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Thursday, October 5

Day Five: Idea to Novel Workshop: Developing Your Protagonist

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Welcome to Day Five of Fiction University’s At-Home Workshop: Idea to Novel in 31 Days. The first twelve days will focus on developing the story and getting all the pieces in place so we can more easily plot the entire novel.

Today, it’s all about the protagonist.

Choose Your Protagonist


The protagonist is the person driving the plot. In most cases she (or he) is the main character, and the plot will focus on her resolving the novel’s core conflict (the problem at the center of the novel).

There are plenty of things that make a great protagonist a great character, but in the idea and planning stage, it’s helpful to look at the traits that also help develop a plot or character arc. Tailor your notes and brainstorming to the side you prefer, or do both if you want to develop both sides simultaneously.

Why the protagonist is important: She’s the character readers will have to connect with, relate to, or empathize with in some way that makes them want to see how she resolves the problems placed in her path. She’s the reader’s guide to the novel.

The protagonist is the character we, as writers, should love (even if she’s not the nicest person) and hope that readers also love. If we aren’t excited about our protagonist, odds are readers won’t be either.

Some books have multiple protagonists—romance is a good example here, with the hero and the heroine both moving the plot forward toward a clear goal—but having too many protagonists can be an indication that the conflict isn’t defined yet.

If no one is a clear protagonist, the plot can lack drive, and you might find yourself halfway through the novel and wondering what happens next. If every character is trying to have their say, you might find yourself with multiple plot lines that leave readers wondering if they’re reading three books in one.

If you’re not sure who your protagonist is yet, answer the following questions with whoever is the best character for that role. If you do know who your protagonist is, think about how these questions apply.

1. Who has a problem that needs solving? What is that problem?

2. Who has the ability to act? How?

3. Who has reasons to act? What are they?

4. Who has something to lose? What is it?

5. Who has something to gain? What is it?

6. Who has the capacity to change? How so?

7. Who has a compelling quality? What is it?

8. Who has an interesting flaw? What is it?

9. Who has a secret? What is it?

10. Who has someone or something interesting in the way? Who or what is it?

EXERCISE: Describe your protagonist.


Not just the physical look (that’s okay if you know it already), but the type of person he or she is and any history you might know at this stage. Try to get a sense of who this character is and how the novel might unfold with a protagonist like this.

Those following along with the PYN book: Workshop Four goes into more extensive detail on fleshing out your protagonist and creating a solid backstory and history for him or her. It also has exercises on developing secondary characters, and figuring out why types if characters you’ll need in the novel.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at your novel’s conflict.

Follow along at home with the book, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure. Get more brainstorming questions and things to think about, in-depth articles, and clear examples of every step from idea to novel.

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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, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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