Lessons to Practice #8: The Compelling Protagonist

Before I begin, I’d like to apologize for not doing my usual Thursday night writing posts. I have been without internet at my town home for the past two weeks, which has made writing a bit more challenging. Luckily we should have our services up and running by tomorrow afternoon, so you can expect my usual odds and ends post this coming Thursday. This week’s post will include the latest on my current reading list, which I’m excited to share with you all!

As we begin the dive into our new worlds, stories, and characters, one figure stands out among the rest: our protagonist.  There can be no heart, no drama, no thematic heft if our story is without a distinct, well-rounded, and lasting main character. That’s why I’m digging deep into this topic tonight and bringing some literary research to the table!

Princess Mononoke

On the surface, the idea of a protagonist is pretty straightforward. Someone I want to root for. A character who is strong and overcomes their own personal hurdles by the story’s end. However, a refresher on what a protagonist is can be quite helpful.

In an excellent article from Narrative First, titled “The True Definition of a Protagonist,” the author begins by differentiating between the Main Character and Protagonist of a story:

The difference between the two is simple: The Main Character represents the audience’s eyes into the story, the Protagonist pursues the goal of the story. Sometimes they are played by the same character, as with Luke Skywalker in Star Wars or Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. Sometimes they are not, as with the examples above of Red in Shawshank and Wiesler in The Lives of Others. They key is in understanding that the assignment of the Protagonist comes as a result of a logical assessment, not an emotional one, as is the case with the Main Character.

Perhaps the most important point I gleaned from this article is that the Protagonist does not necessarily undergo a dramatic change by the story’s end. In a similar vein, it should be noted that the Main Character may not be the story’s central focus.  An example you might find helpful is as follows (SPOILER ALERT):

In Léon: The Professional, it is the methodical and isolated assassin Léon who serves as the Main Character. He propels the story forward by choosing to guard Mathilda after Stansfield places a hit on her in order to cover up his dirty drug dealings with her now-murdered parents. Even though Léon is the one shooting up Stansfield’s men and teaching Mathilda how to fire a sniper rifle, he is ultimately not the one who carries their mission to its end.  That role falls squarely on the 12-year-old orphan’s shoulders, as she escapes after Léon sacrifices himself to blow up Stansfield. Mathilda, alone in the world, carries Léon’s potted plant to her new home, thereby keeping their love and hope for each other alive. She is the protagonist, the one who serves as the audience’s guide and emotes what we are likely feeling as we watch their story unfold.  It is a tale that is at once intensely violent and deeply moving, a tale which shows how love pushes us to surmount the impossible, even as we must fight for our lives.

Leon the Professional
Leon the Professional (1994)

Creating a protagonist that you can be proud of – and one that readers can appreciate – requires a commitment to your writing, as well as a deep understanding of how you conceptualize heroism. To create a worthy protagonist, you might start with an exercise that Paula Munier puts forth in her book, Plot Perfect, called “The Character Profile.” In this activity, you take an in-depth template with numerous facets of your protagonist and fill it out with careful thought. Some of the facets include: Name, Sexual Preference, Siblings, Best and Worst Childhood Memory, Favorite Place on Earth, and Words to Live By. It’s a handy checklist that can really help you bring both your protagonist and main character(s) to life.

How do you differentiation between your protagonist and main characters? Do you have any stories where one is more central to the plot than the other? Let’s get to discussing!

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