5 Questions for Choosing a Protagonist Who Represents Your Story’s Theme

choosing a protagonistChoosing a protagonist is often more of an event than a process. Writers sometimes feel more like the protagonist chooses them than the other way around. While most of us heed our first instinct to simply chase after this character to see where he goes, it’s important that at some point we analyze the soundness of the story idea by considering whether we have the right protagonist for the right story.

Although many metrics may inform this analysis, theme is usually the best measuring stick. Because theme is the peanut butter that gloms together the bread of the plot and the jelly of the characters, it always provides a good criterion for determining whether the entire recipe is coming together in a way that tastes right.

By itself, a plot is just a series of events. It’s not a story until we zoom in to focus on what these events mean to specific people. Usually, there are many people involved in these events. As seen in the recent fad for retconning classic stories from the viewpoints of supporting characters, a story may offer the possibility for many potential protagonists. As the common saying goes, even characters who look like traditional antagonists inevitably see themselves as the heroes of their own stories.

It usually isn’t difficult for authors to choose a protagonist; we just write about whichever character most interests us. If we feel there are additional characters who dramatically impact the plot, we can always throw in their POVs as well (although, I should say, this should never be done lightly). The most important decision is not choosing a protagonist or choosing a plot or even choosing a theme. Rather, the most important calibration you can make is to ensure all three are aligned.

5 Questions for Choosing a Protagonist Who Is Thematically Correct for Your Story

You know you’ve chosen the right character in the right plot when, together, they create a harmonious theme.

If this sounds easier said than done, it both is and isn’t. Most authors (or rather most people) have pretty good instincts about lining up a story’s parts—or, at the very least, an intuitive understanding of cause and effect. But because writing a story soon becomes an exercise in herding many different bits and pieces of theory and technique, it can also be easy to lose your way through the forest thanks to all those crazy trees.

We talked recently about how to properly balance plot and character, so you avoid “too much” of either. Today, let’s look more closely at how a few well-chosen questions can help you check whether you’ve chosen the most thematically-powerful character as your protagonist. If you discover your protagonist isn’t ideally positioned to both advance the plot and “prove” the theme, these questions can also help you to either identify a better protagonist or tweak things to bring plot-character-theme into better alignment.

1. What Does Your Protagonist Bring to This Particular Conflict That No Other Character Does?

If you could switch out your protagonist for another member of the cast without significantly changing either the events of the plot or the thematic intent of the Climax, you can be pretty sure you’ve got a deadbeat protagonist on your hands.

This is also true if you could mix-and-match your protagonist for a brand-new character who is (or at least seems to be) completely different. For example, if the heroine of your YA romance is a mousy introvert, but the events of the story wouldn’t be much affected if you turned her into an angry stoner—then she’s two-dimensional and thematically-vapid in either case.

The protagonist is the monarch of characters. The title raises this particular character above all other characters. But there must be a reason for this elevation. The character must prove worthy. This doesn’t necessarily mean the character needs to have special powers or mad skillz. What it does mean is that the character must have or develop qualities that qualify her interaction with the plot events to represent the thematic meaning of those events.

Examine your primary cast and ask yourself what sets your protagonist apart? How will this story change her in ways it will not change the others? How will she drive the plot in ways no one else could? How will other characters be impacted by her in a way that could have happened with no other character?

2. Why Is This Conflict Your Protagonist’s Plot—And Not Anyone Else’s in the Story?

Why is Star Wars about Luke and not Han or Leia? Arguably, both Han and Leia are more interesting personalities. Certainly, a story with Leia in the lead could have mirrored many of the same plot beats and revelations as Luke’s—since they share Force talents and a parental relationship with the hated antagonist who murdered their surrogate families.

