The Only Reason You Should Ever Choose a Protagonist

The Only Reason You Should Ever Choose a Protagonist

The Only Reason You Should Ever Choose a ProtagonistMost of the time, writers don’t so much choose a protagonist as the protagonist chooses us. At least, that’s how it feels sometimes.

These fascinating people spring to life in our brains, sometimes from seemingly nowhere, and they beckon us to follow them down the rabbit hole so we can tell their stories. Naturally, we oblige them.

But let’s not surrender control of the process. After all, sometimes the wrong protagonist will choose you. How can you tell when that’s happened? And what should you do about it?

How to Tell You’ve Chosen the Wrong Protagonist

To begin with, let’s examine this idea of the “wrong” protagonist. What does that even look like?

For starters, try this: try imaging your current work-in-progress with one of your minor characters in the lead.

It just… doesn’t feel right, does it?

This sense of wrongness arises from the simple fact that you’re probably not as interested in this minor character as you are in your protagonist. And that, right there, is the essence of the right protagonist.

The right protagonist is going to be:

  • The character you’re most interested in.
  • The most interesting person in the story (which, actually, isn’t always the same thing as the above).
  • The most integral catalyst in the plot’s conflict.
  • The heart of the story’s theme.

If your character doesn’t fulfill all these roles, then he probably isn’t the right protagonist for your story.

The Only Reason a Character Deserves to Be Your Protagonist

Hooking up with a protagonist for the long haul of a story is kind of like getting married. When someone asks you, “Why this guy?”–there’s always an answer.

That’s the same question you should be asking about your protagonist: Why this character?

Why does it have to be this character about whom you tell this story? Why couldn’t you tell it about that interesting minor character from above?

As an example on the negative side of this question, consider again Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea. I talked before about how the characters got short-changed in this story. One of the reasons for that was because these particular characters had nothing personal to do in this plot. We could switch out the entire cast for another set of characters, and the plot would still have run on just the same.

Chris Hemsworth in the Heart of the Sea

In other words, in answer to Why these characters?, the best we can do is shrug. The question has no answer–which means these are the wrong characters in the wrong plot.

The only reason a character ever deserves to be chosen as your protagonist is because the story can’t exist without him. Even if he’s one of many trapped in the conflict, his story is the one that’s so integral, so powerful, so meaningful that he deserves to have you write about it.

That’s how you choose a protagonist so dynamic he practically writes the plot for you.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How did you choose a protagonist for your current story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I want to tell my protagonist’s story, not some other character’s story.

    By showing what she does and decides, I’m telling the story I want to tell, the story that says what I want to say to the world, about her and about life.

    If some other character were the protagonist, I’d be telling a different story.

    For me, there’s never anything else that comes into the decision of choosing my protagonist. Is her/his story the story I want to tell?

    Now choosing a villain is a different matter. I had to re-plot my protagonist’s story when I realized that the villain I’d chosen wasn’t a villain at all, although she appears to be at times. I now have a new villain for my protagonist’s story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s like that great old saying about how “every character is a hero in his own right.” The thing we sometimes overlook is that every character is the hero of a *different* story. Switch out the protag for anyone else and you instantly get an entirely different tale.

      • Robert Billing says:

        Exactly. In fact villains usually believe that they are misunderstood heroes- at least mine do. Arthur can torture a young woman convinced that he is setting the human race free from tyranny. The young woman has a different agenda, one that he lives to regret.

        Not for very long…

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Great quote: “You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world.”-John Rogers

    • I’m sure it’s because I’ve been reading so many of KM’s articles here lately, but just last night I fixed my two villains in my fantasy. I’ve known from the beginning that there would be two, just because of how circumstances presented themselves, and for months and months I’ve been fighting against it, thinking somehow I’m “wrong”, and figured, “Well, maybe one of them died back during blah-blah-blah, so my heroes don’t have to deal with him anymore.”

      All I did was watch a YouTube video about two video game villain fighting, and I thought, “Why do these guys always do this thing instead of that thing? One day I’d like to see a story that…

      “Oh.”

      “OH.”

      So… Two villains, both alive, leeetle tiny detail changed and WHAM! Fixed a boatload of story problems.

      XD

  2. Mirkwood says:

    This is a very helpful and timely post. I’m having trouble with one of my current ideas right now, and I think it stems from having been focusing on the wrong characters for the last, oh…couple years? The young woman whose life has been destroyed by the queen is shaping up to be not enough to carry the story as the protagonist. She’s just not interesting enough. Rather, my attention has been shifting to two characters who I knew I should have been focusing on before: the queen herself and her former guard/former lover who is now fighting to end her rule. They’re the two who have all the angst and grit and emotion that can drive the story forward, and I have been more interested in them than any others for a long time now. So I’m going to see where this new direction can take me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! Even without knowing more about your story, I can see that the second angle has a ton of potential. It’s got inherent conflict, and the conflict is ultra-personal–which is what makes the plot all about the characters.

