In one of my writing courses in undergrad, my professor defined “Protagonist” as “The character that changes (the most).” Although not dictionary definition, I think that thinking about protagonists in this way is useful.
That being said many protagonists fall flat. Some of them are just silly, cringe-worthy, or a lot less interesting than the side characters.
Protagonists are important so let’s break ’em down.
Flaws. Flaws. Flaws.
I’ve covered this before in depth, but here’s the spark notes version.
Flaws are the key to not making your protagonist insufferable. Real, actual flaws that cause real problems, that aren’t admirable, that is something internal. For example, having a peg-leg isn’t a flaw since the protagonist cannot grow a new leg (presumably). However, having a bad temper is a flaw because that’s internal, the character could take actions to control it, and it can cause them real problems with real consequences.
Don’t make a good trait a flaw. “Too selfless” only works if there are real consequences, otherwise it’s just a cute quirk. Your selfless character might give away all the group’s money to a cause and now the group is broke, causing everyone to be pissed off at them and now they’re stuck without money.
So your character’s good traits can be flaws but only if there are actual consequences as a result (people die, they get stranded, they lose their money, etc.)
Flaws make you character relatable, they make them interesting, they make them have to actually struggle. Don’t arbitrarily assign flaws if you’re not going to use them. Make them authentic and show them to the reader.
They don’t know they’re the protagonist.
Even if you feel like you’re the protagonist of your own life, you probably don’t think you’re the protagonist of the entire world and its story. Your character shouldn’t either, unless they’re the type of person to think it’s all about them.
The thing is, if your character is written as if they know they’re the main person in the story, they’re going to suck. It runs the risk of them running headlong into dangerous situations, putting others in a lot of danger, etc. because they know they’re going to come out on top and save the day. That gives away the story, limits conflict, and makes things way too convenient for the protagonist.
They need to know they’re mortal, in danger, that they have responsibility to those around them, and they can’t know how this is going to pan out.
Which brings me to my next point:
For every protagonist, there must be an antagonist. Whatever or whomever that is.
What the protagonist is working against needs to be an actual threat, whatever it is. Otherwise it’s too easy. Don’t make lame threats, villains, or situations that make your protagonist look awesome.
Whatever the threat is needs to be difficult for your character to beat, extremely difficult. They need to go through situations that make them change, that force them into situations and decisions, that push them to their limits, to their breaking points.
In short, go hard or go home. This isn’t a video game where your portag can just do some side quests and level up so they can defeat the big bad later. No convenient solutions, no magic power that shows up at the last possible moment, or anything. The portag needs to find their way through this no matter how bad or ugly it is.
Know their limits and force them over that line.
I learned through writing that I got to know my characters better by forcing them to make decisions they didn’t want to make and seeing what they did. If your portag is loyal and dutiful, push that limit. Force them to choose between something else and their loyalties. Either way, the reader will learn a lot about that person through their choice and what happens later on.
Back them into corners, push then over the line, force their hand. Show the reader what they’re willing to do, ignore, or how far they will go. This is probably one of my favorite parts of writing characters.
Why this person?
This comes up a lot when protagonists fall flat. If you have a great cast with tons of interesting side characters, but your main character is stale or even boring, the reader will wonder “Why am I following this boring person for the story?”
This is why you need to choose your protagonists wisely and don’t think that just because we are seeing this story told through them that they get a pass to not be as unique or developed as the side characters.
The reader needs to know why you chose this person. It could be really simple reasons like “This is the character who is going to defeat the big bad.”, “this is the one who is going to jump start the action and further the plot throughout the story.” and the like, but again, if those are your reasons, you need to follow through.
So before you choose a protagonist, ask yourself why this person.
Heroes vs. Main characters vs. Protagonists
These are not necessarily the same thing. I know, I’ve been using them a bit interchangeably because they can be the same person, but they don’t have to be. In an episode of the podcast Writing Excuses (link at the end), they’re defined in this way:
- Hero: The person whose action moves the story forward.
- Main Character: Person whose perspective the story is told from.