Although a story with Leia in the lead could potentially have been just as interesting, it would not have been the same story. The central plot in the original trilogy belongs to Luke because it’s naïve, idealistic farm-boy Luke who starts out as the zero. When the story begins, Leia already seems ten years older than her twin. She’s too experienced and worldly to represent the story’s underlying thematic arc of the journey from Fool to Master. To try to tell anywhere close to the same story from Leia’s POV, you’d have to start earlier in the timeline and completely change her personality.

Princess Leia Star Wars New Hope Carrie Fisher

Han and Leia may have gotten more zippy dialogue than Luke did. But the purity and the power of the Hero’s Journey could only have been represented in this particular plot by this particular protagonist.

More than that, this choice is reinforced structurally throughout the story. Despite the time given to Han and Leia’s subplot, the structural backbone of the conflict is always and obviously Luke vs. Vader—which ties in perfectly with the thematic throughline of Good vs. Evil.

Luke Skywalker Darth Vader Star Wars Return of the Jedi

3. What Is Your Protagonist’s Greatest Virtue?

Sometimes it can be difficult to determine what specific offering a protagonist-elect brings to the table. If you think about it too hard, the lines can start to blur to the point where it seems as if the story could be told with just as much interest and power from any POV. Fortunately, there are a couple additional questions you can ask to help you understand a proposed protagonist’s unique offerings.

The first thing to consider is your protagonist’s good qualities. What virtue does this character represent that is not initially present in any other character? It may be the protagonist teaches this virtue to other characters as you go, so think specifically about the contrast between your protagonist and the rest of the cast in the first half of the story.

For example, your protagonist may be kind when all others are cruel. He may be brave when others are cowardly. She may be smart when others are ignorant. He may cling to hope when all others despair.

It’s possible this “virtue” may also encompass a special skill. But skills don’t usually represent theme in the same way as virtues. Whatever the virtue, it should not be random. This character’s kindness, bravery, intelligence, or hopefulness should prove crucial to the development of the plot—either directly or perhaps ironically.

4. What Is Your Protagonist’s Greatest Flaw?

Even more telling is the second question you can ask about your protagonist’s moral relationship to the theme. What is her greatest flaw? To maintain thematic continuity, the flaw/weakness is very often the mirror image of the virtue. It is the virtue taken full circle, to its farthest extreme, to the point where it is no longer admirable or helpful.

The virtue of kindness may arise from a painfully conflict-averse character. Physical bravery may mask emotional cowardice. Intelligence may ride side by side with socially-destructive arrogance. Hope may be blind.

Most protagonists start out with enough good qualities to endear them to audiences (or at least to stoke interest when juxtaposed against less likable tendencies). But those qualities will rarely start out dialed all the way to ten. Rather, when the virtues are held back by a partner flaw, they represent both the possibility and the need for thematic change.

5. How Does This Virtue and This Flaw Directly Influence This Plot—and What Do They Say About Both the Plot and the Protagonist?

In a well-constructed story, the plot will be constructed to initiate the latent change found in the tension point between the protagonist’s specific virtue and flaw. The machine operates only because all the pieces are designed to work together.

When the plot is created from actions arising out of a specific protagonist’s virtues and flaws, you’ll never have to wonder if you’re choosing a thematically-pertinent protagonist. You’ll also never have to wonder if your plot and your theme are organic to one another. When the protagonist is both creating the plot and deriving personal meaning from its events, you know you’ve chosen the right character.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is the most crucial factor in choosing a protagonist? 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. Thanks for a very interesting article. I think I’m already doing what you suggest, so here goes:

    1) Jane is absolutely unique. She’s grown up in the intensely practical environment of the family farm, so on the one hand she’s very handy with both animals and engineering tools. On the other the farming community live in an environment where being very sensible about danger is necessary. However she was targeted by a kidnapper who needed a teenage girl to sell as a slave to the sadistic Khan of Nineveh. Rather than going to pieces she dealt with this as she would any other dangerous situation. Firstly she got the technical handbooks for the kidnapper’s spaceship and mastered all the secret technology. Secondly she flirted with him to put him off guard. When space fleet finally found her and tried to rescue her she was wearing a rather nice designer outfit, standing next to the dead bodies of kidnapper and accomplice, and had memorised the full technical specification of the fastest spaceship in the galaxy. The ship itself was a writeoff as she’d used too much power when stopping it. That concatenation of circumstances of the very bright girl dealing with the kidnap leaves her uniquely qualified to be a “planop” or Space Fleet special agent.

