So, you have a premise laid out. Now comes the task of finding a hero or heroine that is interesting enough to develop sympathy with the readers and, for the most part, carry your book. If you have a premise or even a plot in mind, but still no major character to focus on, consider these five tips on finding your best protagonist.
1. Rooted at the center of the plot
This one is a little obvious. Your protagonist should be at least slightly involved with the premise. If our premise focuses on the 17th-century Caribbean, our set of possible characters will be a little different than the present day. Because our story will take place largely on ships, a sailor of any kind is an obvious choice. Anyone stuck on land would have no way of knowing what’s taking place. If you already have a little idea of the plot involved, this makes things even easier.
2. Has fitting goals to the plot
Your protagonist should not merely be reacting to what is going on. Reactive protagonists follow the dinosaurs pretty quickly because they’re flowing with the current, contemplating the azure colors of the river while all the active protagonists paddle to shore to avoid the upcoming waterfall. Your protagonist needs goals that will fit the plot– in other words, bite-sized chunks that amount to the plot goal.
If your plot isn’t that fleshed-out, don’t panic. If you have a bite-sized goal like the one above and a dangerous situation, that’s more than enough to begin. Writing tends to expose the subconscious. Once we get all of the words out that we were thinking of, more ideas have room to surface. Besides, your protagonist probably doesn’t know his end goals right now either. She could end up pursuing one goal, only to realize later that she wanted to do the complete opposite. In other words, there’s wiggle room here.
3. Has fitting stakes to the plot
Your protagonist should also have things to lose, not just things to gain. Even if your character starts with absolutely no material possessions, that is all the better– your character’s spirit/faith/will can be the hardest thing to lose, and your character can lose not only this, but all hope of advancing to a better state. These stakes should be introduced right off the bat, and only escalate as the story goes on.
4. Has a worthy opponent
In many ways, your protagonist is only as interesting as your antagonist. You don’t want to make things too easy on him. Your antagonist should also have good goals and stakes (which will be covered in a later article), but mostly he should be interesting. You should love your antagonist, but with a harsher kind of love. She doesn’t have to be similar to your protagonist, or have the same occupation/talents. They use their different advantages against each other, while trying to shield their weaknesses.
5. Accurately fits the theme
I saved this for last because, at least in my projects, I have almost no idea what the theme will be until a ways through. However, if you have an idea, you can tailor your protagonist to mirror your theme. This depends partly on what kind of protagonist you want. If you want to see good triumph, pick a traditional protagonist. If you want to see redemption, pick an anti-hero or a downright negative protagonist (Scrooge is a good example of the latter).
6. Is someone who fascinates you
Okay, so I lied… sort of. Except this one isn’t really a tip so much as raw intuition. Personal opinion can’t be boiled down into a formula. Sometimes a character pops up at us, as clear as a photograph, and we can’t help but jump back, then recover ourselves to sit at the keyboard because we love this character so much. Unfortunately, this happens pretty rarely. Sometimes we get only a murky reflection, accompanied by a raw feeling that the character embodies. This is actually more of what we want, because it allows the character room to develop.
I use the word “fascinate” here because protagonists come in different shades. Heroes range from the almost painfully moral to the dregs of society, who you want to see changed. However, no matter who you choose, that person has to have at least a handful of redeeming qualities. Readers can’t be completely turned away. Your character may be the most savage warrior on the planet, but he also has a talent for biting sarcasm and taming horses. Same for the other side of the spectrum. Your character may be a saint, but can’t resist swearing when something goes wrong at the office. The key here is relatable enough.
Your protagonist should do the following with your readers: make them care, make them worry, and make them learn (in that order, preferably). She should follow your readers around after they’ve read the last page. Because your readers, if even for a moment, should see the world through your character’s eyes. And they should remember that moment of new vision, whether they were inspired or repelled by it. Either way, they will be changed by it.
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