Being a Better Writer: What Makes a Protagonist?

All right. So, yesterday’s incarnation of this post, to what is now great irony, started with a worried critique of WordPress’ freshly rolled out posting interface. To be specific, it critiqued the poor interface design, but also noted with a faint hint of worry that something so new was bound to have some surprises of a possibly unpleasant variety.

Oh, did it ever. The posting interface glitched out completely at the conclusion of my article, not only refusing to allow it to be posted, but also not letting me copy-paste it to save it. Worse, the manual “save draft” button had been removed altogether for the standard autosave. It used to have both, but I guess they thought having a manual draft save was too confusing. Either way, the autosave feature had also bugged out after I’d hit return on the first paragraph.

The end result was, well, the loss of the entire post. A post that had worried at the start about such an eventuality possibly happening. What can I say? WordPress has changed several times now, and each time I’ve been less than impressed.

Thankfully, today’s post should not have any problems (crosses fingers). After contacting WordPress via Twitter, one of the cofounders drew my attention to a “Admin” button that allows one to access the old, default posting suite. Which I think I’ll be using from now on, as it’s the more functional of the  two current options. I’d like to use the middle one, as that had some nice Twitter-tie-in functionality, but I’ll take losing that but being able to post over the inverse.

So, with that out of the way, let’s get down to business on this now twice-delayed topic, eh?

Actually, as a bit of a lead in, not only was this topic twice delayed, it was also twice noted upon. Occasionally I’ll have inspiration strike on a writing topic, and I’ll make a note to myself to write about it. Today’s topic is one that not only ended up on that list, but did so twice within the span of a month. Twice noted, twice written … let’s hope the second one takes, right?

So, joshing and background aside, let’s get right down to it: What makes a protagonist?

Well, the answer is actually surprisingly simple: Action. Action makes a protagonist. Class dismissed, you can all go home now.

Okay, poor joke, I know. Clearly it’s not that easy. In fact, I’d actually argue somewhat that describing what makes a protagonist as “action” isn’t actually the best answer. Why? Well, what do most of you think of when you think of action?

Yeah, you probably thought of what I also thought of, in some vein. What most think of. Guns! Fist fights! Car chases! Walking away from explosions! Riveting stuff!

And, well, you’re not wrong. That’s certainly action. It’s literally a genre of Hollywood blockbuster. Which is why most of us think of it when we hear the words action. But that doesn’t really describe the kind of action that makes a protagonist. It can, but it’s like one of those old “If-Then” logic puzzles where the words being used can determine a lot.

Hence, I don’t quite see action making a protagonist. It’s true … but just not in the way we think of it. Hence, I go with a different, more nuanced definition. What makes a character a protagonist?

Initiative.

See, a protagonist is typically a character who takes action to drive the story forward. But, as pointed out above, a lot of us tend to think of action in big, bombastic terms. Which isn’t true in all cases. Hence, I tend to think of a protagonist in the terms of a character who takes the initiative. A definition of initiative is “the power or opportunity to act or take charge before others do,” which fits a protagonist perfectly. What makes a protagonist then? They’re a character who is active rather than inactive. They go out and do things. And these thing, in turn, cause the story to move forward.

Moving the story forward. This is perhaps the most key part. A protagonist will always move the story forward in some form. They make things happen around them, one way or another. That’s what makes them a protagonist! They have a goal, a drive, a mission, that they aim to accomplish. It can be something as classic as solving a mystery, avenging the small farming village a dark lord destroyed, or asking another character out. It can be to go to the moon, to make money, whatever. But it’s something that your character works towards, actively, at all times. As they press towards this goal, they will move the reader with them along the story.

Now, a quick aside. Does this mean that you can have a story where the main character is not a protagonist? Yes, actually. You can. There are stories out there where the act of being the protagonist is carried by other characters … often even the villain/antagonist, and the main character is simply along for the ride, taking no initiative of their own. But … these stories are actually fairly dull, at least on the main character front, and usually not done on purpose. I suppose if a talented author wanted to make a challenge out of it for a particular story (such as a comedy) one could make it work, but for now consider it a warning that just because you have a main character does not mean that you necessarily have a protagonist.

