The English term protagonist goes back to an ancient Greek drama, which originally meant the player of the first part or the chief actor. Greek dramas mostly consisted of recruiting choruses and dancing around during this time. That is, Until Poetics Came Along, which introduced the idea of one actor stepping out and engaging in a dialogue with the chorus. Later on, we get to see the addition of another actor added to the mix, which creates the idea of dialogue between two characters in a modern time in film and media.
Now we have many characters acting in separate roles, with the primary role being the protagonist. In case there were any misconceptions regarding this, the protagonist, despite good or evil, is the story’s main character. There is no such thing as the perfect protagonist; in reality, all of that is up to interpretation, and every character generally has their faults.
There are many misconceptions, especially in the anime manga community, often oversimplifying the character’s progression or development. This stigma comes from people thinking that good development is people going from non-edgy to edgy. Moving on, it must be said that each protagonist isn’t going to connect with every reader.
You can go on and faithfully believe that your protagonist is the peak of the medium. Still, you would also have to understand that some people aren’t only going to get emotionally invested. This is why we have a variety of genres filled with multitudes of protagonists that give certain readers the ability to relate despite popular opinion. I have some ideas/tips for you to write a good protagonist/main character. Stay till last!
How to write a good protagonist?
Stories at their heart are almost always about how a character changes. So if you look at anything from Star Wars to Gone With the Wind, the events of those movies or books shape who these characters become. This is often referred to as a character arc.
So how will your character difference between the end of a novel and the beginning? That journey is central to how well-received your story is going to be. So when you are writing your protagonist, it’s vital that before you start, you answer this question: What will be different about them at the end? At the beginning of the book, they could be a better leader.
They’re put into a leadership situation and struggle with that throughout most of the book. You’ve got to show them slowly getting better, show the capacity for change. Now they can prove that they can be different, and then your climax will be them proving that they’ve changed and can now become a great leader. You can see this in different films, books, and every type of story dating back to Greek mythology. It’s a very common theme. So when you are working on writing your protagonist, you must keep that top of mind.
The essential character in your story will be your protagonist. If you get this character right, many of the other parts of your story will fall clearly into place. But if you get this character wrong, you will constantly be lost and confused, trying desperately to build a story on a bad foundation. I want to give you the most essential 7 elements of a strong protagonist. If you can nail these simple concepts and apply them to your writing, it will dramatically improve your stories. Let’s begin.
1. Write a character introduction
This part is essential because it gives the reader viewer an idea of what kind of character the protagonist is. Most of the time, in character introductions, the protagonist will likely identify with a specific cliche trait or behavior. It can range from anything, and having the character introduction given first to the reader means a lot going forward because we will start to understand the character’s actions later.
Character introductions can vary in many different ways. Often, a character’s introduction can either be hinted, give us an idea of the goal, or outright tell us what it is. It can span from a few chapters up to an entire arc. A quick example of this can be found in Code Gaia when we see Lellouche playing chess in the first episode, and he moves the King piece first. Little did we know it would tie into his entire philosophy and how he would carry the plot, taking the course of action and allowing others to follow.
2. Create an emotional attachment
There has to be an empathic strike between the reader and the protagonist. There has to be something said and known that can connect the reader to the person. The main goal of the character introduction, outside of introducing us to the protagonist, is to create some emotional attachment like death or a likable situation. It’s where the true beauty of subjectivity plays in our media. Even though we build stronger attachments to the protagonist, as the series continues, our investment in the protagonist often comes from what emotional or intellectual message connects with us.
For example, I’m a big fan of Stoic gone angry characters. There’s more to a character usually than one emotion. But there will always be emotional biases that we will always have and messages that will connect to us way more than others. In other words, a protagonist that tackles the theme of depression may connect to one individual more than others. Even though it may be well done, the reader may never find that appreciation for a said character.
3. Create an arc
One of the mistakes that I see many people make, and I have made, is you’re starting your character as a Mary Sue or a Gary Sue. They don’t have any room for development because they’re already bad, and that’s a mistake. You want to show that your character is competent, so you’re inciting the incident.
The first thing you’re showing them in your book should be them excelling in some way. That resonates with readers and speculative fiction. We want to know that our protagonist can be a hero, but at the same time, we also want to present some flaws. This flaw should be central to how they’re going to grow.
Some random flaw to make your character not perfect will need fixing. So what is a popular way that it has been done correctly in a media we’re all familiar with? Most of us have seen the TV show Lost. If you remember, the pilot starts with a plane crash on the beach. Our main character/protagonist for that episode is Jack.
So what we find out very quickly is that Jack keeps a cool head in a challenging situation, and then he becomes a surgeon. We get to see him in action, saving someone’s life. He’s quickly stepping into a leadership role and showing that he’s competent and can show someone’s life. Jack has some big problems. Jack is judgmental and looks down on other people. These flaws are exacerbated as the series continues, and it keeps us interested in this character’s arc as he grows.
