On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in UK“, JJ Barnes wrote her top tips for writing the Protagonist of your story, and the impact it has for your readers.
Written by JJ Barnes
The Protagonist of your story means the character or primary importance. It’s this character who your story will revolve around, and this character your audience will need to connect with. For this reason, it’s important that you put a lot of thought and care into creation of your Protagonist.
I’ll cover my top tips for creating the Protagonist of your story, to make sure you have the strongest character possible.
1) GIVE THEM MOTIVATION
Your Protagonist needs to be motivated. If they’re just living and not trying to accomplish a goal, it’s not a story. It’s just life. Life isn’t interesting, it’s happening all the time. Your audience is showing up for a story which means you have to give them one. Your story is following your Protagonist on a journey to try and get something they want. That’s why you’re joining them now, that’s what you’re writing about.
If other characters are all trying to accomplish things and your Protagonist is passive, then they’re going to be a bit flat. A passive character isn’t driving the story forwards, which means it’s not really their story. Your audience might sometimes enjoy watching the Protagonist react to things happening around them, but it’s the other characters they’ll be captivated by. The characters who are actually doing things.
Your Protagonist should transition from passive to active the Inciting Incident. This is the moment they go from just living their lives to starting a story. Something happens that causes them to become motivated to pursue a goal. The moment a story actually starts to happen.
In The Hunger Games, the Inciting Incident is when Katniss volunteers as tribute. Prior to that she was just living her life. You join her at this point because she becomes motivated to pursue a goal of saving Prim and staying alive.
2) DEVELOP THEIR BACKSTORY
Whilst in reality your Protagonist only exists from the moment you start writing Chapter One, they shouldn’t feel that way. Your character should feel like they had a life before the start of your story, because that way they’ll feel real. The life prior to Chapter One is known as their backstory.
Their backstory is where their pain, fears, goals are rooted. It’s where their personality quirks might have been shaped from. In their past, they may have been hurt or betrayed, they might have failed at something, or lost somebody they loved. Maybe they had a beautiful relationship they want to replicate, or their parents had a messy divorce and they’re scared of love.
All the events in their past leave emotional scars on your Protagonist that cause them to react to things in specific ways. Human beings are blemished by events in their past, and your Protagonist needs to be human. Say you’re writing a story about a 30 year old. How many 30 year olds do you know who have gone an entire 30 years without any events shaping or changing them? These events give your character behaviours, fears, and emotional responses that are different to those around them. It makes them feel real, it makes them read as human.
In What Ivy Wants, Ivy and her friends talk about their history, and have been shaped by their history. Events that happened prior to Chapter One. Things that happened in her past with her husband that impact how she responds to him, impact the way her friends see him. They aren’t starting their lives at Chapter One. They have all lived before, and the events in their lives prior to Chapter One are part of who those characters are now.
3) GIVE THEM A UNIQUE PERSONALITY AND INTERESTS
Your Protagonist needs to be a distinct and interesting person. That means they have to have their own unique personality and their own unique interests. A lot of that will be connected to the backstory, but if their backstory is prior to the story, thing of their personality and interests as around the story.
The majority of your story needs to focus on what your Protagonist wants right now. Their story goal should be their focus, and it’s their story goal that you’re invested in seeing them try to achieve. However, they are still people. And people have things going on in their lives outside their immediate goal.
Interests and hobbies will make your Protagonist feel real. They’ll be part of their personality. They might reference something they care about, do it to relax or to help them focus. Have connections to do with that world they exist in beyond the immediate plot. All the characters in your story need to be distinct and unique, and so much of that will come from the things they care about, and what matters to them.
In Perfect Match by Zoe May, Sophia’s story goal is to fall in love with the perfect man. She sets out to meet a millionaire who looks like Robert Pattinson. You’re immediately introduced to her story goal, and that is what matters to her. That’s her focus. However, it’s not the only thing she cares about. She has relationships with friends at work, she has a neighbour who she looks after and cares about. These are things that aren’t directly the point of the story, but they make Sophia human. They give her a life, make her a rounded person, and so much more interesting and appealing than if she just spent all day wanting to fall in love.
4) MAKE SURE THEY MATTER
The final piece of advice for the perfect Protagonist is that this character has to matter. You want your audience to buy into seeing their story through, to care about seeing if they achieve their goal. Your Protagonist has to be worth telling a story about, and your audience has to root for them.
If your audience doesn’t really understand why they’re reading a story about this person, and doesn’t care whether they get what they want or not, they’ll stop reading. And they won’t come back.
A likeable Protagonist will really help because we are naturally more inclined to root for somebody we think is a good person. If we don’t like them, we either hope they won’t get what they want, or don’t care about what they want. So make you Protagonist somebody with a good inner moral compass. Somebody flawed, maybe in pain or frightened, but somebody who isn’t cruel. Somebody capable of learning from their mistakes, who arcs towards the best version of themselves by recognizing their errors and working to fix them.
Your Protagonist should be somebody who your audience want to ride with. They will probably be the person your audience spends the most time with. Maybe even experiences their interiority directly, their thoughts and feelings, their hopes and dreams. So make it somewhere they want to be. And someone they want to be with.
Your Own Story
There will always be exceptions to these rules, and ultimately you’re telling your own story. If you are creating a Protagonist who goes against absolutely all of this advice, then you can still make it work. But, in my opinion, you’ll have an easier time convincing your audience to stick with a story when your Protagonist follows this advice.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose
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