Friday, June 21

10 Traits of a Great Protagonist

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It's so disappointing to read a book or see movie and find a great story idea surrounding a protagonist I couldn't care less about. It robs the excitement and enjoyment from the tale, and hurts my soul a little. Great ideas deserve great protagonists. Without them, those ideas wither away and die slow, horrible deaths.

But we can save our stories from this terrible fate.

At the heart of every story is a person with a problem, and the more compelling that person is, the better the story will be. Flat, boring protagonists lead to flat, boring stories. And no one wants that.We want jump off the page and grab the readers by the throat kind of characters. The ones you keep thinking about long after the book is over.

Here are ten ways you can turn your protagonist from good to great:


1. She has a problem that needs solving


You'd think this would be obvious, but I’ve seen plenty of manuscripts where the protagonist could have died on page one and the story would have continued without missing a step. Make sure the protagonist is the one with the problem that has to be solved. No one else can solve this problem (or solve it as well as she can) and she’s central to the entire issue.

2. He has the ability to act


Protagonists who do nothing but react to the situation are boring. A good protagonist makes things happen and moves the story along through his actions and choices. If your protagonist isn’t in a position to affect change, consider how you can adjust it so he is.

3. She has reasons to act


Plenty of people might be able to do something, but unless they have a good reason, it starts to stretch credibility why they would get involved in something that clearly doesn’t matter to them. Imagine how unrealistic Die Hard would have felt if John McClane hadn’t been a cop and hadn’t had a wife being held hostage by bad guys. Why on earth would he have risked his life if there wasn’t a good reason? If your protagonist is risking her life or happiness, make sure it's for a reason readers will understand.

(More on raising your stakes here)

4. He has something to lose


Just having a reason to act isn’t enough. Losing something that matters is a powerful motivating tool and will force your protagonist to do what he normally wouldn’t. He'll take risks he'd never take if he didn't have this consequence hanging over his head. It'll also make readers worry that he might suffer those consequences and lose what matters most to him.

5. She has something to gain


This is an important aspect of the story’s stakes that's sometimes forgotten or not thought through well enough. Watching a protagonist not lose has its merits, but when was the last time you went to a sporting event to see if your team didn't lose? Readers want to see a protagonist rewarded for all her hard work and sacrifice, and a reason for her to keep going when everything tells her to give up.

6. He has the capacity to change


Character growth feeds the soul to the story. It’s what turns it from a series of plot events to a tale worth telling. A great protagonist has the ability to learn from his experiences and become a better (though not always) person. He won't be the same person he was when the story started.

(More on creating strong character arcs here)

7. She has a compelling quality


Something about the person is interesting. Maybe she’s funny and likable. Maybe she’s twisted and fascinating. She might have an unusual talent or skill, or a unique manner about her. Whatever it is, there’s a quality that makes a reader curious to know more about her. Often, what's compelling is also contradictory, and wanting to know how these two things work together is what keeps readers hooked.

8. He has an interesting flaw


Perfect people are boring--it’s the flaws that make them interesting. Flaws also give you an opportunity to show character growth and give the protagonist a way to improve himself. Maybe he knows about this flaw and is actively trying to fix it, or he has no clue and change is being forced upon him. Maybe this flaw is the very thing that will allow him to survive and overcome his problems. Or the cause of the entire mess.

9. She has a secret


Open-book characters are too predictable, and predictable usually equals boring. If the protagonist is hiding something, readers will wonder what that secret is and how it affects the story. Let your protagonist be a little cryptic until readers are dying to know what her secret is.

(More on raising the tension through secrets here)

10. He has someone or something interesting trying to stop him


A protagonist is only as good as the antagonist standing against him. Where would Sherlock Holmes be without Professor Moriarty? Dorothy without the Wicked Witch? Buffy without Spike? A great protagonist needs someone worth fighting or his victory is meaningless. Think of your antagonist as the opposite of your protagonist. The dark to his light, the evil to his good. Match them well for a villain readers will love as well as hate.

A protagonist who knows what she wants and makes the story happen is a far more compelling character than one who sits around and waits for the story to happen to her. Make sure your protagonist is more than just someone in the middle of a mess.

Who's your favorite protagonist? Why?

