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 Clubor 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.
*By purchasing from these affiliate links, you do a little bit to support The Write Practice. Thank you!
Every writer knows they need them. Successful stories always seem to feature heroic good guys locked in glorious dramatic battle with villainous bad guys. Leave these key characters out and a writer rightfully risks losing his or her audience. Why they need them, however, has always been a foregone conclusion.
For too long the concepts of Protagonist and Antagonist have lingered within a soup of mutually agreed upon lies. Lies that lead to worthless advice such as The audience must feel for the Protagonist or The Villain shall be so powerful that he takes the Protagonist to the end of their very end. Romantic advice, to be sure, but advice that ultimately doesn’t say anything useful or worse, universal.
Instead, writers should think of these two characters from an objective perspective. Consider their functional purpose within a story rather than their emotional status within the hearts of the Audience. Only by removing oneself from a subjective appreciation of these characters can an Author ensure that their story operates both soundly and effectively.
Further exploration into the objective functions of Protagonist and Antagonist begins with the single story point they both revolve around: the Story Goal.
Defining the Goal of a story
When thinking objectively, the Story Goal is not what the Protagonist wants or needs. Characters do not maintain separate Story Goals based on their personal motivations. The correct way to think of a Story Goal is to envision it as the central focal point by which all the characters in a story orbit around and provide perspective on.
It all begins with the initial event or decision that creates the story’s problem. A chasm opens up and an effort begins to take shape—one with the sole purpose of resolving that inequity. The Story Goal represents that final step in the resolution process. Complete it and the characters have resolution. Leave it open and the problem persists far beyond the walls of the story.
This Goal then becomes a concern to everyone in the story. It is not simply the Protagonist’s Goal or an individual Goal of another character, but rather the Goal of focus for the entire cast. It is an objective goal.
Development of a story point
There are some who will be for this resolution and some who will not. Those who are for the successful completion of these efforts are Pro- goal (as in Protagonist). They are for the resolution of the inequity. Those who are against resolution should be Con goal, but unfortunately the suffix Ant (as in Antagonist) has been used so often and absorbed so strongly into the communal bloodstream of working writers that a much needed correction at this date seems beyond hope. Thus, Antagonist it is for those opposed to resolution.
One for, one against.
Over time these archetypes have become less and less an identifier of purpose and more of a fancy-pants label for who the story is about or who the audience should care about.
Mean good guys, nice bad guys
Determining which character is for and which one is against proves to be an infinitely better approach than simply looking at who is a hero and who is a villain. Why?
Because sometimes the Protagonist isn’t a nice person.
Tony Gilroy’s thriller Michael Clayton provides a masterful example of shifting sympathies and weighing audience expectations. As covered in the article The True Definition of a Protagonist, Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is not the Protagonist. He certainly is the good guy, but he is neither for nor against the efforts to resolve uNorth’s legal troubles—the true objective problem in the story.
Problems begin with Arthur’s breakdown and end with Karen’s (Tilda Swinton’s) confession. Michael has his own take on the matter (a point-of-view essential to a Main Character), but he doesn’t function in the way a Protagonist should.
Standing against her in the role of Antagonist? Why, that’s Arthur (Tom Wilkinson). He stands in the way of Karen’s success and works diligently to unravel any resolution she may find. He functions as an Antagonist, but he is portrayed sympathetically. He’s one of the good guys. When it comes to looking at these character objectively—the way one should when taking in the larger context of a story—audience affiliation holds no higher ground.
Sometimes the good guy is for resolution, other times the good guy is not. Sometimes both Protagonist and Antagonist are good guys.
Take How to Train Your Dragon. Inequity strikes with the destruction of the village, creating with it the Story Goal of Training the Next Generation of Dragon Killers. One person works for this Goal, the other against it. Stoick, Hiccup’s father, wants the young ones to learn how to take down the giant lizards. Hiccup works against that.
The one character everyone naturally assumes is the Protagonist—Hiccup—actually works as the Antagonist of the main story when seen objectively.
Protagonist and Antagonist mean so much more than simply who the good guy is and who the bad guy is. They have an important function to perform in regards to the unfolding process of problem-solving within a story. The Protagonist represents the side of the argument that is for the successful resolution. The Antagonist shows the side dead set against it.
A reason for conflict
This is why they clash. Not because one guy has God on his side or has a heart of gold or because the other guy embraces dark forces and hates kittens. They clash because of their individual motivations in regards to the Story Goal:
- The Protagonist pursues the Story Goal and considers the value of doing so.
- The Antagonist prevents the Story Goal and forces others to reconsider what it is they are doing.
These motivations stay rock solid throughout the entire story. They must because again, we are looking at them in terms of their objective function. Objectivity does not include the subjective notions of change and emotional catharsis. Stories need both objective and subjective less you risk Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
A purpose behind the labels
Writers need Protagonist and an Antagonist in order to successfully prove that what they’re saying is true. Arguments only succeed when all points counter have been accounted for. If a writer illustrates the efforts to solve a problem, they need to equally illustrate the efforts to prevent it.
Only then will the Audience buy in to what the writer is saying.
Protagonist and Antagonist did not come into existence in order to establish who an Audience should root for or who should be rallied against. Rather, they developed naturally as two opposing forces arguing the logical half of a story’s argument. Seeing them in this light solidifies their purpose within a work and allows a writer to confidently and consistently craft meaningful stories.
You're in! Check your email to confirm your subscription.