What makes a good protagonist?
It’s an age-old question and the answer is almost so contextual - so dependant on genre, readers, time and intention - that attempting to tie it down as absurd as trying to lock wind in a cage.
So I might as well try, then. Buckle down - this might be a long one.
Now I’m sure you’ve heard lots of advice before: give your protagonist a flaw, make them relatable, make them likeable, etc. And while these are often true, they don’t apply to all great protagonists.
If you’ve ever read the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, you would know that the character is far from likeable. That doesn’t make him a bad protagonist though (in fact, he’s a fantastic one). Try telling me how relatable Tony Montana from Scarface is to your life and you might struggle, but you can’t deny, it’s a good film. And unless you count ‘being a little bit too good at everything’ as a flaw, Kvothe from The Name of the Wind is basically a fantastical Gary Stu. Even so, he’s still a cracking character to read about.
So what does apply? Well, here’s my theory: good - and I mean really good - protagonists need to have these three elements:
And in order to have these things, they need a “Worldview”.
Confused? Fair enough. Let me try and explain what this means:
Your protagonist’s worldview is his or her perspective on the way life works. It defines how they relate to people, make decisions and approach the problems they face over the course of the story.
Your character needs to have one. They are big complex things conceptually, but in practice can usually be summed up pretty easily for individual characters.
A non-exhaustive list of questions to consider when creating worldview:
Do they trust people?
Do they think things will generally work out for better or worse?
Are they cynical or hopeful?
Do they believe in a higher power or that everything happens for a reason?
Do they believe in love?
Where do they see themselves in the context of the wider world?
How do they value loyalty?
How do they value friendship?
What do they think of the rich / the poor?
To help with this, here is a nice image to consider when developing their worldview:
Where would you place them on the spectrum of these different virtues?
How does this manifest itself in their relationships and activities?
Once you have a worldview, you can move on to the three main elements.
Protagonists are the driving forces of the story. As I mentioned in last week’s post, plot is character therefore if the plot is to move forward, the character has to move it there. That’s literally what your protagonist is for.
Therefore, it is crucially important that your character is active. No - that doesn’t mean they need to be sporty and run around a lot. It means they need to make active choices that push forward the plot. They need to make clear decisions and act on them.
If you need help seeing what this looks like, picture the Council of Elrond scene from Lord of the Rings and Frodo saying “I’ll take it.” and thus starting the plot (and one of his Points of No Return™). That is what active characters look like.
The worst thing you can do to a protagonist is make them passive. If you just have plot points unwittingly happen to your protagonist by circumstance, other characters or fate, then he or she is boring. Make them act. That is what they are there for.
But it is not as simple as this. In order to act, they need to have reason and need to do so. Or - to borrow a phrase from law enforcement - your protagonist require means, motive and opportunity to act.
Your character needs to have the means to have an impact on the story.
The most classic example of this trope in fantasy fiction is the ‘chosen one’ or secretly the son of a King or some similar version. Basically, the character is given the means to be important enough to affect people and scenarios around him. You can do this, though it’s a bit cliche. (remember: there’s nothing wrong with cliche when done right.)
Other ways of doing this are considering the character’s profession, personality and circumstance.
Profession: Are they a doctor / lawyer / firefighter and does this give them some means to impact the story?
Personality: Are they super clever (see ‘Kvothe’ from The Name of the Wind) or super strong (see ‘Captain America’) or really talented at one particular thing?
Circumstance: Are they in the right place at the right time? Do they happen to have some knowledge that others do not? Do they happen to have something fall in their lap? (like some sort of all-powerful ring, eh Frodo?)
All of these things can give the character means to impact the story, and depending on your story the means will be different. But what is important is that they have clear and realistic means, or they cannot be active.
Your character needs to have realistic motivations for the choices they make. This is hugely important. The reader needs to believe that the character is not only capable, but likely to make the decision they have made.
These motivations can be emotional, they can be physical, but they should always be based on the character’s worldview.
Example: Frodo is young and naive at the start of LOTR. He believes in doing the right thing when he can and everything will work out for the best. This is his perspective on life. His ‘worldview’.
The choice to take the ring to Mordor fits in perfectly with this. He wants to do the right thing, he’d never turn his back on others, but he also is naive enough to think that he can do it.
If Frodo had said, “I’m done. I’m off back to the Shire, you guys deal with this.” It wouldn’t have fit at all with his worldview.