  3. Glenn Sellers says:

    How did I choose my protagonist? Actually, believe it or not, my favorite protagonist chose me. William Henry Watson, who was inspired by John Carter of Barsoom, sprang into my mind after reading several of the Barsoom series of books back in the 1970s. I wanted to created a character like John Carter but not exactly like him. Unlike John Carter, who was created in the early 20th Century when sword fighting was still fresh in everyone’s mind, William came to life in the late middle 20th Century when sword fighting was uncommon at best and non-existent at worst. So, he transformed into a star fighter pilot but this didn’t suit him or his character. When I finally started writing about him, I chose a combination of both worlds, plus, I added in an aspect of semi-time travel. I say semi because the time travel was in the fact that the story takes place on a world that seems to have stagnated at the Medieval period of Earth. William has knowledge they don’t have and, thanks to his father, an ability with a sword that they do have. He can be a bit unscrupulous and can kill without a second thought when dealing with his enemies or providing food for the family with whom he lives and, yet, he takes in an orphan cub and raises it with all the love the cub’s own mother would have given him. This is exactly how I pictured him 40 years ago and I’ve finally gotten his story written down. Well, part 1 anyway.

    • Just out of curiosity, are you writing a “planetary romance”? AKA “sword and planet”? That’s the genre that “John Carter” and Leigh Brackett’s Eric John Stark series fell into. So did “Dune.” I love those, and I’m loving the e-book revolution for resurrecting those stories.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Swords and star fighters–that’s a lot of fun! John Carter was actually an influence on my dieselpunk/historical novel Storming as well, although only in tone. I wanted a little bit of that sheer adventuresomeness.

  4. Awesome snausages, thanks for the post.
    Good pointers about choosing the protagonist. I like the idea of them choosing us versus them. As if they showed up knocking at our front door demanding we tell their story.

    Deep down I know there is no one else who could be the protagonist in this one. Everything hangs on him. A few months ago I was displeased with his development but unsure of the reason. Now in the last few weeks we’ve made great progress. I realized I didn’t know him well enough. Working on his childhood and backstory has opened up a wealth of information.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Almost inevitably, if I find myself suck on a story, it’s because I don’t know the characters well enough. I have to sink back into my dreamzone and watch them at work for a little while longer.

      • Creating characters is a first for me. Unless you include Stanley the mosquito, or the no-name astronaut explorer dude comic I wrote in high school. There was also this G.I. Joe grunt called “TNT” that I made up that was pretty cool. But all of those were on the fly without much thought or depth. Now I have the pleasure of enjoying true character development! WHOO-HOO! Truly fun stuff. I find it very extremely fascinating. Not sure where they come from. As you said, they show up suddenly demanding we tell their story.

        I hope we all find a place for our ideas, or better put, characters who either never made it to the page or didn’t survive the harsh editing process.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Even though I’m such plot/structure oriented person, story starts and ends with characters for me. Learning about my people is by far my favorite part of the process.

  5. As the saying goes, if *Hamlet* didn’t have Hamlet, if the story didn’t have such a cautious protagonist, it wouldn’t be *Hamlet.* (It’d be *Macbeth.*)

  6. What a great idea for an article.
    I just had this problem myself; I have a book I’ve started and restarted so many times with different protagonists and it never felt right. No matter how interesting they were, they were really just along for the ride until the villain showed up. SHE is an interesting character, driving the plot and having major crises… I just couldn’t wait to write her scenes.
    So she’s the protagonist now, and I get to write a better story than any of the other characters could have given me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I hear you. I have a story idea that’s stuck in limbo because the antagonist turned out to be, by far, my favorite character. Problem is the plot doesn’t quite carry her. So she just has to wait on the back burner for the time being.

      • I hope you unearth that character someday young lady. Do people write stories about antagonists? Hmm. Food for thought.

        Write on sister!

        • Glenn Sellers says:

          Well, actually, by definition, the protagonist is “the leading character or one of the major characters in a drama, movie, novel, or other fictional test.” So, if K.M. Weiland made her story revolve around her antagonist, she would become the protagonist. Sounds a bit like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? I have mentioned my story with William Henry Watson as the protagonist; however, I’ve got another story I’m also working on that has two protagonists, since the story revolves around both of them and their budding relationship.

  7. When I was brainstorming my current project, I had a harder time hashing out one of my three main protagonists. As I was writing up her character summary, I started to get irritated with her. I realized I wouldn’t want to spend too much time with her in real life if she was a real person, and more than that, she wasn’t equal to the tasks I needed of her.

    So I scrapped everything and re-imagined her with the qualities she’d need to deal with the events of the story. I still gave her room to grow, but it was important that she should be capable of growing. Now I love her, and she even showed up in a dream recently with another character, as if daring me to write more about them.

    There are some stories I have in the back of my mind to write, but they’re “high on the shelf” for the moment because I haven’t yet thought of the type of protagonist who would thrive in that story. Or in some cases, I have the character, but not the story. This must be what it’s like to be a casting director.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good for you! I have some of those “on the shelf” stories myself, which are awaiting the spark of a leading man or lady to really bring it all to life.

  8. Kate Flournoy says:

    Good thoughts here. I totally agree. One thing that helps me with this is to remember that the protagonist IS the story. The protagonist has to be tied via arc to the message, and the message has to be tied to the plot, and there’s usually only one character of the cast JUST PERFECT for that role. Others can enhance it and provide foils and contrasts and all that, but there’s only one who can embody every aspect of it, and whoever that is should be the protagonist.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Exactly. It’s all interconnected. Plot/character/theme: they’re inherent to one another, whether the author realizes it consciously or not. So we might as well take charge and make certain they’re all working together as powerfully as possible.

    • Hi Kate, how’s the writing going?

