The Key to a Great Story – Protagonists

Two brilliant protagonists...

Two brilliant protagonists.

A protagonist is your main character, the person who the reader is supposed to root for as they read your writing. You always need at least one protagonist, but there is nothing to stop you from having more than one. When it comes to starting out writing having one or two protagonists makes it quite easy to manage. I’ve been writing stories for over a decade, and I still only stick with having two protagonists. All of my other ‘main’ characters are what I describe as minor characters, a category of people in themselves who will have posts of their own dedicated to them. Having more than one protagonist is easy to manage, but the key to managing them properly is to know what their relationship to each other is as well as their relationship to other characters, and how their stories interweave and cooperate with each other.

It is quite possible to have a story where actually the two main characters are each other’s antagonists: Ron Howard’s recent endeavour ‘Rush is a fantastic example. His film is about two men, who basically butt heads with each other as they drive in F1. From audience’s perspective both are the protagonists, with the audience rooting for both characters for entirely different reasons. Pulling it off might not be easy, but Rush proves that it is possible.

However, when I write protagonists, I always write them where eventually they have the same goal in mind. They might never meet until near the end, or they might have vastly different ideas about how to go about doing something, but like with all characters, as I have posted about before, knowing how they react is absolutely fundamentally important. This is true for any and all characters that you create, but it is more true with your protagonist than it is with any other character, because your protagonist is the one you and your audience is going to be spending the most time with; they are crucial to your story and you have to know them as well as you know yourself.

In my mind character development for protagonists is also linked to world development and also to the plot that you have in mind for your story. In my previous post on character creation, I talked a lot about understanding how the world you create has an effect on character creation. All of this applies to creating protagonists, but the plot has a very strong influence over your main character as well. With practice developing characters, plots and new worlds becomes more naturally (I won’t say easier because a decade into writing fantasy, it still ain’t easy for me): it becomes a skill to develop.

One way to start out though is to understand what sort of protagonist you want to start out with and how you want to develop that character as the story progresses. I may add to this in the future, but for now my recent thinking about this has lead me to think that there are four different sorts of protagonists that are good place for absolute novices to writing to begin thinking about.

The Naïve Protagonist

He has no idea...

He has no idea…

In my mind one of the most common types of protagonists. A character who is really genuinely naïve of the world and the events that are happening to them, because nothing in their life has ever prepared them for it. This is a quality that generally doesn’t last for very long as a character develops; in my mind only child characters who still have never-ending childish optimism can remain naïve. Generally speaking a naïve protagonist is in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up caught up in the plot. They have no idea what’s really going on or why. They have to learn as the story develops and changes them. A couple of good examples include Anakin Skywalker in ‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’, and both Pippin and Merry in ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

The Damaged Protagonist

Another common main character; someone who has been so damaged by their world and their life their storyline generally is about them having to overcome their feelings to be able to progress and cope with the events taking place. How they are damaged though is very much up to you. In Jeffery Deaver’s ‘Lincoln Rhyme’ novels, the main character has to deal with being paralysed. In a series of books called ‘Jedi Apprentice’, which is about Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi both are damaged and hindered by emotion, especially anger, frustration and fear. It very much depends on what your plot is going to be about in how you go about developing your characters, but generally the story arc is about them overcoming these problems, either through outside help, determination and just sheer basic need to get on with life and get through their problems.

The Reluctant Protagonist

This that the sound of adventure on the other side of his front door?

This that the sound of adventure on the other side of his front door?

There is no greater Reluctant protagonist than Bilbo Baggins in ‘The Hobbit’. He doesn’t really want to go on an adventure, but Gandalf nudges him out the door. Or in the film, he shakes himself down and runs out the door on his own. Reluctant Protagonists are usually swept into the story by accident. You do have to be careful to not make reluctant Protagonists annoying. Fine, yes they might not want to be where they are, and they might find a lot of the things that are happening in the plot distasteful, but want they need to find is their purpose.

Eustace Scrubb in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader’, is another classic example of a reluctant character. He does eventually find his place, and then he finds himself as a main character in the next book. All that has to happen is that his greed turns him into a dragon. Han Solo is more lucky, he gets his reward, gets to help blow up the Death Star, finds a better place in the universe and wins the heart of a beautiful Princess. He pays for his past mistakes, which is part of what made him a reluctant character in the first place, but he gets over that because he’s honourable and it is that honour that condemns him to be hunted by Boba Fett.

The Hopeful/Determined Protagonist

Never ending optimism that your character thinks they can make the world a better place. These are usually the characters can see glasses that are half full and light at the end of the tunnel. In a way they are similar to naïve protagonists, but in reality, Hopeful and Determined Protagonists have a great deal more to lose. They think they know what they are doing and when they are proved wrong, or encounter set backs, their emotional journeys and character developments become some of the best stories to want to both read and write. One of my main characters  is a combination of Hopeful/Determined but also Damaged. They are in no way naïve that the world I’ve created for them can be dark and dangerous, and they have inner demons which make them hesitate when it comes to finding happiness, but they are still full of hope that their life and their world can be better, if not for them then at least for others.

Hope and determination can be costly for your characters.

Hope and determination can be costly for your characters.

Because these types of protagonists can be more complex, pin pointing examples is not easy. Eddard Stark in ‘Game of Thrones’ is one. He’s a little naïve, at least about politics, but he has hope and determination to find justice and answers. It ends up costing him and his family a lot. We’re still waiting to hear the result of that man’s actions. Gandalf in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, is another contender. He’s isn’t naïve about the dangers of Middle Earth, but it doesn’t make him any less determined to help destroy the One Ring. His determination inspires Frodo and his journey becomes a tortured one because of it.

So there you go, a few examples of protagonist types for you to think about. Just remember your characters can be more complex than these basic examples. In many ways they can be all of them, like some of my characters are, but for different reasons. Or they can develop into becoming a different type of protagonist. Naïve protagonists can become damaged or reluctant.

It’s up to you.


4 responses »

  1. Pingback: The Key to a Great Story – The Basics of Anatagonists | A Young Writer's Notebook

  2. Great post, Katherine. You’ve included some wonderful characters. I think I have a soft spot for the reluctant protagonist–like Bilbo Baggins. I like a hero who starts out as an everyman (or every-hobbit) and saves the day.

  3. Pingback: The Key to a Great Story – Combining Characters and Plot | A Young Writer's Notebook

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