3 Ways to Choose the Right Protagonist

3 Ways to Choose the Right Protagonist

3 Ways to Choose the Right ProtagonistEver 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.

Snow White and the Huntsman Chris Hemsworth Kristen Stewart

Not all stories will give you a choice for how to choose the right protagonist, but if yours does, be sure to consider the options carefully.

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).

Chris Hemsworth Snow White and the Huntsman2

Choose the right protagonist by investigating all your characters for interesting backstories. Which one sounds like the most fun to explore?

Which Character Hast the Best Character Arc?

Creating Character ArcsAlthough 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.

Why?

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.

Snow White Chris Hemsworth

Choose the right protagonist by determining which character arc is most dynamic.

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).

Are you having fun writing your protagonist? If not, look elsewhere.

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.

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

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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. “That’s a job title, not a personality.”

    That could be the classic way to blunder into this: to start with a generic genre-friendly hero and leave them there. It could happen from trusting that being in the center made the protagonist interesting enough, or maybe getting distracted building that secondary character and forgetting the main one (a good sign that that “hero” never meant as much to you as you thought).

    And of course it’s all too easy for a story like Huntsman, that started with “what can we add to the Snow White story?” Was the whole point of making the movie to give up on Snow?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is also a great way to examine your existing characters to see if you can take them up a notch. How can you make them *more* than their job/role? Instant possibilities present themselves.

  2. I totally agree that the main character, who gets the most stage time, should deserve it. But my favorite stories tend to be ensembles. Whoever’s on page at the moment should be the most interesting character, but it’s perfectly fine if someone else gets the stage at times. When a reviewer told me my bad-ass huntress was her favorite character, I wanted to cheer. I like my protagonist, and most other readers have said said nice things about him, even if he’s been accused of being a little too good. But it’s the interaction among characters that thrills me, and that requires passing the awesomeness around. Just my thoughts.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There’s no excuse for a boring character anywhere in the story. A flat minor character will only detract from the protagonist, since the protagonist won’t be able to fully interact with the minor character. Still, if you’re gonna have a boring character, it just better not be the protagonist. :p

  3. Tony Findora says:

    This has given me a lot to think about! I’ve been having a bit of trouble with my protagonist but he is definitely the driving force. People wouldn’t change if he wasn’t around and he doesn’t have a title…yet.

    I guess I’m struggling with his personality?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      First thing I’d do is look at his backstory. What’s there that’s intriguing? What’s there that’s subtext? What’s there that can make him “more” than what he seems in the main story?

      • Tony Findora says:

        You know, that’s probably it! His backstory is quite as fleshed out yet like my other characters. I should probably focus some more on that. Once I figure more details out, maybe I will feel a bit more comfortable with it?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I’ve definitely noticed, for myself, that if a character is coming up a blank for me, it’s usually because his backstory is a blank. Once I can dig into his past and start finding his true motivations, the rest of him starts coming to life as well.

  4. This is fascinating and helpful. Great example in the movie you’ve chosen. Keeping that protagonist front and center is one of many keys to having a successful story. It’s such a balance because you want to keep ALL of your characters interesting! Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It is a balance. Optimally, every character should be “the hero of his own story.” But that doesn’t always mean he should be the hero of *this* story. 😉

  5. Are you reading my edit. I was reading my WIP tonight while bowling. I was struck that who I thought was the main antagonist may not be. What you note about protagonist could apply. Who has the most to gain?
    Interesting post. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good point. Lining up the right antagonist won’t always affect the experience of the story in the same way as the protagonist, but it will certainly be the major factor in whether or not the plot, character, and theme all align.

  6. Maybe they should have called in “The Huntsman and Snow White” but from what I remember of the film, you are spot on here. In my first book, I did have a minor character with a far more interesting back story than the protagonists but he didn’t appear in the story enough to take it over. That didn’t stop some of my readers stating that I should write a book about that minor character.

  7. I started out with a protagonist who didn’t go anywhere, do anything, or change very much, and this post has made me realize that. I kind of hated to change her to a flat character with not much focus, because I felt like she would become a sort of “macguffin.” A tool, a thing basically. Maybe I can give her a subplot set before the chronological story of the book. Or kill my darlings.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s important to realize that a successful Flat-Arc character is a tremendously dynamic person. Definitely not someone who isn’t the focus of the plot or is otherwise “flat.” This is a character bringing dynamic change to the world around them.

      • I think we use different terminology, and that’s okay. I’ll put it this way. If I replaced the character with an object, the story would hardly change fundamentally. In fact, I may consider that. The current protagonist may very well be a flat character in your sense of the word. Though, technically, the setting is outside of the protagonist’s home, which is the only world that changes as a result of her efforts. It’s complicated.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Complicated can be good. 🙂

          • Joe Long says:

            One of my favorite on-line serials has been going nearly two years and has one chapter remaining to wrap it up. Over that time, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know the author and share my analysis of his story.

            It started off as a sort of typical first day at a new school where the protagonist gets swept off his feet by a new girl who he intends to pursue. The wrinkle is the older, more experienced girl who picked him. Nicole grew into quite an interesting character, complicated and flawed, seeking affirmation but afraid to commit. The author did a fine job of having the protagonist draw the backstory out of her over the first half of the story. By the end it’s become a tale of how their arcs intertwine over a year. He’s learning from his experiences, but her fate is yet to be told.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Sounds interesting!

  8. Thanks for the read. A lot of good information here.

  9. Elizabeth Gillilan says:

    My first book contains three central characters: a brother, sister and a close friend. When I started outlining, I intended on telling the story from the friend’s POV. He’s the oldest and the natural leader. However, I’m realizing thematically and arch-wise I absolutely must have the story from the brother’s POV. Unfortunately, while I can alter much of the story to fit him, he’s the youngest and a strong follower, struggling to catalyze the plot properly by himself, especially in the beginning. Do you have any suggestions for how to encourage a B player to direct the plot while neither damaging his personality nor becoming a weak and passive protagonist?

  10. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I started my second book with my female character as the MC but quickly found my male was just more fun.

    It not only made me realize it was his story to tell but that I needed to better develop my female character to make her less of a prop and more of her own character.

    It completely changed my plot and I had to restart my WIP but it was definitely for the better!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, it’s crazy, but often we take our initial protagonists so much for granted that they end up being the *least* dimensional characters in the book.

    • I have worried about the same issue with my female protagonist — whether I’ve taken her personality too much for granted. And I’ve definitely struggled to figure out what she actually does, although that’s part of my bigger struggle with figuring out plot. For me, I want to write a story (in part) about what it means to be a woman, and my efforts to figure out what this character can really DO in a fairy-tale type setting is just a mirror of the character’s own efforts. What can a woman do to further the action when she isn’t an Amazon-type, who isn’t as physically strong as some of the male characters? I like stories with the warrior-female type, but what do you do with a woman who isn’t, especially in a fantasy setting where physical action is usually so important? (Or a man, for that matter?)

      Quite a lot, I’m discovering, and showing the importance of each character doing the things they can do is part of what I want to say. All that to say — I have dug in my heels and tried to make the difficulty part of the story. But that’s what made sense to me for this particular story. Sometimes shifting the focus to another protagonist might make far more sense.

  11. This is very interesting. Though I’ve never seen the movie itself, as I started reading this, the Twilight series came to mind. I’ve never read the books or seen the movies from that series either, but based on everything I’ve heard about it, part of its appeal is because the main character is something of a blank template, making the reader feel like they are playing the role instead.
    Then, looking at your pictures from the Snow White film, I realized, hey, that’s the same actress! Perhaps they intentionally went with the same approach, hoping for similar success? Whatever the case, obviously it didn’t work.
    I wonder, what are your thoughts on stories where the main character is, “intentionally left blank” so to speak?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Eh, I’d have to say it’s mostly a coincidence of bad writing and bad acting in both stories. :p

  12. A worthwhile exercise may be, at the end of each chapter, to assess the “prominence” of your characters—especially the protagonist and antagonist.
    If he/she fades, crank up/add obstacles, make the going rougher, the urgency greater, the outcome more uncertain.
    Perhaps easier for plotters?
    The second thing I’ll do—keep reminding myself of the Huntsman and poor, fading into the background, and oh so soft-spoken Snowhite.
    Thanks, Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, great exercise! This is something plotters could use during the outlining stage and pantsers during the drafting stage.

  13. Hannah Killian says:

    Huh. . .I wonder. . .

    In my WIP ‘Three Cowboys & A Baby’, I wonder if the lead cowboy’s deceased sister’s fiancé is actually the protagonist.

    Backstory for lead cowboy: His sister died after getting involved in the duel between him and her fiancé.

    Backstory for fiancé: His fianceé died after getting involved in the duel between him and her brother.

    They both feel guilty for it, obviously, but it was the fiancé’s bullet that hit her. Would that make him slightly more interesting?

    Also, the baby’s mother is the best friend of the deceased sister so. . .

    The antagonist is connected to the baby’s parents in that they owe him a debt, but I still haven’t figured out the antagonist’s connection to the cowboy and fiancé, of he even is connected to them. I was thinking he had an unrequited love for the sister, and got jealous and decided to put a rift between her brother and fiancé in the hopes it would somehow lead to her falling for him. But then it backfires, and he ends up feeling guilty, but does his best to hide it and ends up becoming slightly cruel.

    Idk, is that too complicated?

  14. Carolyn M says:

    Is it possible to have 2 protagonist and main characters? I want to develop both the female character I came up with first as well as the guy she eventually ends up with. They both have stories worth telling and it intertwines over time and they both have interesting back stories. Is that too much to have 2 leading characters develop a lot over the story/series? I could switch the pov back and forth but I’d like the girl to really be the main character with a strong male lead with her.

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