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.

Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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! 🙂

  10. 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.

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

  12. 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

      • 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!

  13. 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?

  14. 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!

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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).

  18. 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.

  19. “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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

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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