Wandering down the by-lanes of your plot, you are content. It is structured neatly, you know exactly what you want out of the book, you know the end and the beginning. But the characters still loom over your head, threatening to knock the wind out of your literary lungs. The character that you’re going to make everyone return to the book again and again for has to be fabulous. A great story is remembered by readers but what makes them go back to the book again is the protagonist.
Put your mind at rest. Quit the nail-biting and incessant leg moving. Your search for how to write a protagonist ends here.
Who is the protagonist?
A protagonist is the main character of a book, someone on whom the entire plot is centred on. A protagonist determines the movement of the plot and its pace: how fast, how slow, linear or not, etc etc. Now we know that a protagonist is very often mistaken to be a positive character. This might not be necessarily true all the time. Sometimes the protagonist cannot always be the hero you need, like Hamlet, who is a tortured mess, indecisive and unable to think clearly.
The necessity to differentiate between a protagonist and the main character is crucial to any story. A protagonist is the central driving force of the plot. The main character cannot be confined to just one person, there can be more than one, depending on their significance in the story. A protagonist’s fears, goals, and dreams drive the plot whereas the main characters lend them support. Though the protagonist can be confused with the main character often because of the closeness in their importance in the story, it would be more appropriate to call them the lead character.
Let us see in what different ways can you structure the perfect protagonist according to your story.
Know the desires and goals of your protagonist
When you create your characters, dive into the deeper, more finer details of the character of your protagonist. Since it is their desires and fears that are going to be driving the plot, you need to have them stamped on your brain to avoid further confusion in the story. You could brainstorm the deeper thinking processes that you think your lead character might have with a friend, maybe a psychology major. For example:
- In “Lolita”, Humbert Humbert is driven by only one thing: his desire for his landlady’s 12-year old daughter, Lolita. For her, he runs his landlady over, drives town to town in order to keep his affections secret and also so he could profess his affections more freely.
Use other characters to add a sense of urgency and purpose
Use your secondary characters to full advantage for mining the potential emotions of your protagonist. Secondary characters might be in the position of a lover that the lead lost in an accident which has maybe made them so distant and aloof in the present time. For example:
- Miss Havisham’s interference with the love between the main characters is a result of her being jilted and left at the altar once. This makes things even more complicated for Pip to win Estella, Miss Havisham’s niece over in Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations”.
You could also use the secondary character as a weak point to exploit the protagonist’s flaws. For example, if the sister of the protagonist goes missing, they will do anything, even if it is risking their reputation for her sake. This may damage the near-perfect image of the protagonist and they have to tussle with these two feelings.
Give your protagonist a challenge
A protagonist with a challenge will be as exciting to write and even more exciting for the audience to read. Challenges create an exciting rising and falling action. Interestingly, they help to cement the character of your protagonist. For example, in a financial crisis, if offered a lot of money for a highly illegal job, the protagonist’s decision cements their ethics and if needed re-establishes their character. An example of rising and falling action here might be:
- In “The Fault in Our Stars”, Hazel Grace and Augustus are forever kept together and apart, almost constantly in a tussle over being together because of their life-threatening illnesses.
What do they have to lose?
Write down your protagonist’s stakes. What do they have to lose? Why are they pursuing what they are pursuing? The higher the stakes, the greater the conflict. The more complicated the stakes, the more you get to explore your character’s personality and their motivations on their journey. One tip from us is that you write down the absolute worst thing that could ever happen to your protagonist so that it looms like a black cloud over their head, always present and threatening. For example:
- In Cormac McCarthy’s novel, “The Road”, a father-son duo have to survive while escaping cannibals in a post-apocalyptic world. Here, the protagonist is the father, who must survive to protect his vulnerable son. Here, his son’s survival is the highest stake for him, which makes the risk higher.
Accentuate your protagonist’s flaws and quirks through small things. These physical characteristics might sound irrelevant right now, but descriptions make the character stand out. For example, if your character is always anxious, you might give them a small detail of tapping their foot rhythmically every time there is a conflict in the room. This technique of show-not-tell tells more about your character than plainly stating facts about them, and that is the tea.
These tips should get you started on your protagonist and hopefully by extension on your main characters too. You can check out the article on how to write a plot on the PaperTrue blog. You don’t have to build a protagonist according to the whims and fancies of others always, but it is important that they remain true to their role in the plot and remain authentic. Take a deep breath and start writing now, you’ve got a fantastic idea forming in your mind as you come to the end of this article.