Wednesday, November 15, 2006


The main character in your novel, short story, or screenplay is your protagonist, the hero. The protagonist is the primary focus of the story. He or she is the one we identify with, empathize with, care about. The protagonist must be sufficiently intriguing to keep our interest throughout the book or movie. That doesn't mean protagonists are ideal or perfect. Most of the great protagonists have some character flaw. That's what makes them "human."

There are exceptions, of course. Sherlock Holmes is too perfect. Does he ever make mistakes? Not often. But then, as readers, we don't have to live in his head throughout the book. We see him through another's eyes. And James Bond is not real, nor do we expect him to be. He's a fantasy--sort of like Cruise in Mission Impossible. Does anyone really believe it's possible to leap from your speeding cycle and ski along beside it down the road while dodging bullets?

And there are a few literary heroes who are rather negative. Take Scarlett in Gone With The Wind. She's not terribly likeable, but she is fascinating. She may not command our sympathy, but she does demand our attention.

In order for your protagonist to not be a stereotype, he or she must be dimensional. He has different character traits--he loves and he hates; he trusts and has suspicions. She has different roles--she is the mother of a two-year old and the CEO of a company. Protagonists have emotions and values and attitudes.

Some of these paradoxes within the protagonist may be negative (they're only human, after all), but overall the hero needs to be positive. The protagonist needs admirable qualities so the reader will want to identify with him or her. We want to root for them to win. We want their arc to be one of positive change, of reward and accomplishment. For the time it takes to read the book or watch the movie, the reader is the hero. And we, naturally, want to win, to be liked, to grow, to be successful.

The protagonist has to move the story forward. Very rarely are protagonists inactive or always acted upon. In most cases, they drive the plot. They make the decisions, take the risks, and accept the responsibilities. They give up something of importance, but are rewarded in the end. They may not always want to make sacrifices or make changes, but if they are to become heroes, if they are to have an emotional arc within the story, they must do the inevitable.

Usually, the protagonist knows what he wants. But what he wants is not always what he gets - or even what he will ultimately come to want. The detective wants to solve the murder of his brother. He wants to find out who killed him and why. At least that's what he thinks he wants--it is his conscious desire. But he eventually realizes that what he really wants is to accept his brother's death and to forgive himself for being late to their appointment. That is his unconscious desire. And that unconscious desire must be met by the end of the book or movie, even if the original conscious need is never answered.

A woman wants to find a husband who will take care of her. But after many trials and ordeals, she grows and matures and comes into her "own." She becomes independent and learns she can take care of herself. She may marry, but that is not her goal anymore.

Protagonists don't have to be superhuman. Generally, readers like their heroes to be "flawed" because it makes them more like us. The protagonist has to learn in order to grow. We can learn along with him. The protagonist has to adapt, and we change with her. We see things in a new light or from a new angle. Heroes jump the hurdles in life, like we do as well. We pray for them to leap high enough to make it over unscathed. If they don't make it, we silently urge them to get up and try again.

On the other hand, we don't want them to be stupid. If they go into the dark basement after hearing a noise, we scream at them to turn on the light and take a weapon. We may even throw down the book in disgust. If they go into the alley where even shadows are frightened to go, we yell, "Don't you hear the scary music, you idiot?" True, we like to be scared and we want to fear for our protagonist. But when we read a book or watch a movie, we ARE the protagonist. And we don't want to be stupid or do idiotic things.

We don't want an invincible hero, but we don't want her to be boring, either. Perhaps we want them to be just slightly above the ordinary, with something inside them that says they could be extraordinary. Not an Einstein, but clever and intuitive enough to overcome the antagonist or the wall they're up against. Not stupidly brave, but daring, with an adventurous spirit, and willing to act bravely even if they're trembling inside. We want them to grow and learn. We want them to be winners.

We want them to be us.

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