On Writing: Protagonists and Their Role in the Story

This is something in my writing that has always bugged me: Why are my minor characters so interesting and clear, but my protagonist isn’t? Why is my protagonist so weak and not well received? 

Writing the rough draft of my novel these past few days, I’ve realized one of the biggest mistakes that I keep making .   This is also expected of me because, I admit, I’m more of an action/plot-driven writer than a character-driven writer.  It’s a very hard habit that I’m learning to break, but I know that by writing and thinking about these things, I’ll only get better from here.

I hope you will, too, with this post.

If your protagonists aren’t proactive and they’re solely reactive, that has to change.

What does this mean, you ask?

reactive protagonist is what writers and readers don’t want.  These kinds of protagonists react to the story, and do nothing but that.  They’re also known as passive protagonists.  The world of the story takes them over and acts upon them, forcing them to do the things the writer wants them to do rather than taking their own initiative.

proactive protagonist is a character that reacts to things in the story, yes, but also does things to move the story forward.  And they do things by having a specific goal and a plan to get to that goal.  Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” is an example of a proactive protagonist.  When that tornado hits Kansas and puts her in Oz, she doesn’t passively resign to her fate and decide to stay in Oz forever.  She makes a goal for herself: to get back home by whatever means she can, all the while battling the Wicked Witch of the West, who opposes and attempts to impede Dorothy’s goal.

Your protagonist, however, doesn’t have to be a Glinda-the-Good-Witch type.  They can be anything from a scumbag to a kindergarten student (or even a scumbag kindergarten student, yikes!).  The bottom line is that your protagonist has to want something, and because of the decisions that they make in order to try and get that “something” they want, that is how the story unfolds.

The story does not unfold when you put an adorable puppy in front of your protagonist only to have them shriek in delight, “Oh, a puppy!”  That’s being reactionary.  Because when that protagonist’s friend comes along and says, “Why don’t you just buy the puppy?”—in other words, “Why don’t you do something about what you want?”—and the protagonist doesn’t buy the puppy, the story gets boring and repetitive.

The same goes for making things too easy.  If the protagonist wants a puppy, and then all of a sudden, they get a puppy for Christmas and the story ends, there wasn’t much of a story there.  The protagonist did nothing to get to the puppy other than waiting for the writer to put the puppy there, so why should we care for their struggles if there were none in the first place?

You’d have a much interesting story if you had a little girl who wanted a puppy, and because she wanted that puppy, opened a lemonade stand to earn money, but couldn’t get much because there was a more popular lemonade stand across the street.  Or, you could have the little girl try to enlist the help of a magician to steal the puppy away in exchange for their soul by unknowingly signing a Faustian contract.

Think about it for a second.

When you want to do something, you make it known.  You tell your friends, “I want to go eat at that Thai place!”  Okay, good.  Goal established.  Now you try to figure out how to achieve it.  Are you carpooling with a friend? Are you asking your parents to drive you there? Or are you taking the dreaded public bus, the very thing you claim to not even catch yourself dead on?

You consider yourself to be a rather independent protagonist, but also a frugal one, and one that likes to travel comfortably.  Sadly, while driving there on your own would be the cheapest at the moment, you still only have a driver’s permit and can’t drive there yourself yet.  Your desire for independence forbids you from having your parents drive you there like a baby, anyway.

When you decide to carpool with a friend, you call each of them up, and they tell you they can’t do it.  Their plans are stacked until dinner.  You look for more options until you find one that fits your protagonist qualities and desires (independence, frugality, and comfort), and you don’t give up.

So you decide take the dreaded public bus, with all its icky gum underneath the seats, because that’s the only option left.  Even though you hate it, it’s the only option to get to your goal.  You call your friends to tell them you’re on your way.

But then, the bus gets stuck in a traffic jam.  You worry you won’t make it before the restaurant closes.  The tension is rising.  The suspense is killing you.  It’s getting to be too much, and you want to get out of the bus and run to the restaurant on foot, but the bus driver doesn’t let you, and because of that, you pry the door open with your hands as the driver tries to restrain you, but you break free, with a piece of gum on your shoe, and run out, and so on and so forth until the epic conclusion…

But more importantly, did you see how I did that? How I kept you on your toes while reading that?

By having a proactive protagonist.

Final Thoughts

A protagonist can have multiple goals at once, some long term, some short term.  The goals can even change or evolve depending on their decisions in the story.  But above all, the protagonist should have something that they want at all times and have it be so unwavering that it leads them to making even the craziest decisions, because the craziest decision might be only the only decision that will let them reach their goal.  Have your protagonist fight a dragon not because you want to write a dragon fight scene with your protagonist, but because their lust for fighting large creatures or wanting to be the big, bad hero dictates that they should.  Have your character take the bus to that Thai place because all the other nice options have been exhausted, and they’ll do anything to brave their fears to get to their goal.

It should be something that guides them throughout the story on their own.  And yes, to some extent, as the writer, you decide what that goal is and what happens as a result of that decision.  But don’t make it easy or sugar coat it.  Complicate things.  Along the journey, make your protagonist come across walls that will make our break their quest and question whether or not it’s worth it only to have them shout, “I’ll get there, or I’ll die trying!”

Protagonist, goal, plan, and opposition (also known as conflict)—four major components of any good story, and by no means is that all of them.

But at the very least, I hope this has helped.


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