October 5th, 2015

10 Tips For a Strong Protagonist

Shannon Donnelly

I’ve been reading some manuscripts lately that have trouble sorting out the protagonist, so this seems worthy of a blog. The protagonist—your central character—needs to be worthy of a story. The protagonist also needs enough going on to carry the story.

One of the big problems I see in a lot of romances that aren’t working is that the writer is trying to make both the hero and heroine the protagonist—that generally flops.

Even a romance needs one central character that can carry the main story arc—which is really the main character’s arc. Even a women’s fiction novel with a group needs one character at the heart of the story. Can you break this rule? Sure—but you do so at the risk of having the whole thing collapse. Think of your protagonist as your central tent post—without it, everything sags or falls.

Now—what about that character being worth of his or own story?

The protagonist needs some things set up so the story works better:

1. Conflict

Yes, it’s obvious, but there’s no such thing as enough of this. And this isn’t just external challenges to overcome. Protagonists are more interesting if they have internal issues. You want to set up issues, and personality clashes, and personal problems for the protagonist.

2. A specific past.

This means a detailed, specific past. This where I see a lot of writers going for vague. How many characters out there have parents who died, or a rough childhood, or were bullied? You can count these by the thousands, because that description is too vague.

If you want your protagonist to stand out and be worthy of a story, make them unique by making their past highly specific. The woman whose parents were run over by a rhino while they were on safari when she was ten and stuffed into a boarding school—that’s starting to shape a unique person. Or the boy who grew up traveling with his parents in a VW bus because they wanted to see the world—he’s got some interesting stories. Details make your characters come alive—never settle for less than highly specific.

3. Strengths and flaws.

It’s too easy to focus on just one side of this. The hero who is not only handsome, but tall and talented, and just too good to be real. The heroine who is beautiful and brave and fearless. Or even the bad guy who is nothing but mustache-twirling evil.

Characters that don’t have both flaws and strengths start to be boring. A protagonist who doesn’t screw up—or who does nothing but screw up—is going to lose readers. Do yourself a favor and make the main character’s main trait something that is both strength and a flaw—most traits come with a good side and bad.

4. Meaningful habits.

We all have these. Twirling a lock of hair. A favorite phrase. A toothpick tucked into the corner of a mouth. Cracking knuckles, biting a thumbnail, tucking a quarter into a pocket. Your protagonist will be more interesting if you figure out not just habits, but specific habits that reveal something about that person.

The person who has to organize any bookshelf she sees by topic is a different person from the one who never steps into a cab with a license plate that has the number thirteen on it. Make your protagonist worthy of a story by giving them meaningful habits.

5. Something they want.

The best characters always have something they want—something they really want, something they really, really want, and something they really, really, really want. Go beyond that first want and dig deeper. First, second, and often even fourth ideas are usually clichés. These ideas jump at you because you’ve read them so many times. Always ask more of yourself and your protagonist—get down to what they really, really, really want. Do this not just for the story, but for every scene in the story, too.

6. A unique voice.

Every character needs a unique voice, but a protagonist needs this more than any other character in your story. To be worthy of being at the center of the story, the protagonist needs to stand out—that means his or her dialogue needs to be sharp and needs to be something that would make any ‘star’ want to play this role. To help with this, imagine your favorite actor in this role—give this actor the best lines, such great lines that this actor would come up and hug you.

7. Likeability

A protagonist, to be worthy of his or her own story, needs to be likeable. The reader needs to identify with that person—the protagonist carries the reader into and through the story.

Now, the protagonist can do things that makes the reader want to slap that character, or can make mistakes—in fact, that often leads to a more likeable person. But look closely at what actions your protagonist takes—does he treat others (who don’t deserve it) badly, does she kick the cat, does he make the same mistake repeatedly, does she do too much admiring of her own looks in the mirror?

This is where it’s all about balance. A heroine can kick the cat if that cat is really a demon about to kill her—the action will seem justified. But if it’s a pitiful, cute kitten, that protagonist has just lost the reader’s sympathy. Make sure your readers understand the protagonist’s actions and motivations—we all tend to like people we admire and people whose actions we understand.

9. Friends and/or family.

This can be one friend or several, it can be a big family or a small one, but friends and family serve to give your protagonist three dimensions. Allowing the reader to see the protagonist interacting with friends and family helps make the protagonist more interesting and more likeable by being more understandable. It also is a chance to layer in extra dimensions as the protagonist will interact with different people in different ways.

If you have a really rough, hard-to-like protagonist (who must change in the story) give him or her a best friend who is easy to like—that person’s liking for the protagonist will convince the reader there are good qualities in the protagonist. This is also a great way to show contrasts—the tough hero can let his elderly mom boss him around, or the feisty no-nonsense heroine could be mush when it comes to helping her little sister play dress-up.

Use the characters around the protagonist to make the protagonist more worthy of being at the center of the story.

10. Action

Let’s face it, a character that sits and thinks a lot is just not that interesting. Even Shakespeare sends Hamlet off to visit graves and spy on his uncle and set up plays and a duel—Shakespeare knew enough to put his protagonist into action.

