Ever had a minor character steal the show and run away with your story? This scenario has its good points and its bad points (usually, it means a great minor character and a problematic plot), and it always leads writers right back to the all-important question of how to choose the right protagonist from the get-go.
The fundamental principle of figuring out how to choose the right protagonist always goes back to the question: Which character is the right choice for the plot? Your protagonist must line up with the main conflict. He must be the primary mover and shaker, the one present at all the major moments in the structure, and the one driving the action forward.
If he’s not that person, then he’s not your protagonist. That should go without saying.
But what if you created a plot for your chosen protagonist to drive—but still end up with a more interesting minor character running away with your story?
That’s a problem in itself. Even if everything is structurally sound, few stories can bear up under the weight of a boring protagonist—especially when there’s a more interesting minor character with whom readers would much rather spend their time.
Boring Protagonist = Boring Story
Ideally, your protagonist should be the most interesting person in your story. After all, you’ve chosen his story to tell, so there must be a reason why it’s the most interesting possible iteration of your plot events. He’s also, per force, the character with whom you’re asking readers to spend the most time, and that means he needs to keep their attention on every single page.
And yet, it’s surprising how often stories fail to choose their most interesting character. For example, consider the ill-fated Snow White & the Huntsman. It’s Snow White’s story, of course. In the original fairy tale, the Huntsman is a decidedly minor character and doesn’t even have a name.
So you’d think the decision to make Snow White the protagonist would be a no-brainer. And, evidently, it was—to the point that the film took her character completely for granted and did basically nothing to develop her.
That’s problematic in itself. But enter stage left a much more interesting and compelling character in the shape of the no-longer-nameless Huntsman Eric (played by Chris Hemsworth). Suddenly, all this time audiences are now being asked to spend with a much-less-entertaining protagonist is the kiss of death.
By ignoring a character who raised interesting questions about himself and the story world, the plot was forced instead to follow a protagonist who raised no questions and created no interesting subtext or conflict developments. The very fact that the wasted opportunities are so visible makes the problem that much more obvious to viewers.
How to Choose the Right Protagonist by Finding Your Most Interesting Character
Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who’s the most interesting of them all?
Although there are many factors to this answer (and although, ideally, every character should be interesting in his own right), here are three areas in which you want your protagonist to shine.
Which Character Has the Most Interesting Backstory?
Backstory is valuable for two particular reasons:
1. It creates motivation.
Backstory is the cause to your main story’s effect. It gives your protagonist a fundamental underlying reason for his choices, goals, and actions in the main story.
2. It creates mystery.
Via subtext, the initially hidden or unexplained parts of your protagonist’s backstory have the ability to raise questions. Why is the character the way he is? What happened to him? What secrets is he hiding?
For Example: The Huntsman has an infinitely more interesting backstory than does Snow White. In part, this is because he’s a new character with a backstory we aren’t already intimately familiar with. But partly, too, it’s because his backstory isn’t shown (thus creating subtext) and is wielded much more emotionally (simultaneously developing character and creating stakes).
Which Character Hast the Best Character Arc?
Although there’s certainly nothing wrong with choosing a Flat-Arc protagonist who can create Change Arcs in the characters around him, you’re always going to want to look for the character who is arcing most prominently.
Because strong arcs mean strong change, and that, in turn, creates dynamic characters and plots.
Whenever you have a choice between two characters, you’re almost always wise to choose the one with the most prominent arc.
For Example: The Huntsman shows a Positive-Change arc, as he grows out of his overwhelming grief and into new hope and purpose. Snow White? Blame it on Kristen Stewart’s acting if you want, but she barely twitches a facial muscle in response to the trials and traumas she’s asked to overcome.
Which Character Is Most Alive on the Page?
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, which character pops off the page? The character’s voice within the narrative, his ability to be unexpected within the plot, and the amount of fun you have writing him are all important indications of his worthiness to be protagonist.
There must be a reason you chose this person to be your protagonist. If the reason is “he fit a role”—i.e., he’s the president, or she’s the princess—that’s not good enough. That’s a job title, not a personality. Look deeper. If you stripped this person of whatever pomp has been provided him by his role in the story, would you still find him interesting?
Just as importantly, would readers still find him interesting?
For Example: Snow White’s character starts out hampered in a couple areas. Stewart didn’t bring much expression to the role, the consequences of the character’s traumatic backstory were never explored on a personal level, and the filmmakers’ apparently assumed audiences would love her just because she’s Snow White.
The Huntsman, on the other hand, was at least given a little complexity, wit, and emotional depth. This is why he would have been a better choice for protagonist. This is why he was the protagonist in the sequel (although any potential for true development was stunted there as well, thanks to a determined overemphasis on the antagonists).
Choose the right protagonist by taking a step back from the needs of your plot (for just a minute anyway).
- Which character draws your heart most—and why?
- Does that character’s goal and arc align with your plot?
- If not, can you tweak things so they do line up?
If not, consider whether you might be better off scrapping the existing plot and following this more interesting character down his own chosen roads.