To be a successful fiction writer, you need engaging characters, a compelling plot, and riveting language. Clearly conflict is important – fiction thrives on conflict, and conflict drives the plot. A short story or novel without a plot, even if it’s character-driven, isn’t a story; it’s merely a sketch. And the language, of course, is much of what makes fiction live for readers. Vibrant language energizes a story. But so often, it’s characters who pull us in – characters we can relate to, root for, or at least empathize with.
Chief of all characters is the main character, or protagonist, who must hook readers from the very beginning. Since that’s the case, choose your protagonist wisely. But how do you do that? What’s involved in that choice?
We polled several seasoned short story writers and novelists for their thoughts on this matter. We asked: What makes a good protagonist? How high should their stakes be? And how much should your protagonist change in the course of the story?
Here’s what they had to say.
Choosing the right protagonist
How can you be sure your protagonist offers the right perspective, or lens, for your short story or novel? What are some key qualities that your protagonist needs to have to make an interesting, compelling character?
According to novelist Amanda Skenandore, author of The Second Life of Mirielle West, “A good rule of thumb is to choose the character who has the most to learn or grow. Depending on the point of view you choose, you’ll also want to consider which character is present for most of the story’s action.” Third, she says, “Your protagonist should be significantly invested in and affected by the outcome of the story.”
To stay fully on track, says Skenandore, ask yourself three key questions:
1. Whose story am I trying to tell?
2. What point of view will bring that story to life best?
3. How would it be different told from another perspective?
Posing these crucial questions early on pays off since it’s “far easier to make changes at the outset than 100,000 words later, when you realize your protagonist isn’t that compelling.” But what makes them compelling?
“The most interesting characters have all-too-human flaws and larger-than-life qualities,” she says. “They’re someone the reader can both relate to and aspire to be like.”
Ethel Rohan, author of In the Event of Contact, a prize-winning short story collection, emphasizes the following traits: “complex, relatable, and worthy of readers’ investment.” These qualities allow readers “to see themselves mirrored in the character’s desires, struggles, failings, successes, and contradictions, and to be gripped throughout the story by those telling reflections.”
Rohan says being likable isn’t necessary because unlikable characters can be compelling; on the other hand, being sympathetic is crucial: “The reader needs to care about the protagonist and the story’s outcomes.”
Drawing on Aristotle, Sadie Hoagland, short story writer and novelist, states, “a hero should be ‘a man like ourselves.’” According to Aristotle’s Poetics, the hero should be “‘good’ and – my favorite – ‘consistently inconsistent.’” Even after 2,000 years, “some of this still holds,” says Hoagland, “though I think we have more tolerance for the villain protagonist than the Greeks did. And in my opinion, a protagonist need not necessarily be ‘relatable’ but rather ‘revealable’ – meaning that their complexity should be allowed to triumph over their accessibility until we read on and know them better.”
For Layla AlAmmar, author of the novel Silence is a Sense, “A compelling protagonist is one who feels like a real person to the reader; it’s as simple (and as difficult) as that.” They are not one-dimensional but multi-dimensional: “They have vices and virtues, complexities and contradictions, biases and nuance.”
As a reader, you’re bound to react to them in different ways. “You cheer them on. You get annoyed with them. You fall in love with them and fear for them,” AlAmmar says. “You’re curious about their individual histories and experiences (beyond those that the writer reveals to you). They are real people in every sense of the word.”
In terms of being real, states Hoagland, protagonists “shouldn’t be too anything: too charming, too evil, too heroic” – not, at least, in the way the author presents them. It’s a different matter, though, “if other characters perceive them as such, as long as we see their nuanced, human selves.” That is, the writer needs to zero in on the protagonist’s essential humanity – or what makes this character truly human. “Human beings are messy. We make mistakes, we have regrets. We are also capable of change, of mean and good deeds, and our heroes should be as well,” Hoagland says.
According to Robert Garner McBrearty, author of several story collections and winner of the Sherwood Anderson Foundation Writers Award, in developing your protagonist, you should emphasize two elements, the first being the element of surprise. “A good character is often one who surprises us in some way, though it may be a subtle surprise.” There is a wide range of characters who can surprise us, he says; they need not be overtly engaging. “Even a boring person may have a unique inner life, as in the case of Walter Mitty.” Another less-typical scenario is the observer-narrator, “where the focus is less on the narrator than on another character – as in the case of The Great Gatsby.” As McBrearty sees it, this setup can lead to interesting twists and turns: “While his own emotions are kept under check, Nick Carraway comes alive through his alternating admiration and distrust of Gatsby, and in the end surprises us by his final loyalty toward Gatsby.”
Second, states McBrearty, for the most part, good protagonists “have strong longings, a desire for something, whether it’s finding love, home, acceptance, work, a safe harbor from the storm, or running away from all those things. Sometimes those longings might be unspoken, under the surface, mixed up – or contradictory and complex, as with Carraway.” But however these play out in your story, “Surprise us!”
How do you arrive at this ideal protagonist? What’s the creative process?
For McBrearty, determining the right protagonist is a matter of discovery. He depends mostly on voice. “My stories usually start with a line or two that comes to me, and the line, whether in first person or third person, suggests a certain storyline and seems to come from a particular character or point of view, and I usually continue to write from that perspective.”
Once he’s adopted this perspective, or lens, he’s not likely to switch since “the story is generally tied in closely to the voice of the piece.” When things are going well, the more he writes, the better he understands his protagonist: “I’m following the character, often not really knowing beforehand what the character is going to see or feel or think or say until it happens.” What he’s after is to peer as deeply as possible into his character to find out what makes him tick: “I try to get inside the character’s head in a way that feels convincing. I’m interested in the way that character is experiencing the world, even if I find the outlook a strange or disturbing one.”
For AlAmmar, the very inception of her novel determines the protagonist. “My novels are voice- and character-driven, and so the protagonist is the heart and soul of the story. Consequently, I’ve never been in a situation where I felt the protagonist wasn’t the right perspective as they are where my idea for the story began. The story doesn’t exist without them.”