Actions show the reader the character’s personality better than anything else. If you have a protagonist who is a marksman, have him shooting a gun and making patterns on the target. If you have a financial wiz, have her signing a deal that nets her an easy million. A character who is worthy of his or her on story is one who does things.

Above all else, find out whatever it is that you need to know to make your protagonist real to you. If you don’t believe in your main character, it’s just about impossible to get a reader to believe, too.

Who are your favorite fictional protagonists? What makes them stand out? What qualities make a character “worthy of his or own story?”

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About Shannon

Shannon DonnellyShannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a nomination for Romance Writer’s of America’s RITA award, the Grand Prize in the “Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer” contest, judged by Nora Roberts, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: “simply superb”…”wonderfully uplifting”….and “beautifully written.”

Her latest Regency romance, Lady Chance, the follow up to Lady Scandal, is out on Amazon.com. In addition to her Regency romances, she is the author of the Mackenzie Solomon, Demon/Warders Urban Fantasy series, Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire, and the SF/Paranormal, Edge Walkers. Her work has been on the top seller list of Amazon.com and includes the Historical romances, The Cardros Ruby and Paths of Desire.

She is the author of several young adult horror stories, and has also written computer games and offers editing and writing workshops. She lives in New Mexico with two horses, two donkeys, two dogs, and the one love of her life. Shannon can be found online at shannondonnelly.com, facebook.com/sdwriter, and twitter/sdwriter.

20 comments to 10 Tips For a Strong Protagonist

  • I love this post, Shannon. So often, stories can fall flat because we don’t have enough conflict, or are “too nice” to our characters. I particularly enjoyed the way you described tips #2 and #4.

  • Probably my favorite characters are the really strong ones – Dagny Taggert in Atlas Shrugged – more recently, Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games.

    Great post, Shannon – and I agree about not having the hero AND heroine be the protagonist.

  • This blog is a “keeper” … and it’s going right into my tips-for-better-writing folder! #3 and #9 are especially relevant. We’re all broken toys, and our characters should be meaningfully flawed too. And understanding protagonists by the company they keep is a powerful approach. Thanks!

    • I know what you mean, Christopher. And it’s hard sometime to make characters flawed enough. As the great Margie Lawson says, “Make your writing (and your characters) as powerful as you can without being too cliche or ‘writerly.'” A great critique group will always pull you back from making them unbelievable.

  • Such a great post! I really liked #6 — making it so any star would want to play this role. I also liked hearing that the hero and heroine aren’t both required to be the protagonist. Whew! Sometimes I worry that I’m shortchanging one of them, when the story clearly belongs to one of them, not both. 🙂

  • These are great tips. I had a book rejected by Harlequin because the story focused too much on the hero’s conflicts. So, maybe he should have been the protagonist. Still not sure that the hero and heroine can’t share the protagonist spot.

    • Laura Kinsale believes all romances are really about heroes–it’s true in her books. But you really want one protagonist for a strong character/story arc.

  • This is great advice and I’ll be going back to my manuscript to see if my protagonist measures up.

  • Shannon, I am a day late and a dollar short all month … but playing catch-up with you and WITS is a worthy endeavor. Love this post. It reminds us of the stuff we love about strong characters. Reading since five and falling in love with Pippi Longstocking and then Nancy Drew … picking one is impossible. But our Queen of Romance has a tremendous character in her mystery series as J.D. Robb and in In Death series. … Eve Dallas 🙂

  • Great Post. Love all the detail developing the information. If only… if only I could remember and practice each one in each of my WIP I would be published all over the place. Thanks

  • Fae Rowen

    You really hit the mark with this post, Shannon. Thank you for a great teaching lesson!

  • […] week at WITS we are on a roll with the key characters in your story. Monday was 10 Tips for a Strong Protagonist from Shannon Donnelly. Today is a fantastic in-depth post from Les Edgerton. His last article for […]

  • I thought I’d come read this bog before I read Les Edgerton’s. So glad I did. An agent just passed on my manuscript after 50 pages because she found my protagonists flaws too off putting. Darn. And in my first draft my assessor said he needed flaws so…I went too far. Thank you for the point about balance and likeability. I also never thought about giving him lines an actor would hug me for. Awesome perspective. Tris Prior in Divergent. There were times she needed a smack but I definitely rooted for her.

    • Smart move, Helen! It’s like a mini-seminar on protagonists here at WITS this week. I love it when happy accidents like this happen. 🙂

    • Helen, keep in mind there are flaws and then there are FLAWs. If you show a protagonist shooting someone really awful, the reader will be okay because the really awful person did enough to merit that. But if the protagonist just shoots someone, the reader is less likely to be okay with that. So it’s not just flaws, it’s degrees and motivations.

      • Thanks Shannon. My protag starts out mean to my nice but quirky side kick because of fear of embarrassment around the popular crowd. This isn’t that unrealistic a scenario for middle grade kids, but perhaps the protagonist should be the nice but quirky girl rather than the jerk since she would be easier to root for. I’m trying to get the reading audience to root for a shallow and materialistic boy hoping he will learn to see the true value of things but it is like having a bully as the protagonist and trying to get people to sympathise with him and watch while he learns to become nicer through the road of hard knocks. Like writing a book from the POV of Draco Malfoy. A bit challenging to get readers on board with that.