“I want a hero,” Lord Byron declares in the first line of his mock epic poem Don Juan. That anyone would propose the legendary womanizer, Don Juan, as a hero is amusing, but good writers know that all stories need a protagonist. It doesn’t matter if the protagonist is an underdog, an average guy, a lost soul, or a superstar. Regrettably, this principle seems to escape many writers. Some don’t understand what a protagonist is. Others fail to introduce the reader to the protagonist. After critiquing a myriad of manuscript openings that suffered from this malady, I decided to share what I’ve learned on my writing journey.
Simply put, the protagonist is the main character in a novel. He’s the hero of the story, and it’s important that readers empathize with him. He should be pursuing some goal or desire, and that goal should seem unattainable. In fact, the protagonist should have to risk everything for it. Best-selling author and story coach, Michael Hauge, explains this in a short clip here.
The protagonist should have a well-defined goal in order for the reader to visualize it. It’s insufficient for the protagonist to want more of something he already has. It wouldn’t be enough of a goal for a rich man to want more money. The goal needs to be specific (i.e. the rich guy wants to acquire a certain piece of land for his business, but there is some obstacle standing in his way.)
Hauge also recommends that in order to create the character’s arc (transformation), “you must give that hero some fear to be confronted and overcome.” The hero should be really stuck in some way. In order for the hero to have a full transformation, Hauge favors making the hero “an extreme version of someone with that fear and that identity.” For example, at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is a miserable, selfish man. At the end, he’s kind, generous, and filled with joy.
Introducing the Protagonist
The premier task of a fiction writer is to show what makes the protagonist tick in an engaging way that will make the reader curious about what happens to that character. Competition screenplay reader, Monica Partridge, laments in her blog: “I just read a pile of scripts and only one of the writers bothered to introduce me to his protagonist. Name, age, job and clothes are just not enough.” She offers some wise suggestions on the correct way to introduce a protagonist.
John Truby, best-selling author, cautions in an interview that giving the protagonist a long list of superficial traits is the wrong way to make people care. He proposes that the two primary considerations are the weakness/need of the hero and the goal of the hero. The idea is to create a goal for the hero that will force him to deal with his weakness.
Barbara Kyle, author and writing coach, offers advice for introducing a protagonist from an actor’s perspective in “Making an Entrance.” One of the things that attracts an A-list actor to a particular role is the opening scene where the protagonist’s entrance shows his essence in action. Barbara’s article gives some excellent illustrations from literature.
J. Gideon Sarantinos compares introducing the main character to a first date. In “Introducing the Main Character,” he writes: “Did you know that people make their decisions about the potential success of a first date within the first 30-60 seconds? That is similar to the time it takes for your audience to decide if they’re going to root for your main character.” That’s why it’s imperative to get it right.
One example of a great character introduction from film is the opening scene of Erin Brokovich. The viewer is drawn to the unemployed, single mother immediately. Erin Brokovich is beautiful, but she isn’t dressed the way most people would dress for a job interview. Her short skirt and revealing top don’t impress the doctor who is questioning her. In spite of the fact that she is unqualified for the position, Erin tries to convince the doctor she deserves the job. When it becomes clear she’s facing rejection, it’s hard for viewers not to feel sorry for her and worry what happens to her. Writers often love their protagonists so much that they don’t want to hurt them, but letting readers feel the protagonist’s pain is one of the best ways to connect with readers (or viewers, when film is the medium). After the opening scene of Erin Brokovich, viewers wonder if Erin will be able to rise above people’s low expectations and gain self-respect. That’s the dramatic question. (Answer: Yes, and through gaining her own self-respect, she is able to allow herself to love someone.)
Techniques to Create Empathy
There are various kinds of protagonists, but the writer’s job is always the same: to make the reader care enough to go on a journey the length of a book. There are a number of the ways a writer can make readers empathize with the hero. Here are a few techniques to consider (not all apply to every story, though many do):
- Put the character in jeopardy. (It will make the reader worry.)
- Make the character a victim of undeserved hardship or misfortune.
- Give the character a sense of humor.
- Give the character a special talent or skill.
- Give the character quirks, mannerisms, and flaws to humanize him.
- Give the character a secret.
- Make the character an underdog.
- Give the character an attitude (morals, values, beliefs).
- Give the character a fear or phobia.
- Give the character a need for redemption or forgiveness.
- Give the character a wound or blind spot.
- Give the character grief over the death of a loved one.
- Give the character an addiction.
- Give the character a contradiction (i.e. a nun who writes erotic stories).
- Make the character resourceful.
- Give the character family/close friends who care about him.
- Make the character good with children or animals.
- Make the character a willful being. Readers don’t bond easily with whiny, wimpy, or lazy characters. The protagonist should be good/capable at something.
- Give the character stakes (i.e. something to lose if he fails).
- Give the character an impossible deadline (and then shorten it).
- Give the character a nemesis or other obstacles to getting what he wants.
- Give the character courage.
One helpful exercise is to pull out a stack of favorite books and read the openings. Make note of how each author gets the reader to connect with the protagonist. Of course, not all protagonists are nice people, and it’s more difficult to get readers to care what happens to an amoral protagonist. Sometimes it helps to show how the character lost his moral compass or why the character might feel morally justified to do wrong.
Name the Protagonist
Readers need to know the protagonist’s full name from the start. I’ve read countless openings where the protagonist is identified by a characteristic (i.e. “the dark-haired man”) rather than a name. Even if the protagonist wants to keep his identity hidden from another character (i.e. Joe Fox doesn’t want to identify himself to Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail), the readers still need to know the protagonist’s name, as Michael Hauge explains here.
Avoid Introducing the Protagonist in a Crowd
Also, when the protagonist is introduced in a setting with a large group of people, it can be frustrating for the reader. Michael Hauge calls this a story misdemeanor. Recall the classroom scenario where a teacher asks each person to stand up and introduce himself to the group. It’s difficult to remember a multitude of names and details given at the same time. Readers don’t like to be overwhelmed. Present the protagonist in a setting with a limited number of characters to minimize confusion.
Begin With the Protagonist in Action
According to an article by Kristin Nelson (literary agent) and Angie Hodapp (Director of Royalties & Literary Development at Nelson Literary Agency), it’s a bad idea (most of the time) to begin a novel with “your main character alone somewhere thinking.” Consider the opening of Erin Brokovich. It wouldn’t have been as interesting to see Erin alone at home pondering her job situation. There are many ways to introduce a protagonist, but writers should seek the best way. A passive situation is rarely a good choice.
I’ll close with a final tip. According to The Script Lab, “When creating an interesting protagonist, it’s essential that your audience cares about the character, hoping the character will do the right thing, but constantly fearing that the character will make another bad decision. It’s this yin and yang of hope and fear that connects the audience, hooking them deeper, making them want to watch.”
Thanks for reading. If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to share them here. (Comments are moderated.)
Until next time,
Write something you love! — Joanne