Tuesday, July 08, 2014

5 Essential Questions to Ask When Writing Your Protagonist

By Bridget McNulty, @bridgetmcnulty

Part of the How They Do It Series

No matter what your writing process, at some point you're going to have to develop your protagonist. Please help me welcome Bridget McNulty to the lecture hall today, to share five questions that will help you figure out who this all-important character really is.

Bridget published her first novel, Strange Nervous Laughter, in South Africa in 2007 (with Struik) and in the USA in 2009 (with Macmillan). She has just completed her second novel, Life in six courses. She's also the founder of Now Novel, an easy to use motivational online writing course.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound

Take it away Bridget...

A great novel starts with a great protagonist, and knowing your protagonist well will inform every other element of your fiction. Here are five questions to ask yourself that will not only drive how you write your protagonist but how you tell your story.

One of the differences in fiction and real life is that fiction often places characters in unusual or extreme situations. This is not always the case; great fiction has been made from situations that appear mundane on the surface. However, even those stories tend to use everyday events to tell about significant moments of change or realization in a character's life. For example, the classic John Updike story "A&P" is ostensibly a simple tale about a boy working a grocery, but under its everyday trappings are themes about rebellion and living a life that is true with one's principles. It taps into a profound and life-changing realization on the part of its teenaged protagonist. Understanding the most extreme desires, fears and forces that move your character will drive your plot and themes.

1. What is the goal of my protagonist?

This may be the most important question that you ask. This is the question that will drive the story. You must know what your character wants more than anything, and then you must make it almost impossible for your character to achieve that. It may be situational such as a castaway who is longing for a drink of water, or it may be ongoing like a protagonist who is searching for love. Whatever it is, this desire will form the core of your story.

2. What is my protagonist most afraid of?

This may be something that your character is afraid of losing, or it may be an event that the character fears. It may be something from the protagonist's past or something the protagonist lives in dread of happening. Naturally, once you have determined your protagonist's greatest fear, you will have to threaten your character with it in some way. For an extreme literal example of this, see George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four in which political prisoners are taken to Room 101 and tortured with their greatest fear.

3. What is my protagonist's greatest weakness and greatest strength?

Each of these should come into play in the course of the novel. Your protagonist should be forced to confront the weak point. For example, if the character has always struggled with her relationship with her mother, she should be tested in this area even more than usual. You may have your protagonist overcome or succumb to this weakness. Your character may not even realize her greatest strength, but it should be foreshadowed in the novel before it has a significant effect on the plot.

4. What is the one thing my protagonist would never do regardless of the cost to her or her loved ones?

You might never reveal this to your readers over the course of the novel, but the answer to this question will tell you a lot about your protagonist and inform the character's actions.

5. What has been the most significant event in my protagonist's life up to now?

Beware of weighing your novel down with too much backstory; your book should be about what is happening now. If the most interesting story is in the past, you are telling the wrong story. However, you should know what this event is. It may be a happy event or a traumatic event. For example, for FBI agent Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, it is coming across the relative she has been sent to live with slaughtering his lambs, an event that not only traumatized her but resulted in her being sent to an orphanage for the rest of her childhood.

What is the most significant question you ask yourself about your protagonist, and why is it so important?

About Strange Nervous Laughter

You’ll not find six more remarkable characters: a cashier-turned motivational speaker, an undertaker with a toenail fetish, a girl wrapped in dreams, a man who communicates with whales, a garbage man with a peculiar sense of smell, and a Guinness Book of World Records representative. When a random holdup at a local grocery brings them together, their once separate lives intertwine in a humorous blend of lyricism, whimsy and wit. This is a rare book about what love does to us, how our lives are changed by being in love—and the odd ways in which we sometimes behave.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound


  1. Great post today. As I worked on my debut novel "Gabriel" these last nine years, I eventually wove in that into the story.

    In my case, the weaknesses in my protagonist and my antagonist were my antagonist's strengths and vice versa.

    My protagonist (who's shy and introverted) has to face situations where he needs to be more assertive without going against his core nature of being curious and laid back nature.

    My antagonist, whose gruff and direct by contrast, needs to learn to be more open to his tender emotions while at the same time not be afraid to own the positive parts to his direct and gruff nature, and as cliched as that sounds, it comes off better in the actual book, I promise! (LOL!)

  2. Another good blog for my writing students. Thanks!