    2) Having gone through that experience she is left with a burning desire to stop the same sort of thing ever happening to anyone else. She’s suffered at the hands of the bad guys, now she’s going to take the suffering right back to them. This is personal.

    3) Frightening intelligence, a strong sense of right and wrong, and sheer bloody-minded determination not to give up.

    4) Overconfidence. She’s in space fleet uniform, she’s armed, she’s several steps ahead of the opposition. What could possibly go wrong?

    5) Oh dear. When she’s undercover she acts as any normal office girl would, and that includes dating one of the young engineers. Unfortunately he is so besotted with her that he follows her to her next assignment, and meets a sniper looking for her. She gets the sniper, and tries to save his life. When she fails she is completely devastated, to the extent of embracing the idea of her own death. But out there, in the cold, silent void of space, she realises that she is still committed to the task. From this tragedy she draws the strength she needs to go on.

    Now tell me what I’ve done wrong.

  2. Thanks, K.M., for another great post. I had an “Aha!” moment when I read your explanation of why Star Wars is Luke’s story. Now I need to reread your past posts on supporting characters. I have the feeling one of the reasons it’s not Hans’s or Leia’s story is that their characters too have been well-crafted to for their respective roles.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Absolutely. The Dramatic theory of storytelling offers a great explanation of how well-placed all the original Star Wars characters are within the overall story archetype.

  3. How do you juggle the flaw when your protagonist is following a flat arc? If his virtue is the Truth that the world around him needs, do you then weave in his flaw as the basis for his own positive change arc? And does that risk muddying the thematic message?

    As always, your sage advice is appreciated.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      One of the great challenges of writing Flat-Arc characters is preventing them from being too perfect. Just because they possess the story’s main thematic Truth and are able to wield it successfully against the antagonistic force’s Lie does not mean they do so flawlessly. They may not significantly arc in overcoming a flaw, as do Positive-Change Arc characters, but they their understanding of the Truth is often most poignant when framed against their own weaknesses. Often, the Flat Arc character’s great flaw will play more into a Doubt than a reinforcement of the Lie. See this post: Why Doubt Is the Key to Flat Character Arcs.

  4. I love your `Star Wars’ example. You’re right- it would be a completely different story if Princess Lea or Han was in the lead.

    As for my current WIP, I had to really think to figure out what unique good trait my MC brings to the opening, but when you mentioned good-trait-turned-bad, I knew it instantly; loyalty. More specifically, blind loyalty, which is a problem.

    After a bit more thought, I’d say the good trait that’s really unique to him is his desire for friendship, even when reaching out seems dangerous.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Though it does make me think a Leia-led story could have been really fun (*not* that I want to see one at this point).

      • The trilogy from Han’s POV could have been very interesting, too, though as you said, it would be a completely different story since it would be a Redemption Arc, as Han goes from jaded smuggler working for anyone who pays him (like the local crime boss) to someone willing to die fighting for a cause. (As you say, not that I want to see it at this point -I can’t imagine anyone but Harrison Ford playing Han- but still, fun to think about.)

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yeah, at this point I have no desire to see Solo, much less a retconned trilogy with Han in the lead.

          • Mark R Lewis says

            Solo is an entertaining space romp but a disappointment from a ‘Hans story’ perspective. Worth a watch but I wouldn’t rush.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Yeah, after Last Jedi, I’m pretty much done with the new Star Wars movies.

