it down.

  • Which character do your readers learn the most about? (Incidentally, if you are giving them the entire background of every character, you may want to rethink.)
  • Which character could you absolutely not eliminate and still have a plot?
  • Which character is most central to your climax?
You could also ask which character undergoes some sort of change or revelation (though that works mostly in coming of age stories).

A few more points. The protagonist does not need to be the first character the reader encounters. They may not appear until midway through the story, though you are going to have some work getting the reader to care about them if you leave it that late to introduce them. The protagonist is not the narrator, though they can be. The protagonist does not have to solve the problem or overcome anything in order to be a protagonist, though, again, you risk annoying your reader. The protagonist can be the villain of the piece.

2. How do you make your protagonist interesting?

Again, this is going to vary wildly depending on who you want to read your story. The best advice I ever received about making my characters interesting was to ensure I knew who they were and what I wanted the reader to know about them. And while you might get away with sketchy outlines for some of your other characters, and be able to use standards and archetypes with minor variations, you can't do that for your protagonist.

As the writer, you need to know everything about them. Everything. As the reader, you only need to know the relevant and interesting information. As a writer, I may decide my character finished university and has a business degree. If they are currently involved in fighting off an alien invasion, that probably isn't relevant for my reader to know. Why do I need to know it? Because my character is going to talk very different, reference different material, react to situations differently and have a different set knowledge set to someone who left school and became a brick layer.

Knowing everything about your character helps you to create an individualised character that feels fresh and new, even if they are similar to existing protagonists.

3. How important is it to have a well developed protagonist?

There are a few people that would say a well developed protagonist is not that important. There are a few books where it actually isn't. It is the plot that drives it and the characters are simply there to add to the drama of the situation, but any character would do.

I don't write those kinds of books, and I don't read them very often. For me, stories are all about character. It is what makes one fantasy tale about a quest up the mountain interesting and engrossing, a story I will read and reread (Rowen of Rin), and can make another story, with the same essential plot tedious and dull (and I cannot recall the names of any o f these, though I have read many).

Readers will forgive a lot if the characters are interesting enough and if they have invested enough emotion in the characters to care whether or not they succeed, survive, change, resolve whatever.

The protagonist, being the leading character, has to work. It doesn't mater how amazing the support cast is if everytime you lead character shows up the reader rolls their eyes. They are going to finish the story, put it down, and never return to it.

Final Thoughts

I would love to hear your views on the protagonist and how you develop yours, or even who your favourite protagonist is. Please comment or email.

Below are a few links to some posts on characters that are relevant. If you have a blog post on protagonists and you would like it added to the list, please email me.

When characters behave out of character - Elizabeth Spann Craig
Crafting a good protagonist - Elizabeth Spann Craig
Sympathetic Vs Unsympathetic characters - Nathan Bradsford

2 comments:

  1. Great post.

    Coming up with an interesting protagonist is the first step. He or she (or it in some cases) is the focus of the story, it's who the story is all about. A boring protaganist usually ends up being a boring story. A shallow protagonist usually means a shallow story.

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  2. I like what you have to say about this as far as a linear plot with only on protagonist goes. However, there are some stories that can have multiple complex, well developed characters or protagonists, and these are really good stories.

    I think that your definition for a protagonist usually applies, but there are exceptions. I can think of two stories off the top of my head: A Thousand Splendid Suns and A Song of Ice and Fire series. Both are really great books, and have plenty of critical acclaim. However, even though there isn't a central character, and instead are multiple characters that get followed in either novel (especially the latter), I think that your thoughts of getting intimate with your protagonist still apply to those stories. Good work.

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