This guest post is by Joseph Bates, whose new book Writing Your Novel From Start to Finish: A Guidebook for the Journey provides the instruction, inspiration, and guidance you need to complete your novel. Bates is the author of Tomorrowland: Stories (Curbside Splendor 2013), and his short fiction has appeared in such journals as The Rumpus, New Ohio Review, Identity Theory, South Carolina Review, Fresh Boiled Peanuts, and InDigest Magazine. He is a consulting fiction editor with Miami University Press and teaches in the creative writing program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Visit him online at www.josephbates.net.
Today, he shares his insights on writing an engaging protagonist.
The initial idea gives the impetus for the novel, which develops into basic premise for the story. But what transforms premise into story is developing the protagonist, finding the person who’ll not only experience the events of the story but will interpret those events through a particular lens and be affected by the events in a meaningful way. Considering other novels and how they’ve crafted their own protagonists, we can start defining what makes a protagonist effective, which you can apply to your own novel as you discover the character at its heart.
In general, let’s consider the following aspects of a successful protagonist:
A protagonist is driven by an everyday want, hope, or fear.
In other words, a protagonist isn’t simply pushed along by plot-level motivation and conflict but by a clearly defined internal motivation. What kind? Well, it’ll be something basic and universal, something a reader, no matter her background, can understand and connect with: The need to be accepted, perhaps. The need to feel safe. The need to feel loved. The need to prove our worth (to others or even to ourselves). And so on. This baseline, personal motivation may even be suggested by something present within your external arc that you can develop for the protagonist as a kind of reverse engineering. If your story is about a girl who’s whisked away from her home by a twister, for example, and transported to the faraway land of Oz, then the external goal of “getting home” might suggest a parallel internal motivation of wanting to truly have a home, to truly feel at home, which you might evoke by making her an orphan living with her aunt and uncle, and having her doubt this is truly where she belongs.
If the external, plot-level arc is what you’re starting with, look for ways it might suggest something more personal for the character, which might grow out of not only what the protagonist most wants but something the protagonist values (which could be threatened through the plot), or something the protagonist most fears. Whatever it is that’s driving the protagonist personally, it has to be clear enough so that the reader understands the character better as she faces each new conflict. But, how clearly and directly should this be given to the reader? And how early in the novel?
In Ready Player One, Ernest Cline gives us a post-apocalyptic near-future where people escape the turmoil of the real world by retreating into the Oasis, a massive multiplayer online virtual reality game designed by the late virtual pioneer James Halliday. Upon Halliday’s death, users of the Oasis receive a prerecorded video wherein the eccentric designer announces a meta-game of hidden Easter eggs and tasks within the Oasis. Whoever beats the game will inherit all of Halliday’s considerable fortune. All of this is given to the reader by our first-person narrator and protagonist Wade Watts, known in the Oasis by his avatar Parzival, an eighteen-year-old kid who lives in “the stacks,” a trailer park wherein decrepit units are loaded on top of each other in scrunched-up squalor. Parzival spends all the time he can in the Oasis as a way of escaping the poverty of his real life, and thus we’re given a sense of Parzival as a character, of his personal situation, even before he tells us what motivates him to take up the hunt for Halliday’s Easter eggs: “I didn’t have much choice. Winning this contest was my one way of escaping the stacks.”
I’d be tempted to say that’s as clear a personal motivation as you’re likely to have stated in a novel, except that I can think of a number which are even clearer (and given even earlier). In The Time-Traveler’s Wife, for example, Audrey Niffenegger gives us a direct statement of Claire’s personal motivation, the loneliness that comes from loving a man who involuntarily travels in time, in the opening lines of the book, via Claire’s first-person narration:
It’s hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he’s okay. It’s hard to be the one who stays.
I keep myself busy. Time goes faster that way.
Don’t be afraid of finding the protagonist’s internal motivation and using it to help reveal the stakes of the external arc—when you’ve found the right one, it will run parallel throughout the book—and furthermore don’t be afraid of stating that motivation outright. Hiding a personal motivation from a reader isn’t mysterious. It will leave the reader wondering what drives the protagonist.
It’s also important to note that, while the motivation must be clear for the reader, it doesn’t necessarily have to be clear-headed, meaning that the character might want something that’s not in her best interest, or want something that would be impossible to achieve, or want something she perhaps shouldn’t want. Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick is driven by his need to kill the white whale who took his leg, and he is so consumed by his need for revenge that he pushes forward on the quest at every new turn when a sane person would head back. But even in this, the reader sees something about himself reflected in Ahab’s quest, and in the ways we are all occasionally blinded by obsession with someone or something, and how it leads us to behave in ways that run counter to our own well-being.
