It’s an age-old question. What came first: the chicken or the egg? The plot or the protagonist?
What if the shaping of the story and your main character happens at the same time?
Often readers crack open a novel based upon the summarized main action printed on the book jacket. But they stay because of how strong a protagonist is written into the chaos.
Even the most action-driven tales follow the lead of a structured, appealing protagonist. But what makes a strong protagonist? And how can you create one in your current story?
What Motivates Your Protagonist?
Before anything else, decide what motivates the actions of everything that your protagonist does. Knowing what drives your character to make key decisions in your story will help you shape your plot and the rest of your story.
Is your character driven by internal or external desires? Does your character run towards something or away from something else? Does your character makes choices based on positive or negative thoughts?
Does your protagonist:
- hold a certain fear that motivates his/her actions?
- work hard towards a goal to win a reward?
- want to achieve a specific career or community position, title or role?
- desire to have more power or control?
- need to be liked and/or accepted?
- crave to be more independent?
- practice, practice, practice to reach perfection or an idealized outcome?
- let curiosity and the need to know drive his/her actions?
While your character can have several motivations, try to focus on one motivation that tends to dominate every action s/he takes. Once you determine what makes your protagonist move, you can create adversaries and foils that can bring more tension to the story.
What External Problem Must Your Protagonist Face?
In every great story, the protagonist is challenged with two kinds of conflict: One that is external and one that’s found within.
Let’s first focus on the external struggle. While storytelling has varied across the centuries and across tales, the external conflict can be broken down into four main types:
- Character vs Character
- Does your protagonist and another character want the same goal?
- Does another character and your protagonist stand in each other’s way of achieving contradicting goals?
- Does your protagonist want to prevent another character’s destructive ways?
- Does your protagonist or another character want what the other has?
- Character vs Society (government, religious group, social circle, etc.)
- Does your protagonist struggle to survive?
- Does your protagonist wish to change an aspect (or all) of this society?
- Does your protagonist seek justice and morality within this society?
- Character vs Nature
- Does your protagonist struggle to survive?
- Must your protagonist combat an animal or monster?
- Does your protagonist face a storm, weather anomaly or unsettling terrain?
- Character vs Technology
- Does technology threaten the survival of your protagonist and/or other characters?
- Does technology threaten the protagonist’s way of life?
- Does technology create an environmental or societal problem the protagonist must tackle?
What Internal Obstacle Holds Your Protagonist Back?
It’s easy to portray your protagonist on a pedestal and beyond reproach. But we all know that the best protagonists are human and relatable, so shape your protagonist so that s/he struggles with an internal flaw that impacts his/her success along the way.
Your protagonist’s internal struggle should parallel the external struggle that must be faced. That way, your protagonist often acts and his/her own enemy at times during the journey.
What is At Stake For Your Protagonist?
You now know what motivates your character to act, but what can your protagonist lose by not succeeding? A friend or loved one? Respect? A job? A house? Money? Their own life? Or all the above?
Readers are more drawn to a story where there are consequences from not overcoming both internal and external obstacles. And you’ll find that your protagonist is more willing to take risks in order to keep whatever’s at stake.
What Happened in Your Protagonist’s Past?
Most authors don’t start their stories with the birth of the protagonist and end with the character’s death. Unless, of course, you’re Charles Dickens.
The purpose of your story isn’t to tell their whole life story but to highlight a life-changing instance within their life story. In order to do this, you first have to know where they’ve been.
A lot of your protagonist’s history won’t make it into your story. And you don’t even need to write it all down. But you do need to shape his/her life’s journey from birth to the first word of your story.
Why? You may find something that happened in their past impacts their actions today. You’ll know why they are skilled at juggling or why they run five days a week. You’ll know why they are stubborn or why they prefer the color yellow.
The most interesting of protagonists have dozens of fascinating stories that are never told. So make sure to explore your character’s life, be it in notes or in your head, to emphasize why their story today matters.
What Secret Is Your Protagonist Hiding?
It’s rare for a compelling protagonist to have everything out on the table. Even the best of us, whether in stories or real life, choose to hold back a fact or two.
What does your protagonist not want anyone (or a specific someone) to know? Is it an instance? A specific trait or quality? A skill or talent? A bad decision? A crucial fact?
Most importantly, why does your protagonist want to keep this secret hidden?
Don’t make your protagonist predictable. Your audience will keep reading to discover what it is that your protagonist is hiding in anticipation for the big reveal.
Why Should We Root For Your Protagonist?
Your characters won’t care about the scary monster storming the streets or your protagonist’s self-destructive ways if your character isn’t interesting.
In short, your protagonist’s personality can make or break your story.
What unique traits can you weave into the development of your protagonist to capture the attention of your readers? Is it that s/he tells corny jokes at inopportune times? Is it how s/he conducts him/herself? Does s/he have a unique past or unusual talent? Is it that readers can empathize with his/her views on a situation?
This is for you decide and for your readers to judge.
Am I missing anything? What step do you take to shape a strong protagonist within your story? Share your ideas in the comments section below.