Thanks to the wonderful blog of Chuck Wendig, Terrible Minds has given me inspiration for my post.
For high school students learning English/literary terms is the bane of their existence. Two of the most common terms are protagonist and antagonist. What do most kids think this means? Protagonist-good guy. Antagonist-bad guy.Sadly, some of these kids grow up to adults thinking that these are the real definitions. I would love to go smack whatever idiot who started spreading this definition around because it gives readers the wrong idea when they reference a book’s characters. It’s also important for writers to understand an intimate definition of both these terms.
Protagonist is the chief character that is altered by the people/action in the story. The stereotypical definition might include the fact that the protagonist is the primary character in the story, but that is the closest thing it has to accuracy. The antagonist is more misunderstood than the protagonist. They get the reputation of being the bad guy or the one that opposes the protagonist. Again, the definition is dead wrong. Antagonist actually represents a character that changes the people/action in the story. They are typically the secondary character, but don’t have to be.
While most people will disagree with these intricate definitions, they represent a detailed understanding of the characters. Either in literature or contemporary writing, the characters need to be carefully designed to flow in the plot. Feel free if you want to write a hero that only does good, and a bad guy directly opposite him that tries to thwart him. However, writing anything other than a medieval fantasy/comic book doesn’t fall into this format. For everything else the definition above applies. It’s simple and helps alleviate any limitations when creating your characters.
The link above will take you to a post titled, “25 Things You Should Know About Protagonists,” which happens to agree pretty well with my definition. The blogger goes on to describe other aspects of the protagonists you should keep in mind while writing.
Your protagonist doesn’t have to be loved all of the time. That’s what makes them realistic. It’s good to have your protagonist do something unconventional or mean. You don’t want to make the reader hate them, but sometimes it might happen.
There is something about a boring protagonist that ruins the entire book. If you can’t get the reader caring about the protagonist, you don’t have an audience. To me, a protagonist just needs to be a person you would want to know or have known. Whether it be a person on television or a personality trait from a neighbor, take ideas from real people. It’s profitable. There are insanely entertaining people right outside your door. If they have a cool story to go with them, better for you!
If you look back at my definition of the protagonist one thing is clear. There MUST BE CHANGE! Whether it be from the antagonist or self-reflection of the protagonist, change moves the story along. People like to see change because that’s life. Just like Hamlet finding the courage to stand up to his father (albeit after most of the play and sending his girlfriend to suicide); he changed himself for the better of the story.
One of the most exciting things on this list is number 12. Are you an innie or an outie? The blogger describes inner and outer stories. It represents the action going on inside the head of the protagonist compared to the one happening outside of the character’s head. What the post did not discuss is the way p.o.v factors into the story development. Whether it be internal monologue in one chapter or the entire novel from first person p.o.v., there is a difference of inner/outer story because of the p.o.v. A writer that choses p.o.v. doesn’t have as much inner story untold. According to the post, the inner story isn’t detailed as much as the outer story, but with first person you see the story from the character’s inner thoughts. There are so many options you have the chance to pick what p.o.v. is perfect for your story.
The post goes on to describe the other options you have writing your protagonist. You can create multiple protagonists (see Stephen King’s Under the Dome where he writers upwards of 8 protagonists in one book) where the writer isn’t limited to just one protagonist. It may seem like overkill or suicide to write more than one, but sometimes the story requires more than one. On the other hand, you can create a protagonist that ends up being the fake one, throwing off the reader the entire time! These ideas allow the writer to have some fun with the story and the reader.
Sadly, the toughest part of writing the protagonist is that you have to hurt them. Psychologically, physically, or any other -cally the protagonist has to hurt to truly make the story worthwhile. Once the readers begin to sympathize (or hate) the protagonist, you have the opportunity to fortify their idea of the protagonist or drastically change it. You get to control how the reader feels about the protagonist by the end of the story based on how they are hurt.
The end of the post gives the most important tips when writing the protagonist. It starts with the reality that you can’t have a perfect, ideal protagonist. It doesn’t make a good story to have someone who never fails or has flaws. It’s boring and predictable. I realize that people may want to write those kind of characters, but you shouldn’t. It’s not fair to those characters, you, or the story. What’s even more important is putting YOU in the protagonist. The best possible resource we have to make a realistic protagonist is yourself. Hopefully you know you well enough to pick pieces of you to give to that protagonist. You can improve a flat character greatly by putting the best/worst parts of you into it.
Ultimately, the goal of the protagonist is to relate to the reader, even if the protagonist is vastly different than most of the readers. As long as the readers see a little of themselves in the protagonist, there is a basic connection that is made. This can take you through the entire book if you make a good enough character. You don’t have to make one for every person out there because we will always find something in common with other human beings. The important part is that you remember these tips and try to put some of you in the story, too.