How do you create a captivating protagonist?
The topic of characters in fiction is huge and overwhelming; I want to share some of the gems of wisdom I’ve gathered in a series of blog posts here. This, the first, is on protagonists.
We first should acknowledge that not all characters need to fascinate readers in exactly the same way. I enjoy, say, Holden Caulfield or Fleabag for much different reasons than I enjoy Hazel from Watership Down or Harry Potter or Dexter or Adam Sandler’s character in Punch Drunk Love.
There’s a tremendous amount of variation in the nature of their quests, in their roundness as characters, and in their likability. (Hazel might be the only one I’d really love to spend time with.)
However, I do identify with all of these varied characters.
Dwight Swain calls identification “a process by which an individual imagines himself behaving as if he were another person,” and it’s sort of the defining trait of a protagonist. Our mirror neurons latch on to a central character as we watch what they experience through their perspective.
Note that this process does not require liking the protagonist exactly. You can imagine yourself being a psychopath or a privileged teenaged prep school boy on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
But apart from putting ourselves in the position of such people, why would we ever invest in them and their concerns?
Though there are many traits that may make a character compelling, there are two essentials for protagonists: they must be admirable and they must be flawed.
Admiration / Envy
Identification does require that you latch on to some small redeeming quality. Even if the protagonist is an anti-hero whom we otherwise find repulsive, their story puts them into a position that makes us like some aspect of them.
I usually avoid the word “like” in this context because we don’t need to like the character so much as we need to admire or envy something about them.
Like vs. Admire
Shakespeare exemplifies this point well because he was so good at creating unlikable protagonists. There’s something to admire in the way Iago manipulates Othello or the way Richard III plays people off one another. And Macbeth’s staying the course even when he sees he’s defeated is impressive.
The character of Lorne Malvo in the TV series Fargo is not a protagonist, but there’s a scene which illustrates well how a character can be simultaneously unlikable and admirable. In it Lorne walks into a post office asking for a package for “Duluth.” The postal worker is taken aback, saying he needs a name, not a city, and then claiming he can’t give the mail to Lorne if he doesn’t show some ID, but Lorne says, “Sure you can. All you gotta do is look through those packages, find the one addressed to Duluth and then hand it to me.”
I think we’ve all had the experience of wanting to tell some bureaucrat that the rules really aren’t as important as they think they are. There’s something to envy in Lorne Malvo’s approach.
The Vicariousness of the Protagonist
Robert McKee says, “Identification with the protagonist . . . draws us into the story, vicariously rooting for our own desires in life.” And Donald Maass says, “We read fiction not just to see ourselves but also to imagine ourselves as we might be.” (Emphases mine.)
But I like the way Dwight Swain articulates it best: “Emotionally, we yearn for a world more to our liking. We crave to control our destinies. Yet by and large, day to day, most of us are afraid even to try to do so. A fictional character, on the other hand, knows no such limits. He’s free to acknowledge the forbidden impulses, gamble with disaster, challenge the impossible, reach for the unattainable. In other words, to bring a reader’s emotional hunger to the surface, you must give him a character who reflects and projects it.”
It’s that last line there that nails it: fiction addresses a reader’s emotional hunger. Your protagonist needs to satsify that emotional hunger in some way.
Virtue vs. Valor
A word here on virtue. You’ll often hear the advice that your protagonist should have some kind of tenderness, a moment when he pets a puppy or, as Blake Snyder so famously said, “saves the cat.” If you start to look for this “save the cat” moment in films, you’ll see it a lot. But I don’t think it’s quite as necessary as it’s made out to be.
Because what matters more than virture in a protagonist is valor. Again, we can hitch our wagon to protagonists who are very different and even disgusting to us so long as they’re satisfying some emotional hunger. And that emotional hunger has a lot to do with having the courage to “gamble with disaster, challenge the impossible, reach for the unattainable.”
I’m not arguing against giving your protagonist redeeming qualities. I’m just saying that goodness does not need to be the redeeming quality (again, see Iago). Courage/valor, however, are a must.
Flaws and Weakness
This brings us to the next essential for protagonists. Flaws.
A perfect protagonist is boring. But a flaw or weakness is at the root of conflict, stakes, and transformation—absolutely essential elements for a story. Without flaw/weakness, there is no story.
Think of Superman. He’s pretty close to perfect as is. But he does have a weakness: kryptonite. Without kryptonite, no conflict would ever be any threat to him.
He’s also a man with very little left to lose. His home planet and everyone on it has been destroyed. So what are the stakes for him? Well, that’s where Lois Lane comes in.
As for Superman’s transformation, he was sort of less interesting than other superheroes in that regard until Alan Moore got his hands on the story and wrote “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” which imagined a Superman tired by the constant threats to his friends and incapable of experiencing any stability or routine. This version of Superman had a misbelief that the world “couldn’t get along without him.” But by the end, he comes to change that belief. It wasn’t the typical view of Superman, but it made for a much more interesting version of him.
John Truby formulates it like this: “Weakness × Action = Change.” And he says, “The dramatic code expresses the idea that human beings can become a better version of themselves, psychologically and morally. . . . The fundamental character change of your hero . . . is what gives the audience the deepest satisfaction no matter what form the story takes, even when the character change is negative.”
You’ll see different language for the initial weakness of the character. Lisa Cron calls it the misbelief. Michael Hauge calls it the facade. I’ve heard others refer to it as the lie. Craig Mazin calls it the anti-theme.
But regardless of the title for the flaw, the concept is always the same. It provides the basis for change. (More on character arcs here.)
Put to Practice
At any stage in your drafting or revision, you can ponder these two simple—but not easy—questions:
- How does the protagonist satisfy the reader’s emotional hunger?
- What’s the great flaw the protagonist will be tasked with overcoming?
Next time, I’ll discuss the dimensions of character that make them engaging for readers.
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