      • Kate Flournoy says:

        Well… great! I’m writing the very last word of my WIP tonight or tomorrow, if nothing unexpected comes up. I started it almost a year ago and have gone now to 489,981 words… so, though I’ve enjoyed it and learned so much, I’ll be glad to be done with this one!

        At least… until I have to edit it. 😉
        Yourself?

        And pardon my boldness… but do I know you?

        • Wowsers! 489k. That’s a huge word count.

          I believe you were the one with the following thematic question: What determines truth?

          I have to do a lot of world building and fleshing out of my characters. Currently at 50k.

          • Kate Flournoy says:

            Oh, okay, yes, that was me. 🙂

            50k is not bad at all— how do you manage to keep your word counts so manageable? 😛

        • Glenn Sellers says:

          489,000+ words? Wow! I thought my 228,891 words was a lot. Of course, that number doesn’t include the introduction and foreword but I doubt I’ll reach even 300,000. My book is like a journal of life of a human on another world. It’s also the first book of at least four, maybe five. Oh, and 50K words seems more like a short story than a full length book. I know that the Writers of the Future contest limits writers to 17,000 words.

          • Madeleine L’Engle’s classic “A Wrinkle in Time” is 49,000 words. (First sci-fi/fantasy novel to have a female protagonist)

        • Well I need to seriously beef it up. It’s from NanoWriMo. I’m going back to outline the thing and put structure to it. Working backwards I suppose. Then I have do character arc along with a lot of world building. Hopefully I can make to 120k or 140k. A lot of work to do!

          🙂

          • Kate Flournoy says:

            Good luck to both of you. 🙂 And thankfully Benjamin Thomas, beefing up isn’t quite so difficult as trimming. 😛
            Which I’m going to be doing a lot of in the next few months… because I just finished my WIP!!! 😀

  9. Glenn Sellers says:

    I know what you’re talking about. If you’ve never read any books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, you should. He was notorious for starting a story by “meeting” the protagonist and then the protagonist “requests” that ERB write the story. His Barsoom series for example is “narrated” to him by his “Uncle John Carter” who lives there. His Caspak series is taken from a series of papers “written” by the men who “experienced them. Edgar Rice Burroughs seemed to be the master of the protagonist “selecting” him. I’ve got three story series I’m currently working on and in every one the protagonist sprang into my mind and said, “Let me tell you a story you won’t believe.” And I’ve gone from there.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah! That’s a good point. I hadn’t ever looked Burroughs’s little technique in quite that way.

  10. Wow, this is exactly what I needed to read now. I’ve been struggling with a story idea that I really love, but when I sit down to write it, it bores me to death. Now I realize that this is my problem — my MC has nothing to do with the main theme, but one of the sidekicks does.

    So instead of switching who the MC is, would it be a good idea to just rework my MC? Give him a different backstory, different goals, different wants than what he has now so as to fit the main theme?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Both options are legit. It really just depends on which you feel is going to benefit the story most strongly.

  11. Glenn Sellers says:

    You could always do like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes. He was the main character but the stories were written from the viewpoint of Dr. Watson.

  12. In my story- which I have been working on for years- I recently experienced a moment of panic. I have two characters that are main characters, and there was this point of OH NO, WHICH ONE IS THE PROTAGONIST???? This then involved several weeks of hashing out what each character wants most, their greatest fears, and all that jazz. The one that was most difficult for me was the one I had always thought of as the Protagonist. (As the story is about her)
    Up until this point I didn’t have a clear understanding of the Character Arc, and mostly thought it unnecessary to focus on. Not to say there wasn’t one at all, but my story certainly lacked in that regard. I was lucky though and found this site right at that moment. 🙂 So now I know that my two main characters both have their own wants and desires, some of them meshing but each with their own ideas on how to accomplish these goals. And thus I get conflict! *Whoohoo!*
    My story wouldn’t hold up without either one of them, though I dare say one character might be better off without the other, but then what would be the fun in that? (No really, it would totally destroy my theme to get rid of her.) So I guess I could say I have a protagonist, and a hero, (and an antagonist of course too) who are all filling their roles as different people.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      One thing I didn’t touch on in this post (but do here) is that the protagonist and the main character can occasionally, in certain stories, be two different people. The protagonist drives the conflict, while the main character is often more of an observer who is impacted by the change the protagonist creates. That understanding can be helpful in figuring out which character(s) is at the heart of your story.

  13. My MC (well, I see it as there being two, but the same goes for both) is irreplaceable. Without one of them, there is no chance for the story to happen at all. Without the other one, the events starying the story may or may not happen at all, and if they do it’s likely they won’t turn out even near the way they do in the story. For me, MCs come with the story.

  14. I have a short story Christmas story with my publisher in editing, and I am working on the second part now. The publisher recommended two books, two short stories. In the first book, my protagonist is an arrogant, prideful, people user, and writer of mystery novels. Who has broken his contract with the publisher for his next novel. His name is Robert; however, he does become Bob, with the help of Patricia, who becomes Patty. Where did he come from? That’s scary. There must be an evil demon floating around inside of me to come up this piece of work. I just started the story with a Robert, and he grew in my mind until he became a full-blown pain in the neck. I wanted him to start low, full of hate, and by the end of the first book, he is high on goodness. As I think about it, I think he chose me, I think he needed help.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve been pondering a couple “failed” stories of my own–stories that just never congealed enough in the conception stage for me to actually be able to write them, even though I really loved the main characters. One of the reasons they ended up not working for me was because the characters were just too static, too “with it.” In short, there wasn’t enough room for growth. When you start with a character like Robert, there’s all this room to play around in and watch the character evolve. It’s a blast!

