Friday, March 12, 2010

The Protagonists

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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23 comments:

  1. Perfectly said, Helen! I love horror movies and stories, but I have stopped reading so many horror novels just because of that moment--that moment when I say "I would NEVER do that!"

    Part of the reading experience is getting to be somebody else for a little while. I think in my own writing, I need to remind myself of that, and ask myself if I'm creating someone my reader will want to be for a few minutes or hours or a couple of days. It might just shake up my writing!

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  2. Excellent description of protagonists. You're right—we want our heroes to be a little above ordinary, not perfect, a little more than we are ... but what we could become.

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  3. Great explanation of what makes a good protagonist. I'm tweeting!

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder s

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  4. That last line nails it, because we are living the adventure through that person!

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  5. Well stated and comprehensive post on protagonism (is that a word), Helen. I chuckled when you said "we throw the book down in disgust" (something like that) when the pro does something just plain stupid - lol, I have actually done just that.

    Marvin D Wilson

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  6. My protagonist is not perfect -he just thinks he is!

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  7. That's great, Alex. Perhaps his biggest flaw is that he doesn't know he has a flaw.

    Marvin, I like protagonism. You are a wordsmith.

    It is definitely worth thinking about - that readers want to be the protagonist for the time they're reading. That doesn't mean the protag must be perfect. That's boring.

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  8. Great post. Protags have to be realistic to be interesting. I love your last line :)

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  9. Love this: "If they go into the alley where even shadows are frightened to go, we yell, 'Don't you hear the scary music, you idiot?'"

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  10. That's the great thing about reading some stories, the protagonist reminds us of someone we know. We can relate to them and that draws us into the story and keeps us there.

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  11. I love your line "When we read a book,we ARE the protagonist." I'd never thought of it quite that way, but it is so true. That connection the author builds, keeping us sympathetic to the protagonist, makes us one with them. I think it's a good thought to remember while writing. While the reader is immersed in the story, she is the protagonist.

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  12. I'm cutting and pasting this into a folder I've created for fiction-writing. Thank you!
    Karen

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  13. Great post, Helen. These are all things we need to remember as we craft our characters. Especially the protagonist.

    You mean James Bond really couldn't do all those things :)

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  14. Us as we would like to believe we could be I think. Great post. :)

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  15. Great explanation of a protagonist and something every new writer should read.

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  16. Great post. It's so easy to want to write the hero or heroine as perfect or give them the win every time. I had to learn to make my good guys and gals sweat and bleed for their victories.
    As for the moment in horror movies or novels when the heroine goes to investigate the scary noise, I learned when I had my children that as the mother, I get up in the middle of the night and go investigate the scary noise. My husband never wakes up. It was very gratifying one night when one of my teenage sons heard the scary noise and came out of his bedroom with his baseball bat to go investigate with me.

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  17. I'm like you, Susan. I hear things, my husband sleeps through them.

    Sometimes protagonist do things that may be impossible, but if the writer makes us believe they are indeed possible, we believe and go along.

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  18. Readers do need to care about the protagonist...about what they need and how they go about getting it.

    You're so right. People want protagonists that they can be proud of pretending to be for a little while!

    Great post, Helen.

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  19. And if the reader ever feels the character is not real or is faking emotions or reasons, you lose them.

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  20. My protagonist is gentle,innocent and ambitious. So much so, she became a little weak and boring to me, so I had to flaw her in some way. It worked for me, so I hope it will for my reader(s).

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  21. I've always felt that the best quality a protagonist could have is vulnerability, which is the source of the character's flaw(s). It could be considered the disease with flaws as its symptoms. It's what makes a not so likable or even despicable character tug at your emotions and draw you back to a novel or movie time and again. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights is my favorite example of this "condition."

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  22. When I write from the antagonist's POV, I give him/her a vulnerability or a "reason" for the badness, a flaw in the armor.

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  23. The antagonist's main flaw--or virtue as the case may be--by definition of the term antagonist is resisting the protagonist (primary mover of the story), yes?

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