- Protagonist: Person who goes on a journey and has a character arc (i.e. the one that changes.)
Again, these three can be one in the same, but often not which is why we need to differentiate between them. Don’t think about this too deeply. If it’s not useful to you, then don’t use it.
Consider your main characters. What are they to your story. What role they play, what kind of tool are they for the story?
Don’t love them too much.
I’ve been there. We love our characters, especially the ones that are going on these journeys and having these struggles. We root for them.
But the writer is not the characters’ friend or parent. Characters are tools. Twisting the logical outcomes of your story so that the characters win or get other special treatment is cheap. It’s no good and readers will be able to tell.
As a personal example, in one of my current works in progress, my protagonist is a runaway noble person trying to pursue their own dreams. However, as a result of her actions things go bad and they have a choice: Keep running or face it.
At first I wanted her to keep running and find a way to escape, leaving the world to burn itself so to speak. I kept trying to think of ways that would work, how it could make narrative sense, and such. Every option I tried just made the story bad. I didn’t want her to face the music, so to speak, because I was on her side. I knew that ultimately she didn’t want that, but I had backed her in a corner and I was about to force her hand, and even though I felt for her, I knew what had to be done.
This can also include a myriad of things that authors do to reward or keep their characters happy and alive. Giving the protagonist a random undeveloped romance, narrowly avoiding certain death (though any other character would have died), saving everyone and everything ever so conveniently.
Don’t treat them too harshly if it doesn’t fit, but they don’t get free passes either.
They aren’t the only character.
Unless you’re writing a story where the main character is the only character, then your portag is probably going to interact with other characters.
The opposite of not developing your side characters is focusing all of your energy on them and then the side characters turn into nothing more than plot devices. Bad bad bad.
I’ll do a whole thing on side characters, but my point is that you need to strike a balance here. The main character can be the center piece of the story, but not of the world they live in.
A common thing is that the main character relates to everyone in reference to themselves. A side character describes how his/her parents died and they are grieving, and the main character goes “That happened to me too!” and this happens not just once, but all the time.
Common experiences are fine, but these people are not going to have the same experiences all the time. The main character can feel sympathy for other characters’ experiences without having experienced them. This makes your main character seem like a narcissist when they only can relate to others in reference to themselves and their experiences.
Differentiate your characters, keep them in balance with the other characters, and develop them all.
Showing vs. telling in characterization.
Telling is saying “Protagonist McGee loved animals.” Showing is writing a scene where Protagonist McGee is playing with dogs or feeding ducks or gushing over how cute a cat is.
As I said before, we learn about characters best through their actions and choices.
I could tell you “I love to read.”, but you could also pick up on this yourself if you knew me. You’d see me reading books, or talking about my favorite book that week or whatever.
Don’t give the reader a laundry list of the characters qualities. Show the reader.
This will help you avoid objective info-dumping (the author telling the reader directly about things, instead of letting it unfold through the characters) and unnecessary internal monologue. Introspection is fine, it’s useful, but too much is bad. It becomes angsty, halts the action, and makes the character look whiney.
Your character’s thoughts are important, but again choose them wisely and put them where they belong. A character who is constantly fearing being murdered and is on the run, isn’t gong to sit down by a tree and meditate on philosophy all the time. Where are they appropriate? Where do they make sense?
Don’t give the reader everything they need to know this way, and especially not all in one chunk at the beginning.
Beat them down.
This goes hand in hand with pushing their limits.
The protagonist should not be an unfaltering beacon of hope and determination. When bad things happen, they shouldn’t just go “No biggie, let’s keep going”. That tells me, as the reader, that they never really cared about what just happened any way. Hell, they might not even care about much at all if they can just brush the dust off and skip away to further the plot.
Your main character should experience things as a result of what goes on around them: Loss, self-doubt, grief, rage, frustration, anxiety/worry, hurt/betrayal, and so on.
These should be crippling, they should change the character’s outlook or wants. They shouldn’t just angst for a few pages and move on.