  15. This points out another failure with my first book. I had four protagonists but I naively thought that simply making them typical metalheads would swing it. I realize now I was wrong, especially as several readers stated that the older brother of one of the protagonists was the most interesting character in the story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s interesting how sometimes minor characters can end up being the most interesting people in the book. I tend to think it’s because we put way less pressure on ourselves to get the minor characters “right.” As a result, they just kind of flow out and do their own thing on the page.

      • Very good point

      • Kate Flournoy says:

        YES. One of my sister’s top favorite characters in my WIP is a minor character— and I didn’t even originally know he existed. I walked in on his first scene, and I was just like ‘wow… this guy…’ and from then on he just wrote himself. I’m actually a little shocked at how deep and dynamic he turned out, because I feel like I didn’t do anything… it just happened. 😛

  16. Glenn Sellers says:

    I guess in a roundabout way, that’s what I wrote with William Henry Watson, although there isn’t a lot of romance involved. (He does meet a slave girl who eventually falls in love with him and he reciprocates.) The romance aspect of the story is played down a bit. The story takes place about 500 years in the future and, at that time, more so than today, swordplay is only a hobby. William’s father chose to channel his natural aggressiveness and hyperactivity into martial arts, including swordplay. Therefore, shortly after he arrives on the world where he is taken too after being kidnapped, he wins the admiration of his slave masters by helping them win a battle against a raiding party from a nearby village. So, while it might possibly be described as a “planetary romance”, I consider it more of a general sci-fi with sword play involved. Oh, by the way, the inhabitants of this world have no idea what a bow or spear are. William uses this lack of knowledge to his advantage.

  17. Glenn Sellers says:

    Thank you. I hadn’t looked at it that way either until I read the statement about the character forcing you to tell their story. When I read that, I said to myself, “Wow! That’s exactly the way ERB wrote. He wasn’t telling his story; he was relating someone else’s story.”

  18. Good article. Excellent analysis, it explains why my favourite protagonists have worked and why I can’t get a handle on the WIP. Although she is a strong character, although she has a cause to promote (and cannot win her cause), I simply get my head around her.
    Or ought I say, I can’t get into her head.
    It’s been two years trying, and only 45,000 words put ‘on paper’.
    Now I turn to an old hero of mine; an actual historical personality, and I’m contemplating the crazy idea of making him my next protagonist.
    What makes a historical novel easy is that we have the actual actual timeline to follow.
    This means that, in writing a factual character into a fictional novel, I have to know ALL the details of ALL the facts that I put into the novel’s story line, and then clothe the facts in scenes.
    And then, I have to make the character believable to anyone who might read the novel – and who might just know as much as, or more than, I know.
    Let’s see if this protagonist meets the four criteria Katie has defined.
    BTW, this new little inspiration just came to me while reading today’s blog. I haven’t even stopped to read the comments.
    I’ll go back. Promise.
    🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This makes me think of a historical novel I worked on for several years here recently. I loved it and felt it had some really strong potentials, but it just. wouldn’t. work. It all came back to the protagonist. “I couldn’t get my head around him” was exactly right. It was like I understood him only on an exterior level, but couldn’t properly get inside his head. And it doomed the story.

  19. Oh goodness. I’ve broken my own rule. I forgot to edit my post (above)
    Forgive the glitches.
    You’ll know them when you see them.

  20. Glenn Sellers says:

    Something else, I’m sure you’ve talked about elsewhere, that I noticed when writing my William Henry Watson story. I took a different aspect of myself and a character formed from that. For example, William is a bit of an idealist who believes in right and wrong and very little it all depends. He never actually lies to anyone; he just tends to omit certain facts. His best friend, and former slave master, My-Rora is an innocent adolescent who has a crush on a “girl” and gets extremely tongue-tied when she’s around. The Keeper of the Law of the village, Mu-Naka, is a wise old “man” who follows the letter of the law and makes certain that everyone else knows what is expected of them. The village leader, Lo-Nachoo, is the antagonist in this story and he is continually trying to find a way to rid himself of William even though William has never offered to do him harm in any way. There are various and sundry other male characters that each carry a bit of me in them. Am I the only one that does this? With female characters, my main concern is making certain that they are not to unpredictable, not mercurial in other words.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Personally, I think I tend to do this more subconsciously than consciously. I rarely purposefully base characters off anything I recognize in my own life–myself or people I know–but every once in a while, I’ll be editing along and realize, “Ah! That’s where that came from!”

      • Glenn Sellers says:

        Well, so far, the story I’ve recently finished editing, for the final time, is the only one where I consciously did that. I didn’t intend to do it at first; it just worked out that way. When I realized that William was, in actuality, me to a great degree, I started looking at other characters and noticed that I had, quite literally, put a bit of me in each of the main characters. When I created my antagonist, I deliberately started including my dark side as part of his character. I guess you could say that my protagonist and my antagonist were my yin and yang at odds with each other.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          It’s actually a really interesting way to gain insight into yourself!

