Develop Your Protagonist

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

“A human being is a deciding being,” said Victor Frankl.

In the spring of 2012, my dad and I took a week long road trip from California to Georgia. Along the way, we talked about life, work, family, and, of course, stories.

A few years ago my dad wrote a fantasy novel. The story involved love, intrigue, and war, and it actually has a lot of potential.

But it had a major flaw. From San Antonio to Houston we talked through the plot, and it wasn’t until we were almost there that I realized the problem.

His hero didn’t make any decisions.

His protagonist never took up the quest. Time after time different characters offered a greater purpose, a mission, a project bigger than himself, but he rejected them all. He was content to stay there, accepting the status quo. He was unwilling to make decision.So instead we wait for hundreds of pages while the hero rejects one meaningful story after another.

At the end of the day, a protagonist, like a person, doesn’t have to be perfect. But they do have to choose.

The Need for Something Bigger

A story where the character isn’t sucked up into some greater purpose, a quest, a mission, a love affair, is a boring story. Their story must be bigger than them, bigger than their own personal survival, bigger than making their own name, career, or fortune. Otherwise, we the audience won’t be interested.

Humanity is hardwired for quests, for projects bigger than ourselves, and as writers we have to tap into that need, shoving our characters into quests, missions, projects whether our characters want it or not.

Your hero must decide to sacrifice his or her comfort, safety, stability, and peace to go on one of these missions or else her or she isn’t a real protagonist. Her or she is just a dreamer with a disappointing, narcissistic life.

Your characters must decide.

If they are invited to a quest or mission by another character, they must say yes. Or if they say no, it has to be because they have a different plan and want to do things on their own terms.

If they have a passion, they must follow through and give it all they have, even through the disappointments and pain. Otherwise they are not truly passionate.

If they say no, do not decide, they are not heroes. They are a side character only tangentially important to the plot. Ignore them until you find a character interested in making a decision.

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.

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.

Three Choices Every Protagonist Must Make

In a three act story (by the way, not all stories have three acts), your protagonist must make three decisions.

1. Pursue a Goal

Your protagonist must choose to pursue a goal, a mission, or a quest. This usually happens sometime in the first third of your story. Here are a few examples:

  • In The Hobbit, Bilbo chooses to go the Lonely Mountain and fight a dragon with a group of thirteen dwarves.
  • In The Sun Also Rises, Jake chooses to meet Lady Bret and her party in Pamplona for the festival of San Fermin.
  • In Romeo and Juliet, the star crossed lovers choose to get married (love at first sight doesn’t count as a choice).

Your protagonist’s choice develops the action and sets the course of the entire story. This is the most important choice your protagonist makes. The next two choices are more just continuations of this first choice.

Ask yourself, does your protagonist choose to pursue his goal? Or is he swept along by events outside of his control?

If your protagonist does not choose, your story will fail to really begin. Readers will think your story is boring and pointless without really knowing why. Whether you’re writing memoir or fiction, your protagonist must choose.

2. Persevere in Defeat

After your protagonist chooses to pursue his goal, she will face obstacles. These obstacles will increase in difficulty until they finally become so great that it will seem “all is lost.”

In the midst of this, your protagonist will likely face internal conflict about whether she did the right thing in pursuing his goal. This self-doubt is normal and healthy for your story.

Ask yourself, does your protagonist experience this self-doubt and choose to keep going?

Throughout the second act, your protagonist must continuously choose to continue on her quest. As she pursues her goal, your protagonist will make some mistakes and even fail. It’s important she get back up and keep going.

3. Resolve the Conflict

One of the pitfalls writers face as they resolve their stories is deus ex machina.

When a conflict is suddenly resolved by the intervention of a completely new character or event, it’s considered deus ex machina, a literary term that means “god in the machine.” 

The term has its roots in Greek drama, where a crane would physically lower actors playing the gods onto the stage. When Greek playwrights were too lazy or untalented to think of a solution to their protagonists problem, they would drop a god out of the sky to fix everything. 

Ask yourself, does your protagonist resolve his own conflict? Or did you engineer a solution for him?

Your protagonist needs to create his own destiny. He needs to choose the solution that will finally resolve the conflict in the story. If you engineer some other solution for him, your readers will feel let down, like the story wasn’t really resolved at all.

Don’t be an overactive parent. You can’t solve all his problems for your protagonist. He needs to do it on his own.

With all of these, your reader will likely not notice if any of these choices are absent. They will know something is missing though, and they will conclude your story is just a bad story.

Story Audit

Audit the story you chose in the first lesson with the following questions:

  • Do you have a protagonist?
  • Does your protagonist control his own destiny?
  • Does your protagonist choose to pursue his goal? Or is he swept along by events outside of his control?
  • Does your protagonist experience self-doubt but choose to keep going?
  • Does your protagonist resolve his own conflict? Or did you engineer a solution for him?

