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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

#12 - What About The Protagonist? (HOWNTWAN)

This is the twelfth article in the semi-comedic series, How Not To Write A Novel (HOWNTWAN). The first article in the series can be found here: What's Your Story About? Keep reading during the next couple months for the rest of the series.

12. What About The Protagonist?

Seriously, Paul, now you’re starting to get all heavy on me. What the heck is a protagonist?
Previously, we’ve spent time talking about the book and its style, etc., and now it’s time to talk a little about the characters. The protagonist is the main character or hero. There may be more than one of them. It’s important to spend a while thinking about your protagonist before you start writing your book. What kind of a person are they? What’s their character like? How do they react in certain situations? What’s their Kryptonite? All these are important things to work out before writing your book.
Sorry? Kryptonite? Yeah, it’s from Superman. It’s the thing that makes Superman powerless. Every good hero needs to have a weakness. Maybe you decide your protagonist can’t swim and hates the water. You state that at the beginning of the book somewhere. And then to save the girl, he has to rescue her from the river. Good drama and tension.
Anyway, I’m probably telling you things you don’t want to hear. I mean, it’s only a book and everybody knows the hero of their book is based upon their own perfect lives, right? Um - no! Please, please, don’t base your protagonist on your own life (unless, of course, you’re writing a memoir). Write down a list of your protagonist’s traits. Even get a picture or photo of them if possible. That way, you’ll know he is 5’ 6” tall, has green eyes, is slightly balding, loves tennis, and has a really nasty temper when challenged. These things are important. As your story develops, it’s important your protagonist develops and stays true to their characteristics.
One of the biggest criticisms leveled against many first-time authors is their lack of characterization. Their characters are flat and under-developed. Mapping out your protagonist in advance helps ensure you don’t fall into that same trap. In the early chapters of the book, lay out your character’s weaknesses and then, as the book progresses, have your character overcome adversity and mature. By the end of the book, your audience will have traveled that journey with your character and love them for it.
Phew, a lot of heavy stuff there. It’s not so simple as you’d think, developing a main character. Anyway, before we end this topic, I want to write a little about other scenarios.
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, your protagonist is a bad guy - you’re writing the book from the nasty man’s perspective. Do you do anything different? That depends on how the book ends up. If the protagonist gets his due, then the weakness you pointed out in chapter one will be his undoing.
Some people also like to kill off some of their protagonists (George R.R. Martin). In that case, you’d better have another one or two waiting in the wings to take over. Readers enjoy the shock of death (or might even curse you), but they still need someone else to root for.
And finally, all good protagonists need antagonists to balance them out (seriously, another complicated word?). And we’ll cover them in the next article. But until then, have a think about how your protagonists stack up. Are they well thought out, with some human quality weakness? Or, don’t you really give a damn? After all, you’re the writer and you know best. And your day job still pays all the bills.

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