          • Glenn Sellers says:

            That’s true. After writing the climax scene, I suddenly realized that I had written the classical internal battle of good self vs. bad self into an actual battle.

  21. The sequel in a romantic suspense, these are the two with the most to lose and the most to gain in this particular story. The main character is the most damaged at the beginning of the story, has the most to gain/lose and is the most changed. It is his story because it is how these events most impact his life and that of the heroine. It is the evolution of their relationship, the metamorphosis that has to take place for them to have their HEA.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Asking that question–“Who has the most at stake?”–is always a great rule of thumb for finding the best protagonist.

  22. I have an ensemble cast in my book. I have two or three characters the story couldn’t exist without. Even there, though, I find that one character stands out, and becomes the protagonist.

    • I like the idea of having an ensemble cast, and two to three other characters vital to the story. Having the protagonist is a must obviously, but the supporting cast is just as viable. My story couldn’t exist without them either.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ensemble stories are beasts of their own breed. But finding a central character around which to gel the whole story is usually the best way to make it relatable to readers.

  23. I am blessed, or cursed, with the ability to make almost any character important. I just dig deep enough, bend the plot around them a bit (or a lot – change rocks! :o), and voila, very interesting character.

    A while back my WIP had a dozen main characters with really interesting plots and developments, and was it massive!

    I’ve now managed to cull it down to one character that gets to go many places. I don’t know, maybe I end up writing a dozen books in this universe with this character as protagonist, or maybe I’ll end up with one book with a dozen parts, or something else entirely.

    I have, however, noticed that sometimes several characters end up in similar situations (get kidnapped, get hospitalized, etc) and then I know I have the situation, but I need to pick one character – or in this case, determine if the character I’ve decided to go with fits in that scene or if that scene should go into the “good to have for future projects”-folder.

    For me it’s more a case of bending the plot around the character. After all, if I’ve been able to come up with one awesome situation, but have to discard it because it doesn’t fit, what prevents me from coming up with another that does fit?

    Imagination doesn’t run out by being used, rather the opposite!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nothing wrong with lots of vivid, interesting characters! That’s awesome. As long as they’re not derailing the plot away from the protag’s journey, they can only bring interesting elements to the story. But good for you for recognizing how to streamline them by not allowing multiple characters to fulfill basically the same story role.

  24. Definitely an important aspect of storytelling and it can drive me crazy. Sometimes I re-imagine my story and see my protagonist from another character’s point of view. It changes the story. And like the seven blind mice folk tale, it’s a valid view. It helps me develop empathy for the rest of my characters. Sometimes they all fight for their spot in the limelight and I kind of love them all, but I must chose a favorite.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m a fan of using as few POVs as possible, but one of the great benefits of multiple POVs is that outside view of the protag. It can really bring some interesting added layers.

  25. Alberto Leal says:

    Hi,
    I chose my protagonist, William O’Hara because he was the answer to my question which built my book: what if all the legends about Santa Claus and other Christmas wonders were true and one person knew they were amongst us? That, his name and his Irish origin were all I had when I started to write. My book’s subtitle, Forgotten Dreams, came out of the process of getting to know William O’Hara which still goes on today. So I know O’Hara is my protagonist, and he does drive the story, but I don’t know why exactly. Yet.

  26. Great post. Choosing the protagonist is definitely important. The protagonist of my current novel was picked because she needs to be the main character. Celia is the descendant of Alice Liddel and has been called back to Wonderland to help save it from the Destroyers. I thought for a while about switching back and forth between Celia’s POV and the Made Hatter’s, who is also important, but I don’t think that would work well.

  27. To start off I should mention that I’m a total Pantser when it comes to writing, I only do world building if the story really needs it. Notes are taken as I write, and forget plot charts. So my story usually starts with a Protagonist, and majority of the time they are a tomboy like me, different ages, and different situations made them who they are. The story or situation they are in appears to me and then where I want the story to end, my job is to get the character from the beginning scene to the end scene. My Antagonist pops themselves up as the story goes, usually right after you get comfortable with the protagonist and their situation.

    The thing I sometimes have trouble with is choosing the voice of the story, I like to choose unusual ones every now and then, like the ship the characters are traveling in tells the story of its passengers, or a minor character telling the story from their point of view even though it is all about the main character. One story starts with a story teller posing a question to the reader, but sometimes I get ridiculed for the voice I’ve chosen.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I like the concept of using a ship as a narrator. As long as it makes sense within the story, both as an overall motif and thematically, it sounds fun. The downside, of course, is using a distant narrator like this will prevent you from digging as deep into your actual character’s mindsets.

  28. How can I make my protagonist more interesting and less “milk toast” they are lacking something and I don’t know how to improve them. All the supporting characters are good/real people but they can’t be changed from their role with the protagonist without making the story fall apart, so- how can the protagonist be improved and made more interesting?
    Thanks

  29. Glenn Sellers says:

    Personally, I’ve always found it a good idea to write a bio of your character(s). If you know your character’s history, you can understand why he/she does the things you write about. In the story I’ve mentioned here several times, I wrote a bio about him so I would always know why he does the things he does. By knowing the character’s motivations, I know what to write in any given situation. That may work for you as well.

  30. What are your thoughts of viewpoint characters that aren’t protagonists? How can you keep them interesting while observing the real protagonist pursuing the story goal while not making them feel like puppet characters?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Remember: every character is the hero of his own story. Keep non-protag POV characters tied closely to the plot with their own fiercely held motives and goals.

