How To Develop a Protagonist

Most great stories revolve around a variation of a simple premise:  A protagonist who fights the odds to achieve his goal. The protagonist has been the backbone of dramatic storytelling since ancient Greece. The ability to develop a good protagonist, then, is an essential skill the contemporary storyteller must possess. Here are some ways to develop your protagonist.

  1. Set him on a mission. There are plenty of stories, especially in contemporary times, where protagonists may mainly and talk and maybe make some observations here and there. But in general, a good protagonist is not just looking around or having a chat, he's pursuing a goal. This is the center of his being. What a protagonist wants is really who he is. As you create and develop your protagonist, have a clear, state-able goal and make as much of the character's existence as possible revolve around pursuing that goal.  Your protagonist's traits should serve that goal:  He will talk to and fight with your other characters about that goal, he will be, if not single-minded in his pursuit of that goal, pretty darn focused on it. Of course, if you're writing an expansive work - say a novel - you will have other characters with other goals and they will get their own goals to pursue. But as you develop your protagonist, it's all about him, his goal, and the obstacles he faces in pursuit of that goal.
  2. Come up with his modus operandi. It's also all about how he pursues those obstacles. Modus operandi is Law & Order speak for the way he operates. Characters are best revealed through how they deal with conflict. Do they punch the school bully in the face or do they run away in fright? As you develop your protagonist, how he pursues his goal is almost as important as what the goal is. You need to determine how your character will operate in his pursuit. Does your character choose flight or fight, for instance? Does he use his brains, his fists or his x-ray vision? Is he above breaking the law or does he simply consider himself above the law and acts accordingly? These choices are what will make your character who he is.
    You also need to make some decisions about who he will become. A character, most of the time, is more compelling if he undergoes some kind of change thanks to his mission. Will your protagonist be a wuss who becomes strong, a strong man who becomes vulnerable, a robot who becomes human? These are also choices you must make and plot out as you develop this character.
  3. Make him proactive. So a character must have a goal. That goal is important and defines him. How he pursues that goal is also important. A third important thing to keep in mind as you develop your protagonist is that he does in fact actively pursue his goal. A lot of times when I consult on scripts, writers will have characters who are very reactive, that is to say, they have a lot of plates spinning and a lot is happening to them, but they're not really doing anything to achieve their goals or even not achieve their goals. A protagonist must be proactive in almost all cases. You need to have him out there doing things whether it's finding clues, winning over his girlfriend, or learning how to use The Force. A story where the protagonist does nothing will often be slow or simply not effective.
  4. Make him multi-dimensional. Characters we love, from Han Solo to Gil Grissom to Scarlett O'Hara, all have something in common:  They're not perfect. Many great protagonists, sure, have no flaws. They're the guys in the white hats and the shining armor and we love them for it. But really, aren't the most compelling and relatable characters the ones who have some scuffs on the hat, some dings in the armor? When you develop your protagonist, give him flaws and good points. Avoid the temptation to make him Mr. Perfect (or worse yet, Mr. Perfect Fictional Alter Ego Of happens...). You may be surprised how much a character will increase in depth once he has some weaknesses. New conflicts will open up. New growth can occur. And flawed characters can be really fun to write! So be sure to add many sides to your character - some involving positive traits and others involving negative ones. Just don't go overboard to the point we suspect there's a split personality disorder (well, unless your character has a split personality.)
  5. Make him remarkable. When you think of your favorite fictional characters, you likely think not only of their pursuit of a goal, but also of some of their specific traits such as their sense of humor, their job, their off-beat hobby, or, in the case of Napoleon Dynamite, their numbchuck skills. When you develop your protagonist, make him specific. Give him quirks and tastes and special talents. Don't lose track of his main story while you do this, but create a well-rounded character who we will remember.

Protagonists lead your story. Without a strong, memorable, goal-driven protagonist, your story will likely be in trouble. With one, though, your story is on its way to engaging your audience.  


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