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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