A protagonist is the soul of a novel. Defined as the primary character of a story, they are the one whose journey constitutes a major chunk of a tale. Therefore, they are the most important character, the one that the readers must root for till the end, and one that should stay with them long after the story’s over.
Although having multiple main characters is one exciting way to go while plotting a story, having one primary protagonist is easier, especially if one is a beginner. Many of the world’s most popular franchises and series are based on one main character – James Bond, Jason Bourne, Percy Jackson, Nancy Drew are all strong protagonists that continue to shoulder the weight of their massive fanbase.
How does one create such popular characters? It is not as impossible as it looks. There are certain tricks that famous creators have up in their sleeves that make their protagonists stand apart from the rest. In this article, I will attempt to list out five basic points that can help you write a better protagonist. While these ideas may not guarantee success, they are drawn from characteristics observable in memorable characters of fiction.
Sherlock Holmes charmingly played the violin, Tony Stark invented his way out of tough situations, Hannibal Lecter possessed maroon eyes along with a taste for his victims’ sweetbreads prepared like haute cuisine, Hermione Granger was a relentless researcher with prominent brown bushy hair – if you know these characters even a little, you know these facts about them. Therefore, a quirk is essentially a distinguishing element of your character’s personality or looks. It is their unique identification marker. An effective quirk should be unusual, but still remain relevant to the plot.
For example, Hermione’s vast knowledge helps the trio out in many situations throughout the series, and her bushy brown hair is the only physical detail about her that Rowling mentions repeatedly (and no other character seems to have it).
Similarly, Hannibal Lecter’s specific method of consuming his victims separates him from other serial killers in the novel, and his maroon eyes that spark and shine are the most emotive part of him. However, be careful of overusing quirkiness – at times your protagonist must act out of character lest they become too boring or passé.
Nothing is more unsympathetic than a perfect character. I mean, they’re perfect – they’re going to win – no suspense there. Nor do they need my support or my love. So why should I read their story?
Strength and morals sure awe the reader, but it is the small weaknesses that will cause them to root for the protagonist. Flaws help add dimension to a character. They reveal vulnerability, which is what most people connect with. It is essential to note that flaws need not be negative – even a good quality can turn against your protagonist. The ability to care for people is a good thing, but putting others’ needs above oneself all the time is surely not the best thing to do.
Every writing blog in the world will tell you to give your protagonist a goal and enough motivation to achieve that goal. But an easy mistake to make is to let your plot carry your character through it all. Sure, other elements are going to rough them up, or contrarily help them, but it must be the protagonist who takes decisions and actively makes choices about their life. When they achieve their goal, the reader ought to feel that it was not an act of chance but a result of the protagonist’s work, or else the sense of triumph will be lost. Also, we are more likely to care for a dynamic character than a passive one.
From crime syndicates and aliens to devilish mothers-in-law – we’ve seen them all pose threats to our favourite heroes. But the toughest challenges are those that are encountered within. We are all familiar with the concept of inner demons, thus, giving some to our protagonist makes them a lot more human, or in other words, like us. Battles with one’s own worst impulses are relatable and add another layer to the protagonist. Hence, they result in more intrigue as the stakes go up.
External challenges can serve as a trigger for inner turmoil. A fairly obvious example is of Frodo Baggins. Not only did he face the impossible challenge of Sauron and his army but we also saw him battle the urge to possess the One Ring himself.
Adding flaws also opens up the possibility of making your hero an antihero – a protagonist lacking the traditional qualities associated with heroism and possibly a dubious moral sense. Loki, Tyler Durden, James Bond, Jay Gatsby and even Huckleberry Finn are all beloved antiheroes.
The resolution of a story is incomplete without the protagonist undergoing some kind of change. They have encountered (and hopefully overcome) a life changing conflict and have got what they wanted (or deserved), so them going back to square one or square one point five reduces the impact of everything the character has gone through.
Experiences and adversaries incite change, and when stakes are high, they incite permanent and often a fundamental change. Let your protagonist conquer a fear, become more mature, get a few permanent battle scars, forgive someone else or redeem himself or just have his worldview changed completely by the end of the story.
At the end of Iron Man, Tony Stark acquires not just a life-threatening shrapnel in his body but also a completely altered vision for the future of Stark Industries. Ensure that the transformation is logical and not too out of character. Too unbelievable a conclusion of a character arc eliminates satisfaction and feels like cheating.
In conclusion, giving the character a peculiar trait and a couple of faults along with letting them take action as they battle external and internal challenges that eventually transform them as a person (or as a robot, alien, dog, alien robotic dog etc.) is a good way to go. There are multiple ways for writing a character, but eventually it all depends on your own personal process. Feel free to explore even the most absurd ideas you have, and contrarily, observe a lot of real people as well. Creating a protagonist can be tedious work, so make sure to break convention and have some fun while you’re at it!