There is a lot to cover where protagonists are concerned – probably more so that creating bad guys, so in the first part of this three part series, we’ll take a look at what a protagonist is, what he or she does for a story and the different types.
What is a Protagonist?
The protagonist is the main character, the person whose story you are telling, and is also commonly referred to as the hero or the good guy. The story will centre on them; so much of it will be from their perspective. Every protagonist will have a problem to solve, and only they can do it (with the help of other characters).
Every story needs a protagonist – what type they are and how they behave is down to the writer – because without that main character, there is no story to tell. It’s the protagonist’s story. They carry the story.
Are There Different Types of protagonist?
Strangely enough, different types of protagonist do exist. There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ where main characters are concerned. While there may be umpteen sub groups for them, the main group consists of the following:-
The Classic Hero – Usually male, the classic hero is handsome and strong, brave and gallant and rescues fair maidens from peril. Generally found in historical saga, romance or fantasy novels, this hero is what every woman wants her man to be.
The Anti-Hero – This one can be male or female, and he or she can epitomise both good and bad traits. Ostensibly they are good people, but they can overstep the mark and do bad things in order to get what they want. They will often flout rules and they don’t do things by the book.
The Tragic Hero – A fatally flawed character, beset by more problems than most, but who garners sympathy from the reader by generally overcoming everything that is thrown at him or her. They tend to be very unlucky. Tragic heroes often die for their cause.
The Modern Hero – The modern hero is a balanced type of all the hero characteristics – determined, likeable, good looking, slightly flawed and not afraid to take risks.
So how do you create a good guy that can shoulder the story, do heroic things, make the reader identify with him or her and also make them likeable, interesting and realistic enough for the reader to actually care what happens to them and want to be involved in the story?
Think of all the facets that make up a real person. There are way too many to list, but you’ll find everyone has a past, a history. Everyone has unique traits and behaviours. Everyone does things differently, we’re built differently, think differently. Everyone acts and reacts differently. Your main character should be no different – someone who is multifaceted and complex.
Ultimately, the people we are drawn to are the people who show the same traits as us, so we instantly find a connection. This is also true with your protagonist. They must connect with the reader in the same way. They should have traits and characteristics that readers can identify with. For instance:-
A) They have flaws and foibles, just like the rest of us. They make mistakes; they make bad or stupid choices. Just like we do. They should never be perfect – no one is.
Don’t be afraid to exploit your main character’s weaknesses – make them vulnerable at every opportunity. This will evoke empathy and sympathy in the reader, thus strengthening that connectivity and immediacy.
B) They want something bad enough to embark on a journey to get it – a fight for justice perhaps. Or a need to right a wrong. Or what about saving someone or something, to defend others? A moral fight always endears a reader, because they will share the same ethical remit.
C) They are compelling and interesting – perhaps determined and strong, or they have a fair moral code. Perhaps they are quirky or contradictory. Maybe they are emotional and warm. Maybe they find courage in the face of danger. Perhaps they are passionate about something that matters to them. These are things we see in ourselves; these things draw us towards them.
D) They have personal issues or problems, just like real people. We all carry emotional baggage. And heroes carry the same baggage, too. It could be anything – maybe they didn’t have a father growing up. Maybe they lost a loved one. Perhaps someone did something bad to them when they were a child.
We all carry burdens from childhood to adulthood. Our main characters do, too. This helps readers connect to them on a deep, emotional level.
The Protagonist Has a Job to Do
Your protagonist is vital to moving the story forward and ensuring it reaches a satisfactory conclusion, which means he or she will have a major objective, a goal or target to achieve, be it love, revenge, survival or happiness etc.
All this means your protagonist must have various motives to act; there must be something that is driving him/her. These motives form part of the plot, the very reason for the story and it’s important that writers understand these motives before they start writing, so time spent outlining out your characters and getting their backstories in place is time well spent.
Get the details right to begin with will save a lot of hassle halfway through the novel when things start to get a little tangled.
In Part 2 we’ll look at the importance of motives to the protagonist and the kind of things that makes a ‘good guy’ good.
Next week: How to Create a Convincing Good Guy – Part 2