One of the most central aspects of any story, no matter the genre or setting, is the protagonist. It is the protagonist’s journey that readers follow, wherever it may lead them. It is often the protagonist in whom the reader becomes invested and thus keeps reading… or not invested and thus puts the book down. Protagonists come in all shapes and sizes, not always heroes, not always villains, and not always so easily labeled. For every Jean Valjean of Les Misérables, there is a Lucifer of Paradise Lost. Considering the central importance of the protagonist to stories, Xlibris Publishing seeks to give authors advice in writing a good protagonist, though ‘good’ in the sense of being well-written and interesting.
Center of the World
Your protagonist should not be an observer. While it is possible for the narrator to be your protagonist too, there is a difference between having a narrator character and having a protagonist for the narrator to follow. While Ishmael was the narrator and point-of-view character of Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is the protagonist, the central character whose actions and choices shape the plot and the world around him. A protagonist needs to be able to make their own choices, and to at least try to change their situation or circumstances to suit those choices. This is the case, even if they fail in their goal as Ahab failed in slaying Moby Dick.
The conflict central to your story needs to somehow also be your protagonist’s conflict. Was your protagonist’s spouse kidnapped by evil raiders? Maybe your protagonist has a deeply personal and emotional vendetta against the main antagonist? Or perhaps your protagonist is simply someone trying to do the right thing. It can be hard for a reader to become invested in the conflict of your story if your protagonist is not. In the above case of Moby Dick, Ahab is obsessed with slaying the white whale, not just for taking his leg but for embodying (in his insane mind) all the evil and suffering of the world.
Following the above segment, a protagonist needs to have agency, the ability to make and act on decisions. As you write your story you will regularly need to ask yourself, “Is my protagonist doing this because it his choice or because someone told him to do it?” While it is one thing for other characters or outside factors to impose their will on your protagonist, it is another for your protagonist to simply accept and go along with their will. A character captured as a slave does not simply give up their free will, rather they plan and act to either better their situation or outright escape. As history and literature have often shown, people who just accept things and do nothing are not the ones who get stories told about them.
Xlibris Publishing will return with Part 2 of Writing Your Protagonist.
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