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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30 comments:

  1. One of my all-time favorite series is Megan Whalen Turner's "Thief of Attolia." In the second book, he gets his hand cut off. He's a thief. This is a problem.
    His flaw? He's hilariously childish most of the time. Secrets? The twists in those books gave me whiplash.

    "...hurts my soul a little." I love your writing.

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  2. Rachael, thanks! I haven't read that, but now I'm intrigued. A one-handed thief? Very interesting.

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  3. I'll have to make those points into a checklist. There are days, Janice, when I wish this blog were a reference book instead of a gem of the interwebs.

    Rachel, I'm also going to look for that book!

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  4. One of my favorite protagonists is Frankie from Elegantly Wasted by C. Elizabeth Vescio. Frankie works as a contract killer with her two cousins and, despite her vocation, she's crazy relatable. She's also a sociopath and KNOWS it. Her flaws and lack of moral compass are honestly what made me love the book so much.

    Great list of traits!

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  5. This is an excellent way to look at your MC. In the first book I wrote, I was guilty of having things happen to my MC.

    My current MC met most of these. I hadn't played up the: she has a secret. She does! Thanks, I will amp that up.

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  6. Amy, I'm working on that, actually :) I hope to have some writing books out before too long. It's taken a lot longer to organize and get them the way I want than I expected.

    Tyler, oo fun! I love how favorite characters are all "dark" in some way :) Readers after my own heart.

    Rubianna, secrets are always fun :)

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  7. Janice, this is something I'm always trying to improve. Thanks for the great reminders.

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  8. Julie, happy to help. It's helpful to remind myself as well, hehe.

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  9. "It's so disappointing to read a book or see movie and find a great story idea surrounding a protagonist I couldn't care less about."

    So true! Recently I've watched anime Amnesia. I loved the mystery, all the twists and cliffhangers, but the heroine? Meh!

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  10. Ekaterina, aw, such a shame. I see that way too much in movies these days.

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  11. My favorite is Orchird from Empress Orchird. She seems strong and very independent.

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    1. I don't know that one. I'll have to take a peek.

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  12. My favorite protagonist, I'd have to say, is Peter Parker/Spider-Man. I see a little of myself in him and he's the perfect example of a great, strong protagonist.

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  13. Protagonists: Hig in The Dog Stars, Marie-Laure and Werner in All the Light We Cannot See. Elena in My Brilliant Friend. In all three stories, the problem and goals are hard to frame: Hig -- survival in a post-apocalyptic world? Marie-Laure and Werner, surviving Hitler and WWII? Elena growing out of poverty in Naples and out from under the powerful presence of her best friend. All four characters are captivating, and face insurmountable odds. I think about those books and want to crawl back into them again. Thanks for the tips. I'm staring at a 400 page first draft that needs help with almost every single thing you've listed. Might have to junk this one and start a new story, but maybe not. Cheers --

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    1. Sometimes it's easier to just start over, but you might be able to salvage it. It'll take take to go through it all to tweak all the character issues, but take it a chunk at a time so it doesn't get overwhelming and fatiguing :)

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  14. Hi Janice,
    I was close to tears before I found your brilliant blog! I really liked my main character, and her flaws,and your advice has dispelled all the self doubt about her, so thanks a million! I've printed your advice, and stuck it to my memo board in prep for NaNoWriMo.

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    1. Aw, I'm so glad I was able to help. (and sorry you were so frustrated before you made it here-hugs-) Welcome to the site! Good to have you with us.

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  15. The problem with novels at this decade are just too many protagonises with Mary Sue's syndrome. Anastasia Steele and Bella Swan are boring protagonises with weak motivation that triggered their actions

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    1. A lot of movies have the same problems as well.

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  16. Hello! I really love your blog!:) Could I translate some of your articles into Russian and post in Storia.me?

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    1. Thanks! As long as you give me and the blog credit and link back to it, yes.

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  17. Excellent information. You are truly gifted and so helpful to others.

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  18. Excellent information. You are truly gifted and so helpful to others.

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  19. I'd have to say my fave protagonist is Sherlock, definitely.

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    1. Great character :) In all his various forms.

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  20. I'd like to add that in order to have an emotional connection to the protagonists, they have to be vulnerable somewhere. I don't mean whiny or angsty, but... being able to be touched by others, or by what's going on around them. Super cool, aloof heroes leave me cold. I need be able to care for them, feel afraid for them, and fall a bit in love with them.

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