If a companion dies as a result of something in the story, the main character should actually grieve. If it was their idea, they should feel guilt. As a result, they shouldn’t just move on. It would make sense for the portag to be more protective of their remaining friends, tread more carefully, or even want to go alone so others don’t get hurt.
Bad things should make them feel things, but it should also influence them on a fundamental level. Change is the key.
With flaws come mistakes. With mistakes come the results or consequences of that mistake.
Mistakes are a great way to introduce action or to give a character more obstacles. Robb Stark in A Song of Ice and Fire broke a promise, married the wrong lady, and it was part of what led to his downfall.
Your character isn’t always right. Not every “gut feeling” they have is going to pan out well. They should try to do their best with what information they have, or maybe they even make a selfish choice without fully thinking of the consequences.
There can be things happening to the character that are beyond their control, yes. But (and this is personal opinion) I love fantasy where the characters’ choices have an impact on what happens to them later on.
So make your characters make mistakes and give them consequences.
More than the mission.
The plot is important, furthering the action is important and the characters should do their jobs in advancing the plot. But at the same time, don’t let the characters just be plot devices like this. The characters should be more than the mission to defeat the big bad. Otherwise they’re boring.
Harry Potter is a good example here. Throughout the books, Harry does more than just think about ways to defeat Voldemort. He goes to school, plays sports, makes friends, gets in trouble sometimes, dates, has fun, and so on.
If all 7 books (taking place over the course of 7) were always 100% about Harry vs. Voldemort, that would be way too much.
Your characters should have other wants, other goals. They should have other activities they enjoy or things or more minor struggles.
This is a great way to make more interesting characters. It’s a great way to introduce other qualities that even tie into the larger story. This is how they can make mistakes or even relax for a few minutes.
Make them more human than the mission at hand. They are more than their destiny. They aren’t the Terminator whose only mission is to kill Sarah Connor.
When I was a teenager, the brakes on my car (read: the car my parents let me use) started to go, but I didn’t want to go a day without having a car because I didn’t want to take the bus to school and I wanted to freedom of driving. My dad moved my car one day, came in and asked me about the brake problem. I told him it had been going on for days and lo and behold I got a long lecture about safety (myself and others) and didn’t get to use the car for a bit.
It was a selfish choice and there were consequences for it. Now obviously, your fantasy story is going to be a lot less mundane than that, but my point is this:
I’m not a “bad person”, but I am capable of making dumb, selfish choices. Choices that aren’t for the greater good, but are for my own personal gain or that make me feel good.
Your characters are too. Don’t make them 100% noble, 100% of the time. Don’t make them everything that is good in the world. No one likes that. Let them be flawed in this way, let them be selfish.
“Protagonist McGee always does the right thing.”
Then you better prove it.
Here’s the problem with absolutes, they aren’t useful in defining characters because they can give away crucial parts of the story. If your portag will always do the right thing, then I know they’re never going to do anything wrong, especially when it matters.
Now, your character can think these things about themselves, but it shouldn’t be objectively true. I’m sure a lot of us like to think of ourselves as people who do the right thing, and it’s easy to do the right thing when nothing is at stake for us. Being polite in public to retail workers, bus drivers, and people who hold the door for you is the right thing to do and it’s easy.
If the right thing to do means swallowing your pride, confessing crimes and going to jail, or apologizing to someone you don’t like is a lot harder to do. In fact, we might even justify it: “I won’t apologize to Sally even though I broke her nose because Sally has always been a rude jerk and had it coming.”
So tread carefully. If you define your character in absolutes, prove it. “Protagonist McGee would do anything for his/her friends.” Really? How far are the actually going to go? Would they endure torture? Go to prison to protect them? Murder an otherwise innocent person?
In A Song of Ice and Fire, Cersei Lannister is described as “she would do anything for children” (that’s paraphrasing). But George R.R. Martin proves it. She does horrible things to keep and protect her secrets for her children. She excuses the things her children do. She goes to great lengths that are not good.
If you’re going to do absolutes, you have to prove it.
Good fantasy protagonists are important. Develop them, make them more than their destiny. Let them be flawed and screw up. Let them play their part, but make them dynamic.
Here’s some links: