Lesson #21: 3 Essential Elements for an Effective Protagonist

Three Essential Elements for an Effective Protagonist

 

Protagonist is a fancy word for the main character in a book, movie, or play. The plot tends to revolve around this person.

 

Which means the reader will be hanging out with them for the duration of the story.

 

Which means they need to be believable, relatable and likeable.

 

Believable: credible, plausible, likely, probable, feasible

 

We’ve all come across people in our lives who are stranger than fiction. In fact, you may have leaned in toward one such soul during a bizarre moment and asked (out loud), “Are you for real?”

 

Trust me. Your main character is NOT the character you want to experiment with. Leave the weirdness for a minor character who spends minimal time on stage. Less is more sometimes, but that is a whole other lesson.

 

Even if your character is an alien life form that is half kitten and half squid (a squitten, if you will), that character must have enough traits to compel readers to suspend disbelief and take the journey through the plot. This squitten must have a GMC (goal/motivation/conflict). She must have strengths and weaknesses. She needs hobbies and pet peeves. She needs to have flaws. And she needs to follow the natural laws of the special world you created for her.

 

It’s harder for a reader to buy your tale if the squitten lived in downtown Manhattan. Seriously. How can a half kitten-half squid traipse through the concrete jungle and ride the subway? A steady diet of pizza and Stromboli would be hard to swallow because… squittens don’t have opposable thumbs.

 

Now put the squitten on a planet comprised of mostly water and a few islands. Have her be amphibious. She can live in water and on land. She hunts freels (cross between frogs and eels). No opposable thumbs needed. My point is, make sure all the conditions work for your protagonist, no matter how strange, so your audience will be willing to follow her through an adventure.

 

Relatable

 

This is a biggie. Readers are most drawn into stories when they can put themselves in the protagonist’s shoes. They see elements of themselves in the main character, which makes them feel like they are an intimate part of the story. The story becomes an experience.

 

How does a perspiring author do this?

 

Allow your character to be messy. Let her be fat. Let him have a gut. Maybe he’s addicted to fishing and avoids conflict with his wife by disappearing for days on the North Platte. Let her have a temper. She throws dinner plates at the dog, or eats an entire bag of Doritoes without tasting them. Let them struggle. Let them make mistakes. Lots of mistakes.

 

Take some time and people watch. Go to the mall. The airport (man, there are crazies there!). Watch how people behave. Figure out why they behave the way they do (GMC!). Pick a quirk that makes friends and family nuts.

 

Face it, people are weird. People are messy. People are flawed. Seriously flawed. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t need a savior!

 

Trust me on this: the story is in the mess. You’ll be surprised at how much material you will have for the character arc and some subplots if you give your characters a ticket to ride the hot mess express.

 

When people read your stories about messy characters, they will come to you and tell you how much they related to one of them in particular. They will also tell you, “if so-and-so can change, so can I.”

 

Likeable

 

None of this other stuff matters if readers want to toss your main character into a garbage can and set them adrift in the Pacific Ocean. They must like the protagonist. Even if part of that character’s arc is growing from a whiny boy to a great compassionate warrior, the reader has to care about the whiny boy. This can be done with a “pet the dog” moment.

 

You may choose to have him show kindness to a dog in need, or you may show him being kind to his kid sister who just swallowed his prized Lego set. Rather than killing her on the spot, he may perform the Heimlich and call 911, then ride to the hospital with her in the back of the ambulance holding her hand. Give them a spotlight of compassion. Foreshadow what they will become after they go through all the trials in the plot.

 

A sense of humor is important too. Give them a chance to diffuse tension between other characters by telling a great joke. Or injecting sarcasm. Let them laugh at themselves when they make mistakes, and show some grace to others who trip up as well.

 

If you create a protagonist with these three characteristics, not only will your readers read on, you’ll have readers.

 

Keep in mind, this is more or less an overview on what makes a good protagonist. People are complex. Characters should be as well. Stay tuned to The Wrtie Nook to learn more from Kim and Kayla.

 

Application:

 

Go to a public place and people watch. Go where all the weirdoes hang out. Every city to small town has such a place. What kind of behavior catches your eye? What kind of assumptions can your make based on behavior and/or mannerisms? Pick out the individual you find most captivating, and create a character profile on them—including backstory.

With pen to paper,

Darcie

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