  31. You know, K.M., you actually helped me with this questions AGES ago. My method of determining the best protagonist involves your character interview questions.

    Sometimes my story seems to center around a particular character–but s/he isn’t always the best one to tell it. So I go through my “What If” process to flesh out the story a bit, develop a short list of primary characters, and then begin to interview them. The ones that tell me the most about themselves end up in the running–I generally end up with between one and three strong voices.

    Then the next question I ask myself is this: would it be better to have the protag tell his OWN story, or would it be better for some other character to tell it? Should they take turns telling their parts? In one story I wrote, the antagonist (a narcissistic 40-year-old playboy with a PhD in psychology) told the protagonist’s story (she’s a sarcastic, strong-willed abuse survivor) . It was one of my most successful endeavors.

    Anyway, going through those interview questions really helps me flesh out each character’s voice, conflict, and purpose in the story. They allowed me to take control of my characters. So thank you for that. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love the character interview process. It’s one of my favorite stages of writing. Glad you’re finding it useful as well!

      Your narcissist/survivor pairing sounds particularly interesting. When you can get a great juxtaposition–dichotomy, even–going, it opens up lots of fascinating possibilities.

  32. Cyndi Maher says:

    Thank you for all your writing expertise. After years in healthcare, where I have done my share of writing, I challenged myself to try my hand at the fiction my heart has longed to write. It was last year’s NANOWRIMO, and I had a great premise. That is, until I got stuck. In my mind’s eye, I saw my characters so clearly. Five strangers look for answers when their loved ones disappear in post apocalyptic America. Trouble is, while I saw the characters in the individual character arc, the overall story has been out of joint. Now, I understand why. I need to tell the using with the one character (protagonist) who is best suited to be connected to the story arc and who can reveal this later to the reader. That character is the one investigating the disappearances, not one of the five who are traumatized by loss. Thank you, thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There’s nothing wrong with stories with multiple “main” characters. But you’ll usually get the most cohesive and resonant effect with you can narrow it down to one solid protagonist, with whom readers can identify. Good for you for persevering with your story!

  33. Have you read David Eddings’ The Rivan Codex? In there he says that the protagonist is always either Percival, Lancelot, Gawain or Galahad. Since my book is aimed at a tween audience, I went with Percival, the kid who knows nothing at the beginning of the story.

    I also chose a character in the age range of my intended audience.

    Finally, I wanted an Avatar for my (at the time) 9yo son. (Now 11)

    So I chose the kid who doesn’t know he’s special, who has the farthest journey to make in the story, having begun as an unaware civilian who has no idea he has any extra abilities. (he’s going to end the series as [redacted], so yeah, wow, big difference to ordinary schoolboy)

    None of the other character would have been anywhere near as interesting to write, nor as relevant to the intended audience.

    And that’s why the series is built around this character!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s kinda awesome! Especially the bit about your son. 🙂 I haven’t read the book you’re referencing, but I’ll have to check it out! Thanks for mentioning it.

    • Sounds EXACTLY like the set-up for *Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children* and *Harry Potter and the *. It’s a pretty solid formula and one I’ve encountered in other craft books. The problem we’ve debated in my writing craft group is how to make a “Percival Story” stand out among other Percival stories. (Assuming the execution of the story is up to snuff, one of the “secrets” seems to be the depth and complexity of the story world.)

      I happen to LOVE Percival stories and I’d love to check yours out, Andrew. My son is 10. I don’t really write for kids, so I’m happy that other folks with a love for the craft of writing do! 🙂

  34. Robert Billing says:

    With me it started off with not wanting to write post-apo, I wanted SF with a hopeful tone, a future I’d like to live in. Then I needed some conflict and invented the “unstable utopia”, a paradise that could crash in flames if something went wrong.

    Then of course a couple of Villains realised that crashing in flames could make them very rich.

    So who shall defend? They kidnapped a teenage girl as part of the plot. Realising that space is so big that she’d probably never be found she came out with the line: There is no prospect of my being rescued unless I do it myself.

    And in that moment Jane became my protagonist.

    Three novels, lots of shorts and thirty years on I’m still telling her story. And there are a lot of dead villains.

  35. Love it! Really helpful advice, as always!

  36. This is a wonderful article, yet it’s exactly what I’m struggling with most in my main WIP. I wrote it in an attempt to tell a specific story, and I ended up becoming more engrossed in quite literally every other character in the story (including side characters, romantic interests, and the villain(s?)). The reason for this is that the central story I wanted to tell with Penelope, my protag, was fairly straightforward yet uninteresting to me. I challenged myself by creating a girl rather opposite to myself as a protagonist, and specifically for the purpose of softening my heart toward female protagonists. (I have an aversion for female characters in general, perhaps because I am a girl?) I also gave her certain traits that I envy, such as openmindedness, talent, compassion and optimism; to pair with the certain traits which oppose me that I am rather glad I lack, such as brashness and a certain amount of naivety.

    But all of these traits are essential for the “quest” she’s sent on, to be confident that she’s the “one to fulfill the prophesy” (when *spoiler* it was never her to begin with), and they are also traits that are worked upon as some of her main hurdles in the story. The other hurdle is the ghost of a witch intent on stripping the land of any and all fertility.