Let us know how your audit went in the comments section below.

All set to continue on to the next lesson? Click here.

  • BernardT

    In the tight confines of a 1000 word story there may not always be room to fit in all of these elements, I think… however, in editing my sample 1000 (actually 1250 at the end of first draft) words I did find an opportunity to add a decision point for the protagonist to beef the whole thing up a bit…

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      That’s great, Bernard. Glad this helped.

  • http://www.ipaintiwrite.com/ Pamela Hodges

    Mr. Bunting. This is the most clearly written advice about story I have read in years. And I am old enough to have purchased a lot of books on writing. I will think differently about my non-fiction writing and about the characters in the story I wrote this morning when I re-write my first draft.
    P.S. I was not trying to just be nice on your birthday.

    • Ann Stanley

      I agree, completely. Very clear and very interesting advice.

  • Audrey Chin

    Well. I think I’m getting that hang of that finally. It’s so hard, coming from a culture where its a “ren” or endurance is a virtue we hang up in calligraphic strips near our front doors. “Ren” is an ideogram combining the picture “knife” over the picture “heart”. How’s that for constraints?

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      I hear you Audrey. Eastern stories are always a bit different in that respect. I wonder if they need a little more pushing along. Also is there choice within the endurance? For example your protagonist could choose to endure honorably, pridefully, patiently, or wimpily couldn’t he?

    • Ann Stanley

      I really see that in Learning to Fly. Lots of enduring and patience. Perhaps I didn’t really understand this cultural aspect of your novel.

  • Mirelba

    I agree with Bernard, lots of demands for a 1000 word story. I do have a certain problem with this. I’m not sure that anyone is really in control of his destiny. We have no choice in what gets thrown our way, only in how we react to it. My protagonist reacts to what gets thrown his way as best he can…

    • BernardT

      Well … it may be the case that we are not completely in control of our destinies, but if the protagonist is simply pushed around by circumstances then s/he won’t be a very interesting character. But you use the word “react” – just make that a conscious reaction rather than an instinctive one and, hey presto, your protagonist has just made a decision!

      • Mirelba

        Hundred percent. That’s what I meant, we are not in control of what get’s thrown our way, only in how we choose to react to it. That is not, of course, to rule out pursuing goals or whatever. Perhaps that is my problem: the use of the word destiny. Destiny seems to imply other things to me. Perhaps a protagonist should pursue his goals and objectives, while destiny will throw at him what it will along the way. And then we see the protagonist’s character according to how he deals or reacts to it…

      • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

        Another way I’ve heard this described: It’s okay if your protagonist gets into trouble through coincidence (i.e. “what gets thrown their way”), but it’s NOT okay if they get OUT of trouble through coincidence. That’s deus ex machina. While protagonists don’t have control over coincidence, they need to have control over how they respond to coincidence.

  • http://www.thedailywriter.net/ Vito M

    I agree with Pamela on this one – great advice written here.

    While it may seem overkill on our short stories, it’s really helping me in the bigger picture for all my storytelling. For this unit, I decided to write a short story based off the events in my novel. I figure, if I can do this on the micro-level with the short story, it’ll eventually translate to the macro world of the novel.

    • Ann Stanley

      Neat idea. I’ve heard this suggestion before as a way to learn how to improve a novel. I tried it and failed with my WIP. How did it go for you?

  • Ann Stanley

    I read this before I wrote my draft and tried to use all of the ideas, which is why I gave up on the first story I wrote and came up with a different one.

  • Sunny Henderson

    Yesssssss! I’ve been working on a third installment to a young adult fiction series and wondering why I’m feeling so “meh” about it. My female protagonist hasn’t taken up her quest and has become kind of a drag. Time for her to choose.

  • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

    her or she isn’t a real protagonist. Her or she is just a dreamer with a disappointing, narcissistic life.

    her-or-she syrup anyone? I love choke-a-lot. :P

    she did the right thing in pursuing his goal.

    Reasons people shouldn’t have sex changes, it confuses writers.

    Waging war against the middle tides of my book. I can see the shore! Run for it dammit! RUN FOR IT!

  • http://ya-asylum.com/ Kim

    I never realized how important this concept was until I started to research how to write a query letter. A good query letter comes down to building tension off the choices your characters face. Without that, you don’t have a compelling query letter. Sadly, for the first story I wanted to query, my protagonist made no choices. Now I know better :)

    This checklist is really helpful too.

  • Andy Walker

    I’ve got the same problem – my protagonist is being far out-shadowed by his sidekick, and is getting to be dull. I need a rewrite to give him some uumphh!