So, a protagonist is a character with initiative, a drive that causes them to go out and do stuff to move the story along. But what qualifies as “stuff” in that last sentence? What does it mean when I say that they “move the story along?” Does it mean that they’re traveling? Fighting? Doing something physical?

No, actually. Not at all. That “stuff” is quite literally anything that moves the story forward.

For example, I want to have us consider and early scene from Colony. Minor spoiler, but it’s for the first few chapters, so it’s not quite that big a deal. Early on in Colony, a primary character is ambushed and drugged as they are returning home. The next time a chapter opens from their perspective, they’re in a dark room … and tied to a chair.

Not a great position to be a protagonist from, right? After all, what action could they take to move the story forward?

Well, as it turns out, plenty. The first thing the character does upon having his consciousness return is determine that he does not want to vomit. The drugs that were used to sedate him leave the recipient feeling nauseous and disoriented, and the very first thing the character does when he returns to alertness is fight the disorientation until it passes, trying to keep himself from throwing up. That’s his goal, and that’s his drive.

From there, once that battle is won, he quickly determines that he’s in a pitch black room and tied to a chair. So, he takes action. Does this mean breaking free of his bonds and going on a Bond-like rampage?

No. In fact, he dismisses that option fairly quickly. Instead, he takes the initiative by immediately learning as much about his surroundings and what’s going on as he can, by listening to what’s in the room and considering all facets of what got him there.

In other words, while sitting quite still in a chair—almost motionless, in fact—the character is still quite active. Despite being “blind,” he’s observing the world around him through his other senses. He’s testing his bonds, formulating theories, learning what he can. He’s being a protagonist despite his position. Which again, comes back to this idea of taking initiative. He’s not waiting for someone to come to him and explain what’s going on, or in other words, he’s not being reactive. He’s taking action, formulating his own plans and theories. And in the process, he comes to conclusions that move the story forward.

Okay, we’ve just about covered it. Protagonists take initiative, action that pulls the story—and the readers—forward. This doesn’t have to mean in-the-reader’s-face physical action, either. It can be mental action, puzzle-solving action, planning … as long as the character is taking the initiative and the story moves forward.

But there’s one more thing I want to bring up that ties into this concerning the actions your protagonists take: They don’t have to be the right actions. Wrong actions will and should happen, and don’t mean your character isn’t a protagonist.

Remember the try-fail cycle? The idea that our characters should try several solutions, failing several times before finding the right one? Don’t be afraid of this. Let your protagonist’s actions be wrong. It’s okay!

There’s nothing at all in what makes a protagonist that says that the actions they’re making, the initiative they’re taking, has to be right. It can be 100% wrong! As long as it is true to the character, let the action be taken! Wrong or not!

Evder read a story where the main protagonist does something, and it makes everything worse? Yeah, this happens all the time, and all it’s doing is carrying that story forward and the reader with it. You can even make subplots out of this (protagonist stops being the protagonist for a while due to fear of failing), or have the character’s failures further other parts of your plot.

Point is, a protagonist that is failing is still a protagonist. They’re acting on their initiative to accomplish things … even though they are, for whatever reason, unintentionally making things worse.

So, let’s wrap this up. A protagonist is made by giving a character initiative to go out and accomplish things. A drive to work towards a goal. To accomplish something. Initiative powerful enough that they then act on it and pull the story forward.

This pulling the story forward, however, does not have to be done in grand movements. Taking the initiative and acting on it can be something as simple as putting together a plan, or solving a puzzle. They story can take place in a single room with a character who can’t physically move without aid, but still have plenty of “actions” that the character takes. As long as it is something the character does that they wanted to do that drives things forward in the plot, they’re still being a protagonist.

Lastly, these actions can be wrong. Don’t be afraid to let the character fail, or even actively contribute to making things worse, as long as they don’t realize it and believe they were acting in the best interests of their goal. Failure happens. Mistakes happen. Acting on the wrong information happens. Let it.

So go turn those main characters loose. Let them act on their drives, their passions, their ideas. Let them be protagonists.

I’ll see you later this week. Good luck, and get writing.

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