    Anyway, I know that this girl is the right type of character to carry this story, and that her growth and ending point will be glorious, and I understand why she is endearing to other characters (and certainly why she irritates others), but I personally have only fallen in love with her a few times. She’s just not my type of girl, and she’s hard to write sympathetically because of that.

    Perhaps I should say, I haven’t asked “Why these characters?” because the answer is clear to me: Because only these characters can carry the burdens made for them. Rather, I’ve asked “Why can’t I, after all my time spent with Penelope and seeing her through so many other perspectives of the other characters, like this protagonist?” I mean, in real life, we would likely be really good friends, but I hate re-reading my writing about her. Help?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      First thing I would encourage you to do is do some freehand interviewing with the character. Put her on the page and start asking her questions. Ask her *why* you don’t like her, etc.

      But it’s also worthwhile to note that the character may be exactly the right one for the story, but the story as a whole is the wrong one for you to write. I’ve come up with many great ideas for stories and characters, only to realize that however much I might enjoy reading them, I wasn’t in love with them enough to write them. It’s a painful conclusion, but an important one.

      You might find this post helpful: 3 Signs You Should Give Up on Your Story

      • Vickie B says:

        Ahh, don’t go breakin’ my heart. I’m going to learn from Penelope on this one and play the optimist; taking some serious time with her one-on-one sounds like something I need to do, especially since I have never really considered her in isolation. I won’t give up so easily!

        Thank you so much for your tips. I will also consider why I’m telling her story at all, as that might help motivate me and give her something more… real? Thanks!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Hah. Definitely not saying relinquishing this story is the right move. It’s worth considering, but 90% of stories are fixable. That’s the good news!

  37. The story I’m writing now is about my protagonist, Davaris, and his journey through the desolate world he finds himself in after getting killed. So he’s actually been my protagonist ever since I first conceived the idea of this story. I simply don’t think I could tell it from anyone else’s perspective.

    I’m not entirely sure what I want to say with this story, though. I just know the main character dies, wakes up in a strange world, hates strange world and wants to go home, grows to love this world, and ends up saving it from the antagonist. It feels like I’ve got a story, but I have absolutely no idea what the theme is.

    Is this normal?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely. Most authors start out without knowing a whole lot about the plot or the theme. But you can discover all that and create a solid story by paying attention to story structure and character arcs.

    • Hey … that sounds like The Wizard of Oz only with Dorothy knocked worse than unconscious! But the world isn’t beautiful and the protag never goes home.

      Does your protag accumulate a team of three helpers? (plus a little dog)

      You have the Wicked Witch equivalent; is there a Wizard? A Good Witch? Munchkins? Flying monkeys?

      Come to think of it, what’s the theme in that story?

  38. Andreia says:

    Very true.

    I have a story where a minor character suddenly started getting more and more important… enough that she might have her own spin off/short story, though she won’t be the main character in the main idea. 🙂

    I love when things like this happen!

  39. The protagonist in The Wizard of Oz isn’t the Wizard of Oz–although he seems like the most interesting character. Nor is it any member of the “special world.” No, it’s Dorothy, an outsider who comes in and saves that world from its oppressive Wicked Witch–and also deprives it of its wizard (and installs a new triumvirate government). In the process, Dorothy learns something; we know this because she tells us so. Does she change in any other way? She doesn’t go from meek to bold; she’s already bold enough to slap a lion. Her three helpers are the real change figures.

    Anyway, my protagonist is a mama’s boy just graduated from college who accidentally finds himself in a horrible community where everybody abuses everybody else…if it’s really abuse; none of them is complaining. I could have used one of the members of the horrible community as protagonist, and followed his/her journey. But no, I stuck in a Dorothy, a representative of America/Earth/”us” who discovers this other world. Unlike Dorothy, he doesn’t upset everything, but leaves it much as he found it. Also unlike Dorothy, he changes from meek to bold as his sense of right-and-wrong asserts itself.

    Sometimes I wonder it it’s the wrong protagonist, simply because he’s an outsider grafted onto the horrible community so he can discover it. But it’s such a common pattern (see “Special World”) that I don’t think that his alien-ness alone disqualifies him.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The Outsider archetype is a time-tested approach. Often, these are impact characters, following flat arcs, who change the worlds they enter via their own Truths.

    • Glenn Sellers says:

      Ah, “The Wizard of Oz”, I read that book several years ago. It’s often described as an American fairly tale because it meets all the criteria of a fair tale. (Please don’t ask me to quote the criteria; I don’t remember them.) The funny thing about the story is that the characters were all seeking something, brains, courage and a heart, without realizing they all already had them. This was shown in each character’s special situation. It’s a rather violent story, most real fairy tales are, but it does show how, sometimes, the things we seek we already have.

  40. Glenn Sellers says:

    While I’ve never read it, I’ve heard of “A Wrinkle in Time”. I may have to find it and read it.

  41. Is it possible that multiple different people could have been the protagonist?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You can write a story with joint or multiple protags, although you’ll *usually* get the most bang for your narrative when one of those characters is the one whose arc carries the main thrust of the thematic and dramatic questions (which makes him at least a little more of a “main” character than the other prominent leads).

