Part iii. Creating the Protagonist

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For those who aren't familiar with the term protagonist, the protagonist is your main character. This is the character whose goals drive the main plot of your novel. He/She is the one character you want your readers to bond with emotionally. Because readers care, they'll keep turning the pages to find out what happens to him/her. Your protagonist is the character you should take the most time creating.

The Protagonist

Characters make the book. Of all the characters, the protagonist is the single most important one for you to flesh out and understand. Your job as an author is to bring the protagonist vividly to the page and make the reader care, really care about what happens to him/her.

Does that mean the protagonist needs to be perfect? Absolutely not! A nice, pleasant guy makes for a boring protagonist. Characters who are flawed can be much more appealing and interesting to read about (and to write about). But even the snottiest, most self-absorbed protagonist has to be fundamentally likable, or readers simply won't want to hang around with him for 300 pages.

Details that define your protagonist include name, physical presence, wardrobe, the vehicle (or lack thereof) that he drives, the words he chooses, and most importantly his dreams and ambitions, fears and desires, and those past experiences that have made him who he is.

Can your novel have more than one protagonist? It's not unheard of, and authors have made it work, but usually a novel is the story of a single character's journey, struggle, or quest. From a practical point of view, it's difficult enough trying to write a novel with a single protagonist; with two protagonists you run the risk of splitting the focus and losing your readers.

The most important things to know about your protagonist are: what he wants above all else, and what stands in the way.

What Does Your Protagonist Desire?

Your protagonist's goals and aspirations provide the driving force behind your plot. Goals come in all shapes and sizes.

Do protagonists always know what they want? Absolutely not. Like the rest of us, a protagonist may want several different things at the same time. He may be unsure of what's important, and his experiences through the course of the novel may change his understanding of what matters most.

The Worthy Goal

We touched upon this in Section III's part ii of Building a Plot. Whatever your protagonist's goal, it has to be worth all the trouble he's going to have to go through in order to reach it. This might be worthy in a real-world sense—like recovering a priceless treasure or preventing an assassination. Or it might be worthy in a personal sense—like saving a reputation or preserving a family legacy.

Often the goal is represented by something tangible—like a priceless painting or a family farm—but always that thing should be symbolic of something larger, something that really matters to the protagonist and meets a fundamental underlying emotional need. Whatever the goal, the plot has to involve the protagonist actively seeking it.

What Obstacles are in Your Protagonist's Way?

Your protagonist will encounter obstacles, from within and from without, that will make it difficult, at times seemingly impossible, to reach the goal. By dealing with obstacles and conflict, your protagonist shows the reader what she's made of.

Your protagonist may possess strengths like cunning, or physical strength, or courage, or intellect that she marshals in order to reach her goal. Likewise, your protagonist will have a weakness such as a stubbornness that renders her immobile, or an overweening ego, or prejudice that gets in the way.

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