The last couple of weeks, we’ve talked about our antagonist. I know. . . . You identify with your protagonist, not your antagonist. That’s natural. The protagonist is the good guy. In fact, don’t tell anybody, but in a lot of our work the protagonist is actually us. Oh, you didn’t realize we knew that?
Yep, that swashbuckling hero or drop-dead gorgeous doll is very frequently the author. I don’t want to picture myself as the little skinny guy on the beach getting sand kicked in his face by the bully. I want to see myself as the handsome, macho lifeguard who steps in and chases the bully away. Since we find ourselves very interesting, we can’t wait to talk about ourselves. . . . Oops. I mean our protagonist.
Okay. It’s time to do just that. Conflict, primarily created by the antagonist, drives the story and keeps the reader turning the pages, but the protagonist IS the story. There would be no one trying to overcome the antagonist—and therefore no story—without the protagonist.
We said a couple of weeks ago that the antagonist doesn’t have to be a serial killer or a sadistic rapist. He just has to have a goal that’s in conflict with that of the protagonist. Likewise, the protagonist doesn’t have to be some kind of angel. He can be a colossal screw-up or annoy people. She can talk too much or spend too much time touching up her lipstick. In fact, if this character is some near-perfect vision, no one will be able to accept or identify with him or her. He or she must have warts. The main requirement is that he or she can win the reader’s sympathy.
Well, he or she must also have a worthy and positive goal. The goal probably isn’t apparent at first—even to the character. That usually begins to jell after the inciting incident, which we’ll discuss in a future issue. The point is he or she can’t be just wandering through life willy-nilly. And the goal must be positive.
For instance, the goal can’t be trying to avoid being obliterated in a nuclear explosion. That’s a negative goal, and it won’t make into a story. It’ll fall flat on its face.
On the other hand, joining a special ops team to go behind the lines in some rogue nation and destroy that nation’s ability to wage nuclear warfare is positive. The goal is to accomplish something, not merely to avoid something.
And our protagonist must be incapable of achieving the goal. Whoa. Wait a minute, David. This is the hero. He’s supposed to win. What are you talking about?
Our protagonist cannot be Superman at the beginning of the story. There’s nowhere to go from there. He must start out as Clark Kent. Through his dealings with the antagonist he grows to become Superman, but he can’t start out that way.
If he had a battle with Lex Luthor at the beginning of our story, Lex Luthor would have to win. Our boy must have an arc, beginning in relative weakness but growing through the conflicts along the way to become stronger and stronger until he can defeat Lex Luthor.
One of the books I wrote which the publishing industry managed to miss out on was about a fourteen year old girl who lost her parents in the War Between the States and had to make her own way in life. But I had her start out being able to out-smart, out-shoot, and out-bluff everybody from page one. She defeated robbers, rapists, murderers, card sharks and all manner of bad guys right from the start of the book. No arc. No real conflict. No story.
Okay, so we’ve got this character in mind. Now we need to build a profile just like we did with our antagonist. This is where we make this character an identifiable person with his own distinct personality, character, habits and so forth. Our reader should be able to tell from this person’s behavior and manner who he or she is. This can be accomplished only through the building of a detailed profile. Refer to the things we discussed about the antag’s profile. The protag’s profile needs all those same things spelled out in detail.
Next week we’ll get into some of the other major characters. Meanwhile, have a good week.
Ø What differences do your antag and protag have in appearance, voice, manners, habits, and so forth?
Ø What flaws or weaknesses can you give your protag at the beginning of your story that he or she can overcome along the way?
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Thanks for this David…I’ve been working on my hero in my wip, and your advice really helps!
Glad I could be helpful, Kate. Thanks for stopping by.
Thanks for your comments, Amaranthmine. (Wish I knew your name, but I couldn’t find it.) Did you read my post last week on antagonists? They don’t have to be unlikeable. They just have to have an agenda that conflicts with the protagonist’s.
Oh your timing couldn’t be more perfect as I’m mapping out my next murder mystery! So appreciate your tips!
Thanks, Marji. Glad it came in handy for you.
Don’t know if you saw my tweet this morning, but your smile always makes my day.
Great post, Dave! One of the things I find difficult in writing beginnings is that sometimes my protagonist isn’t immediately likable. She IS flawed, and readers are judgmental, especially when reading just the beginning of the story. They are dismissive of the character because of her flaws. As you point out, our characters should grow from the story, so it’s a tricky dilemma for authors when something as simple as having your protagonist start in a kiss makes readers assume she’s a shallow slut. So what if she is. Does that mean she has nothing to offer as a character?
One of my favorite protagonists, Scarlet O’Hara, was incredibly flawed and not very likable much of the time, but the story revolved around her growth as a person in the midst of multiple crises. In a more current example from my genre, I did not immediately connect with Tris in Veronica Roth’s Divergent, and halfway through I don’t LIKE her much, but her imperfections make for a gripping story.
Love your example of Clark Kent and Superman to illustrate a character’s transformation throughout the story. Personally, I think it’s the quirks and not-so-likable parts of characters that make them worth reading about.
Thanks you, Jennifer. Flawed but likeable can be daunting at times, but as you said, unlikeable probably means unread.