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        How to Write Your Protagonist

        • calenderAug 20, 2023
        • calender 5 min read

        Wandering down the bylanes of your plot, you’re content. It is structured neatly, you know exactly what you want out of the book, and you know the end and the beginning. But the characters still loom over your head, threatening to knock the wind out of your literary lungs. After all, any great story is remembered by readers but what makes them go back to the book again is the protagonist. 

        Well, your search for how to write a protagonist ends here! Let’s start with the basics.

        Who is the protagonist?

        A protagonist is the main character of a book, someone on whom the entire plot is centered. A protagonist often determines the movement of the plot and its pace. They also need not always be a hero (consider Hamlet: A tortured, indecisive mess of a protagonist!). 

        Note that the protagonist is not the same as the lead character. The protagonist is the central driving force of the plot while the lead character is the most significant character in the story. A protagonist’s fears, goals, and dreams drive the plot whereas the main characters lend them support. Let us see in what different ways can you structure the perfect protagonist according to your story. 

        1. Know the desires and goals of your protagonist

        When you create your characters, dive into the deeper, finer details of the character of your protagonist. Since it is their desires and fears that are going to be driving the plot, you need to have them stamped on your brain to avoid further confusion in the story. You could brainstorm the deeper thinking processes that you think your lead character might have with a friend, maybe a psychology major. For example:

        • In “Lolita”, Humbert Humbert is driven by only one thing: his desire for his landlady’s 12-year-old daughter, Lolita. For her, he runs his landlady over and drives town to town in order to keep his affections secret and also so he can profess his affections more freely. 

        2. Use other characters to add a sense of urgency and purpose

        Use your secondary characters to full advantage for mining the potential emotions of your protagonist. Secondary characters might be in the position of a lover that the lead lost in an accident which has maybe made them so distant and aloof in the present time. For example:

        • Miss Havisham’s interference with the love between the main characters is a result of her being jilted and left at the altar once. This makes things even more complicated for Pip to win Estella, Miss Havisham’s niece over in Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations”.  

        You could also use the secondary character as a weak point to exploit the protagonist’s flaws. For example, if the sister of the protagonist goes missing, they will do anything, even if it is risking their reputation for her sake. This may damage the near-perfect image of the protagonist and they have to tussle with these two feelings. 

        3. Give your protagonist a challenge

        A protagonist with a challenge will be as exciting to write and even more exciting for the audience to read. Challenges create an exciting rising and falling action. Interestingly, they help to cement the character of your protagonist. For example, in a financial crisis, if offered a lot of money for a highly illegal job, the protagonist’s decision cements their ethics and if needed re-establishes their character. An example of rising and falling action here might be:

        • In The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel Grace and Augustus are forever kept together and apart, almost constantly in a tussle over being together because of their life-threatening illnesses. 

        4. Give them something to lose

        Write down your protagonist’s stakes. What do they have to lose? Why are they pursuing what they are pursuing? The higher the stakes, the greater the conflict. The more complicated the stakes, the more you get to explore your character’s personality and motivations on their journey. One tip from us is that you write down the absolute worst thing that could ever happen to your protagonist so that it looms like a black cloud over their head, always present and threatening. For example:

        • In Cormac McCarthy’s novel, “The Road”, a father-son duo has to survive while escaping cannibals in a post-apocalyptic world. Here, the protagonist is the father, who must survive to protect his vulnerable son. Here, his son’s survival is the highest stake for him, which makes the risk higher. 

        5. Add detail to the character 

        Accentuate your protagonist’s flaws and quirks through small things. These physical characteristics might sound irrelevant right now, but descriptions make the character stand out. For example, if your character is always anxious, you might give them a small detail of tapping their foot rhythmically every time there is a conflict in the room. This technique of show-not-tell tells more about your character than plainly stating facts about them, and that is the tea. 

        These tips should get you started on your protagonist and hopefully by extension on your main characters too. You can check out the article on how to write a plot on the Resource Center. You don’t have to build a protagonist according to the whims and fancies of others, but it is important that they remain true to their role in the plot and remain authentic. Take a deep breath and start writing now!

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        Manish Linkedin

        Manish is a serial entrepreneur, business coach, and the Founder of PaperTrue. His vision is to make impeccable English communication possible for everybody, so they can write effectively and gain the academic and professional success they deserve.

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