Every living person believes they are the main characters of their own story. What separates us from true protagonists is that they are constantly in pursuance of a goal that, as a result, affects them and the world around them in lasting ways.
Imagine most popular films you’ve seen. The main character is often easily identifiable. Beyond being the character we spend the most time with, they are the centerpiece of the story as a whole. These are people who the story cannot exist without because they drive most of the conflict.
Many amateur writers offer characterization over true character. Ask anyone crafting their first novel what their main character is like, and most will give an answer along the lines of the following:
“Jack Everyman is a medium-build, black-haired, green-eyed captain of the high school’s lacrosse team. He has a girlfriend, a part-time job at the local bookstore, and three siblings. His mom died when he was little and he has a well-meaning stepmom etc. etc. etc….”
Essentially, they reduce character down to the surface level, easily identifiable traits. This is a common mistake to make early on, because often it is all we know about each other; what we look like, how we act in public, the things we allow other people to see .
The true nature of a character is revealed when put into dire situations. Imagine a person is forced into a life-threatening choice. (Keep in mind this does not always have to be the case; all that matters is these choices are important to the character themselves.) They are given two clear-cut choices: sacrificing themselves or allowing a close friend/loved one to die. What will the character do in this situation? Will they choose one of the two options, either bravery or cowardice? Will they attempt to find an alternate solution, either cunningly escaping the choice or recklessly endangering all involved? How is the character affected by what they’ve chosen after the event? You must understand your protagonist well enough to know the decision and the outcome before they do.
The most complex and often most recognizable protagonists meet this simple criteria as well as another crucial point: character arc. Purposeful character arc cannot be simple, clear-cut “this happened then this happened”. The most defining feature is the unawareness of the protagonist in the change he will make. In this model, our protagonist has a personality trait that prevents them from achieving their goal. By the end of the story, the character must become aware of the flaw and either overcome or succumb to it. This reveals the truest form of the character in their ability to change, either positively or negatively.
Stories are all about change, and if the characters do not change, specifically the protagonist, the journey to get there will not feel worth it. As a result, the most important thing to keep in mind is to ask yourself why this point in the character’s life is important enough for you to write about, and why it matters to all of the readers who come across your work.
Do you have specific questions about protagonists and character arcs that weren't answered in this section? Leave a comment down below and the author of this post will answer it when our next entry is posted. Note: Questions posted after 10/23 may not be included.
Questions from "Opening a Novel":
How can I start a novel so that is keeps a linear path but isn't boring in the beginning?
There are two main options you could go with; you could choose a scene in which the “inciting incident” occurs, or a scene that simply introduces the character(s) in a fun and unique way. The inciting incident is the event that begins the plot of the novel. If you want to have the events begin immediately, this is a way you could do it. However, if you want more background before the plot begins, you could find a way to introduce your character in a scene that best represents them and their place in the world. Ideally, this would also take place in the inciting incident so you could gain an understanding of the protagonist, but if you go this route, the character is the MOST important aspect of what you’re focusing on in this scene. If you have too much trouble finding something interesting to start with, think about the unique aspects of the way you might be presenting a novel. Is the narrator involved in the story, and to what capacity? Is there an intriguing backstory to the novel? If you can’t find any opening with these ideas, keep in mind that you don’t have to be afraid to break out of a linear path. Every story is told best in a different way, and it may not always be the way you have in mind when you first sit down to start writing.
What is the best way to start a novel when you have multiple points of view?
The first thing you should do is make a list of each point of view you have and rank them in order of importance to the plot. Which characters have more significance? Which voice is your true protagonist? If each character has equal involvement in the story, then consider the relationships between the points of view. Is every character aware of each other at the start of the story? Will they all eventually meet due to circumstances in the plot? Similarly, you must also contemplate whether the characters are writing in first or third person. Is this some sort of collaborative novel written after the events of the novel? If it is, there are intriguing ways you could have the characters introduce the story of the novel and highlight their clashing personalities interacting with each other. Maybe characters cut each other off as they attempt to scribble down information. If you’re going for third person limited, ensure that the character you choose to focus on first not only has an interesting hook for the novel, but plays an important role in the plot’s development and introduces vital information for the story. Multiple points of view present their own sets of challenges and pitfalls, so all of these components are key to deciding which point of view will leave the most impact and create the most buzz in the opening pages.
I love the idea of starting in media res but how do you avoid confusing the audience too much from the get-go? Particularly when it comes to writing fantasy or science fiction.
The main thing to consider when writing in medias res, whether in a high-concept novel or not, is that you must always root the most important concepts in a semblance of the reality the audience is aware of. You can accomplish this by planning out before you begin writing this opener. What is happening in the scene? Which elements does the audience need to understand, and which ones do you prefer for them to be questioning? Once you know this, you can start figuring out the ways you want to introduce these elements in a way that makes sense and that the reader can easily follow. Novels are much easier to do this with than films or television shows because the author can delve into the character’s inner thoughts in case they believe anything needs to be explained upfront. At the same time, never think too little of the reader to believe they need to be hit over the head with the mechanics of your world. The best way to find this balance is through trial and error. Instead of constantly second-guessing yourself while trying to write the draft, give your first couple pages to people you know, have them peruse over it like an average reader, and ask them to explain to you what they understand, what they’re confused by, and if they could follow it overall. Be patient if it takes more than a couple times to create the perfect mix, and if you find it too difficult for what you’re trying to accomplish, it’s okay to use a “fairy-tale” opening.