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 is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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?


  4. 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?

  5. I would say my protagonist chose me. I was inspired to base a character on a fictionalized version of someone I met in my career, someone who could illustrate all the shenanigans that can be pulled by a lawyer. In fun and also in a serious theme of what can be the dirty underbelly of justice. I had been wanting to write a book for some time and came across this person and the story started writing itself. The book would not exist without this character.
    I also wanted to say that your books and articles have really been of great assistance. Thanks!

  6. I love how easy it seems to be when you are talking about it… But working on my plot idea it does not seem so easy anymore…
    Who is the protagonist in a crime story (the most interesting person is usually the murderer – but you don’t want to reveal him – and the most affected person is the victim – which usually is dead)? My plan is to write in numerous third persons but how can I know, who is my protagonist?

  7. How do you deal with this issue when there are two main characters? I’m telling the story with two alternating POVs (the hero and the heroine’s viewpoint), but they aren’t both dealing with the same question.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The role of protagonist will be decided by which character plays the deciding role in the Climactic Moment. If both characters are equally involved (as in, say, romances), both characters are will be the protagonist, since they are dealing with the same central conflict issue (in a romance, it would be, “can we make the relationship work?”; in a different type of story, it may be, “can we work together to defeat the villain?”). Their thematic questions may be different, but they should be related and must ultimately contribute to the resolution of the conflict in the Climax.

  8. What if I have nine main characters? They all have developed character arcs and they solve the climax as a group. It’s mostly because of the magic system I implemented that had them all be central to the plot. I’m not sure who I like like or even who is the most interesting, because they are all very different and have around the same impact on the story itself.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The role of protagonist is determined by which character has the central role in ending the conflict in the Climactic Moment. If multiple characters share an equal burden in the Climactic Moment, then you can think of them as a group protagonist.

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