A protagonist must be active and questioning.
The protagonist can’t merely be acted upon in your novel. He has to be curious, has to have agency, and has to engage the world instead of enduring or observing it. Just as too many beginning novelists trade character development for the fun of world-building, too many also use a protagonist as a passive way of simply showing off the world and the plot—things happen around him, things even happen to him, but the protagonist himself seems to be there just to let these happen and accept it rather than questioning or pushing back (often as a result of having no real want, and thus no way of pursuing it). Once you understand your protagonist’s want, and why he wants it, you can set him on the path of actively pursuing it. A passive protagonist, on the other hand, often seems like he’d rather go somewhere else, and a reader probably wouldn’t mind if he did.
A protagonist must be seemingly unequal to the task.
There must be a genuine risk of failure on the protagonist’s part in order to invest a reader with a sense of stakes. A protagonist who’s an untouchable hero isn’t that interesting or exciting because there’s very little chance that he’ll fail (and, of course, because there’s very little to identify with, since none of us are exactly untouchable heroes). In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien doesn’t hand off the One Ring to any number of warrior characters he could have, but gives it to the most unlikely character, a strong-of-heart, short-of-stature hobbit. And throughout that trilogy the reader feels constant stakes, precisely because we feel a real, constant possibility of Frodo’s failure, whether from the external conflicts he faces throughout the books or the internal conflict, with Frodo’s mind being slowly affected by the Ring’s power. In The Silence of the Lambs, Starling isn’t the top agent the FBI has but a student, a trainee. In Ready Player One, Parzival races to find Halliday’s Easter egg by logging into the Oasis (at first) with only his low-tech, school-issued immersion rig, trying to win the contest with limited resources while also playing against everyone else in the world. Long odds are necessary for reader investment. We root for a character because the odds are stacked against him.
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A protagonist evokes connection with the reader.
I can think of a number of big exceptions to the rule, of course, but for the most part, a reader’s relationship to a protagonist is generally one of sympathy, empathy, or (in a pinch) pity. In other words, we see something of our own lives, experiences, and struggles reflected in the protagonist, both in the universality of the internal motivation and in the fact that this internal motivation or goal is put at risk in the book, and as a result, we feel a personal investment in the protagonist’s quest.
Now, on the related question of a protagonist’s likeability—on whether or not the reader should want to have a beer with the protagonist in order for the character to be successful—this is a more difficult question to answer. Literature is populated with characters, and even with protagonists, who are pretty difficult, sometimes unlikable people: the predatory protagonist Humbert Humbert of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, the cruel Heathcliff in Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, the tragic Macbeth, who is driven by hubris toward his own destruction, etc. These characters point more toward the need for complexity than likability in the first place—the reader can be invested in that character even as she wouldn’t want to meet him. Our heroes ought to be flawed and imperfect (because they’re people, and people are flawed and imperfect), just as our anti-heroes and even our villains ought to have something intriguing or seductive about them. The worst thing a reader can feel toward a character is apathy.
More to the point, how a reader connects with the protagonist will be the way you connect with the protagonist—how you see or explore or find sympathy with what she’s going through. An author is in a precarious position as a kind of naughty god: We ought to feel connection to our own characters, and hope on some level they’ll succeed, even as we’re the very ones making their lives difficult. So consider what your own connection is to the protagonist and her quest, and let that guide how a reader connects, as well.
A protagonist has the most opportunity to (and for) change.
This goes along with the earlier point about a protagonist being active instead of passive—just as I’ll often see novel drafts where a protagonist is more or less standing around while everyone around him leaps into action, I also see novel drafts where the protagonist stays more or less static throughout a book, as a witness to big changes rather than being in a position to change himself. This raises a frequent question: Does a protagonist have to change over the course of a novel? No, though something does, even if it’s just a reader’s understanding of the character. But I do believe that a character has to be in a state of conflict that he wishes to resolve one way or the other, which is to say, that the character has the opportunity to change. A character with no clear want can’t ever be in a state of conflict (because there’s nothing to be in conflict against), and a character who’s not in a state of conflict has no opportunity to change, as there’s no conflict to resolve.
Sometimes correcting the problem is a matter of digging out the arc—finding internal motivation, conflict, and possible resolution, or trying out different ones to see how this changes your view of the story—and sometimes this might be a matter of having incorrectly identified the character who ought to be your protagonist. If there’s a dynamic, active character in a constant state of tension and conflict whom your protagonist spends the novel standing next to, you might ask yourself why that dynamic, active character isn’t your protagonist instead.