So: develop your character’s worldview in such a way that their choices seem honest. Honest to themselves and honest to how they view the world.
NB: ‘honesty’ here doesn’t mean they don’t lie. In fact, if your character is a thief or a swindler, telling lies is probably about as honest to their worldview as you can get. To paraphrase the words of Polonius from Hamlet: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any plot point.”
Go through your planning for your novel and look at the choices your character is making. (They are making lots of choices, right? Because they are an active character?) For each one, write down what their motivation is.
Is it their love for adventure? Is it their desire to save the girl? Is it their love for their mother?
Whatever it is, make sure the reader knows it too.
(WARNING: Just because the reader needs to know the motivations, doesn’t mean you start throwing ‘show, don’t tell’ out the window. At no point does Frodo say “I’m young and naive, this is why I’m doing this.” Don’t have your protagonist be so open with their motivations either. Sometimes the best motivations are ones that the protagonist doesn’t even know they have.)
This is similar to ‘means’, in a way. The protagonist needs to be in a position where they can impact the plot in terms of time and place. Don’t waste time getting them there either - put them there at the start.
I will do another blog post later on ‘getting in late and getting out early’, but the key concept is start as close to the inciting incident of the plot as you possibly can. This means put your protagonist (and any other characters) where they need to be.
Make sure you character has the ability to act, the motivation to act honestly and is in the right place to act. Then make them act.
Avid readers of this blog will notice how this section ties in with my “Finding the Plot” post last week. Less avid, but enthusiastic readers will go and read my “Finding the Plot” post in the archives section after this one.
The core concept here is that at some point in your story (preferably multiple points), your character’s worldview needs to be challenged.
The best way to do this is with physical events. If your protagonist’s worldview is a trusting one and they essentially believe all people are good people, then having their close friend betray them or lie to them is a good challenge for that.
A great example can be found in Breaking Bad. Hank is a bit of a macho man who prides himself on catching criminals and being physical active in doing so. He sees the world as a man with a lot of agency and independence. So what happens to him? He gets attacked by a gang cartel and can no longer walk, forced to remain in bed and have people (Marie) wait upon him. This is a huge challenge to the way he views the world and he has to adjust, quite painfully, to fit in with it.
So make the challenge big. Make something happen to them that really rocks their perspective on how the world works. Make it so they can’t go back to thinking about the world like they did before.
One of my favourite pieces of advice that came from a literary agent was to ask yourself this question: What is the one thing that your character would absolutely never ever do?
Okay, good. Now make them do it. Force them to. What happens to them now?
If you can tie this to a Point of No Return™ plot point, where the character can not now physically return to where they started, but also not mentally return to the way they viewed the world, then you have a great twist in your story. Well done.
Remember: twists are not about pulling the rug out from under your readers, they are about pulling the rug out from under your characters.
Inevitably, if you have challenged them sufficiently, your character will then need to change.
This is key. Great stories are about change. If your protagonist is, for all intents and purposes, the same at the end as they were at the beginning, then you have a rubbish protagonist. And a boring one.
Their view and perspective on the world needs to be different because of the experiences they have gone through. This should impact how they deal with the events at the end of the novel.
A good way to demonstrate this change is to have your character choose to do something at the end of the story that they would never do at the start. If that choice is truly honest to your character's new worldview, this will be a very impactful way of demonstrating the character's growth.
One of the best examples of this in storytelling can be found in Breaking Bad. It is a true masterpiece of character creation and development. You can pick any character from that show and compare who they are in Season 1 to who they are at the end of Season 5. They are very different. The most dramatic are, of course, the protagonists - Walter White and Jesse Pinkman.
Don’t overthink likeability or relatability or having that Shakespearean ‘one fatal flaw’. I mean, what are Frodo’s flaws, really? That he’s a hobbit?
Just do all of the above and write it well and you will have yourself an excellent protagonist.
If you haven't seen Breaking Bad, you really should.
If you have already seen it, do this final task for me: watch the video below. It is a wonderful short summary of the character development in the whole story. Credits to Grable424 for making it.
As you watch it, think about all of the above. Take a note of the character's actions, challenges and changes. You will quickly realise exactly when and where Jesse and Walt act based on their 'worldviews', when they have their 'worldviews' completely and irrevocably challenged and how they change because of it.
Next Week’s Blog Post: ‘Meaning and Subtext - How to Write Good Dialogue’
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See you next week.
I am a writer, a reader and a teacher. I write about writing. Sometimes I write about other things too.