It’s Sunday fun day, guys! Is there a better day for controversial and completely unnecessary superlatives? I think not – so let’s talk about the perfect protagonist1 today.
I’m a character person. If your book is horribly written but still has wonderfully dimensioned characters, I’ll probably still read it. I’ll be a grumpy-ass mofo, but at least I’ll be reading your book, right? Right.
For me, characters make or break a book – and while brilliant supporting characters can salvage a lot, a horrible protagonist is an absolute literary turn off. So, let’s start with the basics.
What a protagonist should do: drive the story forward, add layers to your plot & engage the reader.
What a protagonist shouldn’t do: make me homicidal with their stupid ass decisions.2
You guys still with me? Cool.
Step Zero to everything is knowing your shit. So let’s define what we are talking about here for a second. What even is a protagonist?
noun pro·tag·o·nist \prō-ˈta-gə-nist\
(Source: Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary)
Now we’re talking! What I am getting at is: a protagonist is always a main character, but a main character isn’t necessary a protagonist vice versa. If you are talented enough to make non-protagonist main characters work3 (i.e. as narrators or observers), good on you – but unfortunately we are not talking about those characters right here. We want to get down to the nitty-gritty, the real stuff, the horribly awesome, story driving, lovable, hateable and nerve-wrecking protagonists. Put in your gears, we’re going for a drive!
1. Be Diverse
Diversity, people! I should preface this by saying that despite me putting this as a top priority, other people might not feel this aspect has the same gravity. That’s okay.4
Something I thoroughly enjoy are protagonists that are not white and straight. The human spectrum is enormous, even gigantic, and it is a pity so little of it is reflected in our writing. I feel that many people are stuck in their own little universe, so think outside your cosmos. Think of all the diversity and variety mankind has to offer and go for it. Dare to write characters that are scary to form. Talk to people. Try to capture realities. Have a bisexual character? Yes please. A disabled character? Awesome! Any character that isn’t super hot looking and from a rich family? Just do it!
We tend to write what we wish to be, but I am standing in defense for all those things that are straight of our comfort zones. However, I feel that it is important to be careful to describe and portray all the protagonist’s traits without stigma. The 1927368th murder with falsely described and demonized schizophrenia is seriously getting boring, people.5 Find someone who has been confronted with things out of your experience zone and ask for guidance – most people are more than happy to help!
2. Be dimensional
One-dimensional characters are my nemesis. I swear, nothing makes me take off running faster that flat protagonists. This one person you created, you chose them to drive the story forward – and now you are telling me all they want in life is that super hot dude which they will obviously get because they are always looking perfect and are never not adorably nice? No, no, no, please no. Don’t do that. If you try to sell me your character as perfect, I’ll definitely color you as pretty far off reality. We are human (or centaurs or elves, but we have a functioning conscience!), alas we all have flaws and dark secrets and regrets. If you claim you don’t, I’ll bet my kitty’s furry butt off that you’re lying.
Moreover, as a personal rule of thumb, a protagonist needs to be defined within the first ten pages (starting with their first appearance, obviously. Don’t write a shitty prologue because you try to make your protagonist work). Let me clarify: You don’t need to build your character ad hoc, but what you will need to do is show the reader a glimpse of the protagonist’s essence. What are they made of? Give us a slice of their life, dammit. Make me care!
TL;DR? Put them in a situation where I can understand their character based on their actions and reactions. Do not
dump a metric fuckton of back story on me, information dumps are the bane of my existence (In case you speak German, Chris Milkus wrote a wonderful article
on those. Bringing a garbage bag for your info dumps is advised).
I adore protagonist who have an extra layer of dimension – simply because their author bothered to narrate both their inner and outer conflicts. Some are obvious, some are different. Your protagonist might act one way, but feel differently (social conventions send their greetings). Show us the struggle. Do it. Seriously.
Also, as a last note when it comes to dimensions: keep your character realistic. Your gorgeous, 15 languages speaking, olympic sailing team, art exhibition, author prodigy is probably not going to work out if she is only 15. Just sayin’.
3. Be Interesting
This should go without saying – but unfortunately, it doesn’t always. Give us a quirk, an obsession. Something that I think of whenever I remember that character.
Make sure your character is worth reading.6
4. Be Consistent (and then fuck everything and be flexible)
Consistency is key, as always. Humans are full of surprises & so are protagonists, but as an author one needs to make sure that all surprises are still consistent with your protagonist’s personality. Please don’t try to tell me your overly catholic school girl decides to host an orgy all of a sudden, just for the heck of it. Make up your mind, work surprising decisions into the protagonist’s character and have them be consistent.
Do you love asterisks? Because I sure do. Good, now repeat after me: Fuck that, I’ll be flexible. Flexibility is as much key as is consistency. You cannot lock your protagonist into an everlasting spiral of continuous non-development. Your protagonist moves through the story – he gains experience, changes, loves, grieves and maybe kills.7
Experiences like those should and would change a person – so reflect how your protagonist’s character develops over time. Don’t leave them stuck in youthful naiveté, give them the chance to learn and fail and conclude. Be consistently flexible.
5. Be Horrible
There’s a handful of advice every writer has heard or will hear sooner or later. One of the key phrases is “kill your darlings” and, as a writer constantly murdering or emotionally crippling my protagonists, I wholeheartedly agree.
Make your protagonists suffer when you want it the least. Don’t let them be happy without objective – your character’s emotions tell the story, so show emotions. Show despair and grief and enthusiasm and hate. Show them, and show them well. Happiness is awesome, but there’s a reason it’s called Happy Ending and not Happy Beginning or Happy 20th Chapter. Trust me.
TL; DR: If you love your protagonists, make sure horrible things happen to them, kids. Also, don’t be boring, and for for the love of god, no more manic pixie dream girls. Be courageous and kick ass. Write the stuff you don’t think you can write and be brilliant at it. And now, whatever you do, write.8
1 That shit is subjective. Don’t kill me for this post, mkay?
2 Fun Fact: Anastasia Steele holds the record for making me want to murder her within the first twenty pages. Needless to say I never finished any Fifty Shades of Grey book.
3 I definitely am not.
4…but this is my blog, so I get to be a pc killjoy anyways. Yay!
5 Plus, stuff like that is seriously unfair to people who actually suffer from a mental illness. The real stuff, not the uninformed jabberwocky you made up to justify your shitty plot holes.
6 Mic drop.
7 Hate to break it to you, but if none of that happens, you either screwed up your protagonist or your plot; anyways, something’s seriously off.
8 Unless you write love triangles involving the protagonist. Then you are just a horrible person and I hate you. Go away. Don’t make me feel those feels. Looking at you, Tess Sharpe.