They replicated this outward, which is why the first couple of seasons of Lost were so successful because all of the characters had very similar arcs, and we got to watch as each one of them battled their flaws. In any given episode, who the protagonist was would change. But when we got those flashbacks into that character’s background, we could see who they were and how they could rise and overcome challenges.
Note: For your main character, before you write page one of that novel, think about who this person is. Draw on your own experience. Try to think of the worst moments of your life, the flaws, and the things that embarrassed you most.
4. Set a purpose for your protagonist
What’s important is that your protagonist offers something to somebody. This can be expanded upon later through character development and character change. But what matters is that you lead up to that. The moment you introduce your character, give the protagonist a purpose. Here are five questions you should remember while writing or analyzing a protagonist:
- What does my protagonist want?
- Why do they want it?
- What’s standing in their way?
- What does my protagonist need?
- What’s at stake if they fail?
These are general questions for the outline of the protagonist, and some authors will delve into some of these points more than others. But the main thing that will build emotional attachment is the character’s motivation. On the surface, what grasps the reader should be the protagonist’s personality. Some people are willing to think of some things to take into consideration when once again, writing or analyzing the protagonist are these different types of motivations. So these can break down into many different areas.
For example, you have their beliefs, fears, relationships, and desires, and usually, their backstory is between them. There are subsections to that in different types of beliefs, fears, relationships, and desires. So as you can see, motivation for your character is essential. At least every character should have a motivation on top of their personality that will give them the deeper attachment needed by the audience.
The ultimate purpose of the protagonist is to serve as the primary character who will allow those themes to be made visible. Therefore, whatever goal you give to your protagonist should be with the intention that you explore those themes throughout their journey. The purpose of the antagonist and their difficulties is to slow down the protagonist from reaching a said goal, making the story enjoyable in the first place.
5. Draw a belief system
What creates the core of a character is the beliefs they hold. These will be your characters’ moral, philosophical, or ethical beliefs. The beliefs your characters hold will define who they are. In Hacksaw Ridge, Desmond Doss believes he should not take another person’s life. I don’t have a problem with where my uniform saluting the flag, and doing my duty as carrying a gun and taking a human life.
Batman believes he must remain alone because if he opens himself up to others, he will be hurt like he was when his parents were murdered. Your greatest fear is being a part of a family again. These beliefs create the core of your character and why they want what they want. Their beliefs define them. Their beliefs will be challenged as they exist within the story.
Without strong beliefs, you have no character. You have no want and no story. The characters did not simply hold beliefs that they believe will influence their external actions. Because of his beliefs, Desmond Doss refuses to carry a gun into battle.
- A strong protagonist also has a clear want and takes action to get it.
In Leos’s art of Dramatic Writing, the pivotal character knows what he wants. Without him, the story flounders. There is no story the protagonists want based on what they believe. Their beliefs define their want, which is necessary to create your story.
6. Make your character static/dynamic
We need to define what static and dynamic characters are. A static character does not undergo essential changes during the story, remaining essentially the same at the end. A static character might undergo changes here and there, but one can look at their current state and look back through the beginning. You can still see that they have stayed the same at their core. Usually, static characters are limited to changes tied to the plot.
- In contrast, the dynamic characters undergo essential changes throughout the story, going through fundamental changes in their motivation and character at their core.
However, what makes this tricky is progression and development are many times intertwined, especially in the external sense. Shown in the manga, for example, are best known for these external developments, which the characters go through at first glance with their power-ups and new forms. That’s not to say that Shonen characters can’t undergo internal development.
However, the big ones that stand out are the external ones. All because a character goes through massive external developments doesn’t mean they can’t go through equally significant internal developments. However, some good examples of these dynamic characters would be the Orphan from Vinland Saga.
7. Push your protagonist by the antagonist
The main character’s job is to take action and push the plot further by taking the antagonist to their limit, as previously the antagonist did for the protagonist. In other words, it’s one big game of pushing and pulling, leading to the climax. Also, it’s at the climax where the main character and the main enemy will fight to defend their ideology and protect their motivations while destroying the others.
Some of my favorite stories have a protagonist and antagonist that each offer a good perspective on their ideology and are each extremely flawed. Therefore making their conflict much more nuanced and exciting. However, that is not to say that your typical good versus evil conflict cannot be as good in the end. This is a bit of literature, theory, and concepts. So what matters is good execution. In the end, the ultimate purpose of the characters in your story is to give the themes and messages in your story life.
In the end, the good protagonist should capture the reader and serve as a clear example of what the story is about, pushing a memorable plot and providing a character that will stay in the heart of the audience forever. Let me know if there are any other types of concepts when it comes to writing you would like me to tackle. If you are new here, make sure you read my previous post on writing. I hope everyone has a blessed rest of the day and peace.
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