Got Protagonist?

Posted on July 9, 2012 by

If you’ve been following these essays of mine on craft, there are some basic things about book-writing that you probably know by now:

  • Novels are about people. This is true even if all your characters are talking bunnies or lovelorn vampires.
  • 99.99% of novels are going to have more than one character.
  • These individuals will have relationships, which will grow and change over the course of the book.
  • One of these individuals will stand out. They are the protagonist, or main character (henceforth, MC)
  • The action of your novel and the behavior of the other people in your story will all move, to some extent, in relation to the journey of your MC.
  • So far, so good, yes? I hope the above points are blindingly obvious to you all. Here’s a few more:

  • The long-running trend in fiction in Western fiction is to give MC a significant goal, need or desire: whether it is solving the mystery, battling with cancer, understanding themselves, connecting with an estranged loved one, finding true love, becoming a star, or finishing law school.
  • Whatever it is, it’s identifiable to readers and deeply important to them.
  • Whatever that need is, whether they will succeed in fulfilling ought to be in question. “I was looking for a job and then, no problem, I found a job,” isn’t a novel. (“I was looking for a job and then, holy @#$@! you wouldn’t believe what happened…” on the other hand…)
  • The MC has some good qualities and some bad ones. Not every MC is a saint, or even necessarily nice. However, they have some quality that makes the reader interested enough to stick with them for 500+ pages: they are, to reference a previous essay, funny, smart or nice.
  • The MC makes an appearance early in the book, in a way that makes it clear that they are the one.
  • Finally, there’s that dreaded character change thing: traditional Western novel structure tends to go thusly: the MC’s flaws get in the way of achieving their goal, and then when they overcome those flaws (if they do), they either get what they wanted or find they have grown beyond it.
  • How does a reader know when they’ve met the main character? If you aren’t sure, rewatch a few minutes of a favorite movie this week, one you know well. Keep the media remote in your hand and pause whenever an important character appears for the first time. Ask yourself: if I hadn’t already seen this, would I think they’re the protagonist? How do you know? Notice how they look, what they say, what they do. How are they lit? What’s the camera angle like? The music? At the end of each such scene, take a moment to think about what you learned about this character. What stuck, in other words?

    (This is worth doing with all the major characters, even after you’ve met the protagonist.)

    Then watch just a little more, briefly considering those characters who were too minor to rate this treatment. In general, they probably weren’t named, and didn’t draw much attention to themselves. If someone isn’t important to the flow of the story, a writer will probably ‘dial down’ their entries and exits from the narrative, to ensure that the reader’s consciousness doesn’t snag on them. We don’t want our audiences focused on Hill the maid when we’re reading about whether Miss Elizabeth Bennett will accept Mr. Darcy’s marriage proposal.

    Beginning writers sometimes throw their MC into a first scene with nothing but a first name, and perhaps a wisp of physical description. These poor ciphers then move into the plot without ever giving us much sense of themselves as individuals. Establishing who a character is-taking a second to give us some telling detail that makes them unique, memorable and worth knowing-doesn’t have to take thousands of words. It is, however, an entirely worthwhile effort.

    How do you do it? Start by noticing what is distinctive about everyone in your lives. Is it a physical trait, an incident in their past, a situation they’re in? (A person with a South Carolina accent isn’t unique in South Carolina . . . but move them to Vancouver, B.C., and they suddenly become exotic.) Are they addicts? Achievers? Disabled? Sociopathic? Colorblind?

    What ‘s the first thing you’d say about these individuals if you were talking to a third party? And hey–what would you say it if they weren’t present to defend themselves? What would you say at their eulogy?

    Those are the details we desperately want whenever you’re introducing us to an important character, especially if they’re your MC. You aren’t making a film: you can’t cue the audience with music or other non-linguistic cues, but the idea is the same. Take some time. Shine some light on them. Show how they’re special.

    But wait! What if the MC of your hyper-realistic novel is totally, completely, utterly, boringly normal?

    First, I’d ask: Are they really? I believe everyone is unique, that they have some trait that makes them stand out from the crowd. See how many times you can complete the following sentence, drawing on the real-life people you’ve met:

    S/he is completely ordinary, except for _______________________________.

    If you’ve got a book on the go, have a look at your MC, paying particular attention to their first entrance into your novel. Have you taken a moment or two to give us a sense of who they are? Do they get the spotlight, or are they passing through the story, all but invisibly? Are they talking heads, devoid of anything but voice?

    If so, dress them up. Give them a little love. Get them dirty. Remember, if you are passionate about your characters, readers will be, too.

    (Dessert – Katya’s non-profit marketing blog on telling details.)

    Response to Got Protagonist?

    1. But of course! (The next bunch of writing essays are very much ‘the basics,’ stuff that’ll be self-evident to most writers unless they’ve only just begun.)