  5. Hi, thank you for your always insightful look at story creation. I’m awed by your knowledge. In listening I had a few great and very helpful realizations about my protagonist and I’m going to try to answer the questions you gave us in more detail. I know it will be helpful and ease my mind as I’ve been wondering whether I did choose the right person to tell the story. Amazing how you gave me a way to figure this out just when I needed it.

    Thank you so much!

  6. Casandra Merritt says

    That’s an interesting point about Luke’s personality. I do usually find that my favorite character is usually never the main character. I guess it’s because the supporting cast tend to have more “colorful” personalities… unless the protagonist follows a flat arc, like Mattie in True Grit, and tends to rub everybody wrong. Now those supporting characters have some competition!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s often more room for supporting characters to *be* colorful. If you’ve ever read a series that used supporting characters from the first book as protagonists in follow-up books, the characters are rarely as interesting once they’re moved to the main role. This is not because protagonists can’t (or shouldn’t) be the most interesting characters, but because the traits that are most interesting and endearing in minor characters don’t always translate to a main role. Usually, this is for the very reason we’re talking about in this post–the characters weren’t initially conceived as theme-bearing characters, so they have to be changed to work within the concept of a new story.

      • That is a thing that drives me crazy- I mean the sequels where the colorful characters are sadly flattened.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Usually, these series are romance, and romance usually has a very set pattern for what it requires from its protagonists–versus what it allows for supporting characters.

  7. Larry M Wohlgemuth says

    Is it possible to have TWO protagonists?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Short answer is yes, but it’s tricky because both characters have to be structurally integral throughout the story and both have to equally impact/be impacted by the Climactic Moment. The romance genre shows how it can be done. The two love interests are usually co-leads, but because they also act as each other’s antagonists (blocking each other, until the end, from their true happiness with one another), they interact equally throughout the story.

      • Larry M Wohlgemuth says

        Thanks. And, interestingly, it IS a romantic story. I couldn’t see writing it from only one POV. It seemed there was a need to be inside both peoples’ heads.

  8. I just answered these questions for my protagonist in a short story and it really brought the theme home for me. Wow, I love how easy that was! Thank you!

  9. This was helpful since I struggle with characterization. Wonderful tips from marrying theme to characters without forcing it.
    Lots of takeaways.
    Thanks, K.M.

  10. I asked this on Facebook, so i apologize if you see this twice: Can your protagonist’s virtue also be their flaw (at the same time)? Sort of like kindness is a virtue but also kindness is a weakness?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, but I would look at it more as the extreme version of the virtue becoming a vice. Kindness itself is not a weakness–only kindness without boundaries or wisdom.

  11. Nehemiah Feliciano says

    Can this be applied to tv shows? I don’t know if you watch Stranger Things, but there are so many characters, with so many different plotlines, is it even possible to pick at least a few characters, as the protagonists?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I love Strange Things (or at least the first two seasons). It’s always suffered a little from what Blake Snyder calls “double mumbo jumbo”–or, in plain English, too much stuff going on. But the early seasons, especially the first season, kept itself tethered pretty solidly to El as its protagonist and Mike as its main character. Not sure what it’s exact thematic premise is off the top of my head, but I’d say it has to do with trust in relationships: “Friends don’t lie.”

    • I’d say it definitely applies to TV shows. I’m thinking of Game of Thrones, which actually came from a series of books that ended up with so many equally flawed characters who became at different points the virtuous protagonist that I gave up and stopped reading and watching. I love Martin’s writing, but he seemed to have no control over his plot or characters at all, which I believe is why HBO’s writers finally just took over and left him behind.

  12. Casandra Merrit says

    Yes, exactly. And I agree with that about the flaw and the virtue. Really just two sides of the same coin, right?

  13. As always, thoughtful, insightful and even comforting. Thanks.

  14. Lynda Courtright says

    Thank you for yet another helpful post as I sort through the psychology of my current story’s protagonist.
    Lynda

  15. I already knew I had the right protagonist for my WIP so I didn’t think this post would be pertinent to me BUT it actually brought into focus some aspects of my character I hadn’t fully fleshed out. Thank you for making me take another look at my MC, and giving me more insight into my story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s great. I’m always refining my protagonists’ relationship to plot and theme, throughout the entire process.