  42. I typically try to write about whoever interests me the most. I’ve been known to switch protagonists because I find a side character more interesting. Of course, often times the people that interest me most aren’t well-suited to be a protagonist for various reasons (for example, lack of a dynamic character arch). But, I try to solve this by what I call the “Watson Technique.” I mean, in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock is the most interesting character, but that doesn’t mean he has to be the protagonist. Rather, he is the main character that the protagonist (Watson) observes and learns about.

  43. “For starters, try this: try imaging your current work-in-progress with one of your minor characters in the lead.

    It just… doesn’t feel right, does it?”

    This is what you call a writing prompt.

    Immediately, I thought of which character to switch with whom in one of my WIPs, and my first thought was, “I need to see that!” XD

    Would it be the same story? No. Same plot? Theme? Motivations? No.

    But it sure DOES sound like a roller coaster I need to get in line for. XD

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Parallel stories are kind of fun sometimes–where you get to see the individual journey of different characters in a simultaneous timeline.

  44. It turns out this same advice applies to other elements in your story. Last night I figured out that I was writing about the wrong villain. Sort of. All my characters are still in place, but the perception of which villain is involved in what has changed, their motivations have changed, and the balance of power has changed dramatically.

    I had this same revelation not too long ago over the use of weapons. I really got tired of my constant use of swords and decided something needed to change somehow. For my fan manga, I was researching Greek mythology and discovered that though the god Cronus is often said to use a glaive, he has also been said to use a harpe. Still a sword, yes, but visually different and more appropriate for a comic book, and along with it came a whole lot of symbolism I now have at my disposal. 😛

    For my fantasy, I’m still researching alternative weapons, but I’m ditching that tiresome sword. XD

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a great point! It’s not just the protagonist who can be the wrong choice. A different character in just about any role will change the course of the story significantly.

  45. My story is driven by my MMC hero’s quest to find and rescue his mother, and deliver justice to her captors. It couldn’t be anyone else’s story. And he has made himself uniquely suited to fulfill his mission. Other’s might get it done if they knew where to look, but only he can infitrate this particular antagonist’s group to find the clues to succeed.
    Along the way, the FMC intersects with him and modifies and expands his mission into rescuing her too, then a handful more, then hundreds more. She wags the dog and takes him from his narrow focused, almost selfish quest, into becoming an epic hero worthy of a saga.

  46. I decided to write a story about a girl named Amelia and decided to give her the name StarGirl since I was StarGirl for Halloween once and I originally had the name Jane, and it’s kinda boring. I like the name Amelia and decided to go with that, and decided not to do the whole mind reading thing since it doesn’t add suspense if someone can read minds.

  47. Hannah Killian says:

    You know, I feel like the hero of my story is becoming the protagonist, even thought the heroine is supposed to be the protagonist.

    My question is, why can’t I get involved with the heroine as much as the hero?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Usually, I find this problem is the result of me failing to fully understand the character in question. I would recommend digging into her backstory, finding what makes her tick, and forcing her into conversations in which she has to admit interesting things about her motivations.

  48. J.I. O'Neal says:

    While I agree with and appreciate the ideas and info behind choosing the right protagonist, I do feel the need to point out that the “characters” in In The Heart of The Sea couldn’t have, in fact, been swapped out for any others. I have to respectfully disagree with that assertion.

    These were real people. This really happened (granted not exactly as the movie portrays it), it is historical fact. One of my ancestor’s family member died horribly on this voyage (again, not how it was depicted in the movie).

    I do understand that you are referring to the way the characterization in the dramatised version of events was handled. And I agree that the story didn’t truly bring these real people to life completely.

    But I think that saying they were the wrong characters in the wrong plot is… well, wrong. They were the people in the situation when it actually happened. It can only be their story.

  49. John A. Gorman says:

    The protagonist who has chosen me is not as central to the “story-telling” as other characters and I don’t know how to deal with it. I assumed when I started writing the first draft that the protagonists were the two children from whose perspective the story is seen. Now I’m not so sure.

    A good analogy may be The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Critics often maintain that the Pevensie children are the protagonists; but isn’t Aslan the real protagonist?

    I’m beginning to feel that my “Aslan” is the protagonist and I wonder if I have to now shift to his POV or spend more of the story where he is front and centre in scenes?

    Ughh,
    John

  50. Donna Vanover says:

    I started writing a regency about a girl frustrated with looking out for her brother after his wife dies (it’s been over a year) and decides to start considering her own life and thereby stop being his crutch. However, after I started writing it, I realized his story was more engaging. I found myself wanting to explore the story from his point of view. This was totally frustrating because if felt like the characters took over before I got past writing the 3rd page. So is it safe to say that the character with the most to lose, with the deepest, darkest struggle, is the one we as readers want to see?

Trackbacks

  1. […] The Only Reason You Should Ever Choose a Protagonist, from Helping Writers Become Authors: As the character your readers spend the most time with, your protagonist is extremely important to the success of your story. And usually, it’s easy to decide who that protagonist is. But sometimes it takes a little work. Excerpt: “But let’s not surrender control of the process. After all, sometimes the wrong protagonist will choose you. How can you tell when that’s happened?” […]

  2. […] Beginning a story can be tricky. You need to pick a protagonist, pick the right place to start, and even have some idea of the plot. Martina Boone examines finding the perfect place to start your story, Rayne Hall shows how to write novel-opening scenes, and K.M. Weiland gives us the only reason you should ever choose a protagonist. […]

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