This post is the first in a series I will be hosting called Character Spotlights. I used to do this on my old blog, and I really loved breaking down the character cast and giving individual attention to each member of the story world, their role, and how to make each of them shine. Today, I will be starting with the central character – the protagonist.
The protagonist is the focus of the book – the one through whose eyes the story is told and experienced. If you don’t ace the protagonist, it really doesn’t matter how great the rest of the characters are. Although the supporting cast is important as well, the main character will shape and define the story. A weak MC can ruin an otherwise amazing story. On the other hand, a three-dimensional protagonist with depth and intrigue will hold your reader to the last page (and hopefully, even beyond that!).
Crafting a good protagonist starts from the very beginning --- from the moment you begin plotting out and thinking through your small seedling story idea. From there, it builds, until you write the words “the end”.
GIVE YOUR PROTAGONIST A HISTORY
I talked about this last week, in my post Developing Character Backstory. Go check it out for an in-depth discussion.
It’s easy to think that your character begins to exist on page one. In reality, though, you are falling into their story at a random moment. They have not just been wandering around for seventeen years, waiting for the reader to show up so they can finally start living. Give them complex relationships. Plague them with tragedies. Build a past that will fuel their present, and therefore, the story.
Good backstory serves many purposes, including strong motivation, complex personality, and an all-around great three-dimensional protagonist.
GIVE YOUR PROTAGONIST A GOAL
I am positive you have heard this said many times before. Because of that, it is easy to overlook or misunderstand. Your MC’s goal is the thing that drives their story. It is their greatest desire… the thing they want most. All their actions and reactions will result from it. Let’s look at an example, from none other than one of my favorite books… The Hunger Games.
Katniss Everdeen does whatever she must in order to survive in the arena. Why? Is it just because she doesn’t want to die? Is her goal simply to survive?
Her goal is to return to her little sister Prim, who she has taken care of and practically raised the last few years. That drives her every move. Her every desire.
If Prim had not been a part of the story – if Katniss’s name had been drawn at the Reaping, and she had no sibling or family to return to – the story would have lost a very important aspect. The plot itself could have still played out similarly, but the emotional stakes would have been wrecked. Katniss would have been motivated by an instinct-driven desire to survive, instead of a heart-driven desire to protect her sister.
It is easy for huge stakes to blur a character’s goal. If the world is crumbling around them, their goal might be to save it. This leads into the third tip for crafting a great protagonist…
GIVE YOUR PROTAGONIST PERSONAL STAKES
The key word here is “personal”. Like I mentioned previously, if their world is crumbling around them, their goal may be to save it. If they are thrust into a fight for their life, their desire may be to survive. These are okay secondary goals, but they are not primary ones.
Why does the protagonist’s goal matter to them? What are they personally striving to achieve? It is noble to think that a person would risk everything to save the world, but if that is their only motivation, it will make for a fake super-hero-style story. You want real, raw, believable.
If the protagonist does not accomplish their goal, what crushing ramifications will there be? Why will they go to the end of the world to accomplish what they set out to do?
GIVE YOUR PROTAGONIST A COMPLEX PERSONALITY
Their choices won’t always be black and white. Their head may lead them one way, and their heart another. The place where I have issue with this is when “morally grey” comes into play, and things that are wrong are twisted to be right, based on the justification. As a Christian, I am against anything which would suggest sin is okay.
HOWEVER, that does not mean that characters and events cannot be complex. In real life, we have to sacrifice. We have to choose. Sometimes (many times), we choose wrong. There are consequences to that. Many times we are selfish, angry, hateful, jealous. These things are obviously negative qualities, but they are realistic qualities, because no one is perfect. Your characters aren’t either.
Crafting a protagonist is not something you can do over night, and I could never dream of covering every detail in one post. I have only scratched the surface, and just like it takes months (and sometimes years) to create your perfect MC, it will take many posts to cover all the different aspects of protagonist-crafting.
Even so, I hope you gained some valuable tips from this spotlight! There is a vast array of characters in our writing, and each will get their turn – love interest, best friend, parent, sibling, villain – so stay tuned until next time!
What is the hardest thing about crafting a protagonist? How do you make them deep, complex, and real? Share in the comments!