  16. “Glom” – You’re determined to dilate on lexicon.
    .
    But “retconning”? Is that a misspell of redonning?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Retcon means to “revise (an aspect of a fictional work) retrospectively, typically by introducing a piece of new information that imposes a different interpretation on previously described events.”

  17. Mike Hickman says

    The Luke example is really good – I also like the point about how virtue and flaw directly influence the plot. It’s reassuring, because I think that’s what I’m up to…although I’m wondering if the virtue and the flaw can be one and the same thing (bravery, for example, can be reckless in some circumstances – unwanted in some, too… It could also be evidence of impulsive behaviour that could be a massive flaw when it comes to personal relationships). Lots to think about again – thank you for these. Keep them coming!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I wouldn’t call the virtue and the flaw the *same* thing. Bravery and recklessness, after all, are not the same. But they are certainly two traits happening at different spaces along the same continuum.

  18. Here goes!

    Lumin is a Royal with enough will to bend metal and more stubbornness than a rock. Born into a family specializing in finance, and with a maths prodigy with a sister, Lumin turned to healing to stand out, prevent other Mers from dying like her father did, and to gain her distant mother’s attention and pride.

    She prizes emotional discipline and determination above all else, but is prone to fits of temper and her belief in the ascetic religion Lakaniasm means she views her strong emotions as sinful. Part of her arc is learning emotions are not a sin (epiphany prompted by encountering an alternate sect of Lakaniasm that says emotions are not sinful, but indulgence in them is) and overcoming her arrogance.

    Her blind-faith in authority and near-worship of the Hierarchy (a government/oligarchy) meant she was the perfect Mer to be framed for the Queen’s poisoning, as she would never doubt the Hierarchy’s integrity. She begins to question their supposed holiness, but too late. She is banished from the castle, and so begins her journey to thinking for herself, overcoming her arrogance and obsession with status and rank, and learning how to connect with others again.

    Love to know your thoughts!

    Also, thank you so much for creating this post and website 🙂 It’s been invaluable!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds good. Your theme is one that appeals to me particularly right now! So much juicy stuff to chew on.

  19. As always, you’ve left me with pages of scribbled notes and thoughts full of tiny sparks. I knew my character had courage to face her mistakes, but had to think about the flaw, which is guilt, which keeps her from acting as she should in the face of condemnation. I think I’ve been struggling all along and am still struggling with what makes her crucial to the plot, more than any of my secondary characters, but I’m beginning to see a theme — you can’t let your own past, guilt and acceptance of others’ blame stop you from working toward the life you want. She wants her daughter back, others’ feel she doesn’t deserve that. By the end of the book, she realizes she is the best person to be in her daughter’s life.

  20. My favorite example of the Hero’s Journey is Sarah Connor, but you’ve made me realize why I had such a resistive attitude when I first learned that Luke and Leia were twins — she really did seem at least ten years older. But then, she is the same revolutionary leader at the end as she was in the beginning. And Han, while as someone said, did change his attitude toward “causes”, did he really? I always thought his cynicism was a pose and that he was really yearning for something to believe in (though that may have been Ford’s still undeveloped and somewhat over-acting in the first movie). Luke went from naive farmboy to Jedi master and beyond — definitely an arc. Now to work on my own poor protagonist’s.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I only just recently watched the first two Terminator films. *Loved* them, especially the first one, which is just so archetypally pitch perfect.

  21. Alyssa Guthrie says

    I really loved this! It gave me lots to think about! So in Lord of the Rings, is Frodo or Aragorn the true protagonist if they both do things that further the plot?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      They have their own subplots so any many ways both function as protagonists. But the story is ultimately Frodo’s. We know this because it is the culmination of Frodo’s plot goal in the Climactic Moment that ends the conflict.

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