Must be heroic a protagonist

Richard North

As already announced, this week starts the new series of articles on the main topic of "protagonists" - everything that makes a good protagonist (also known as the "main hero") and which points a writer should consider when designing such a protagonist .

Of course, this series of articles is by no means intended to be a “set of rules”. Especially in creative writing, there are countless examples from literature for every supposed rule, in which this rule was not only disregarded, but actually turned into its opposite - and that without diminishing the effect and success of the novel.

Rather, consider the articles in this series as a kind of toolkit, the individual tools of which you can add to your repertoire and use when necessary. You don't have to use every tool with every novel (or with every protagonist you design) - in practice it is more likely that you use certain “favorite tools” particularly often, while others are largely unused and gathering dust in the corner.

As in very many areas of creative writing, what you do is less important than what you know very well, WHY you have decided to do it exactly that way. And the bigger your toolbox, the more opportunities you have to create diverse and remarkable protagonists. Or to put it in the words of Abraham Maslow: "If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." ;-)

But back to the protagonist ...

When it comes to writing novels, everything stands or falls with the protagonist, the “hero” of the novel, whose fate is supposed to captivate and carry the reader away so much that he doesn't want to put the book down.

Readers resort to novels to relive the experiences and adventures of interesting people and to take a break from everyday life. An interesting plot or well-worded blurb can get a reader to pick up a book and maybe even buy it, but without an interesting protagonist, they are unlikely to finish the book.

If the plot and the protagonist are the two sides of the same coin, the protagonist is the "butter side". A good protagonist can save a shallow or ailing plot from triviality, but even the best plot will hardly be able to get a reader to finish a book with a flat, implausible and uninteresting protagonist. A good protagonist therefore usually has a much larger share in the success of a novel than the actual plot.

But what points should you consider when designing a protagonist? Does he have to be personable? And if so, where does the success of antiheroes like Dexter Morgan or Walter White come from? Does he have to be smart and intelligent? But then what about characters like Forrest Gump?

Over the next few weeks we will deal with the various techniques, tricks and tricks we can use to create protagonists who will cast a spell on our readers and will remain in their memory even after the last page of the novel.

First of all, just briefly on the terminology: In this series of articles I use the term “the protagonist” throughout, although what has been said naturally also applies to female protagonists. I want 'politically correct', but in practice terribly convoluted constructions like "The protagonist" or even "The protagonist" avoid that make any text illegible. Just like some authors, I don't want to just talk about "the protagonist" from the outset in an effort to think about equality, but stick to the classic "the protagonist" - regardless of whether the main character of the novel "The concierge Marc", "The photographer Petra" or "The platypus Henry" is. ;-)

The term protagonist is more general and more appropriate than popular terms such as “hero” or “main hero”. A protagonist doesn't have to be heroic. He's just the character whose problem the novel is about - nothing more, nothing less.

As a Wikipedia reveals, the term “protagonist” comes from ancient Greek and means something like “the first to act” - in contrast to its adversary, the “antagonist” (= “the counteracting person”), which is also a more general one and precisely because of this it is a more appropriate term than the often used “villain”.

Protagonists don't have to be good, antagonists don't have to be bad. The best stories arise when both sides are right from their point of view and it is the author's sole decision on whose side he takes and who he thereby makes the “protagonist”.

But let's take a step back - to a phrase that you may have stumbled upon while reading: The protagonist is "The character whose problem the novel is about".

For most of us that doesn't sound positive at first. Nobody likes to have problems, and when you say of someone that they have “a problem” or even “problems”, we usually mean that that person's life is more or less out of whack.

And that is exactly the first prerequisite for a good protagonist: his life must either be imbalanced at the beginning of the plot or be thrown out of balance at the beginning of the novel by a decisive event. Satisfied, happy people whose lives are in perfect balance make lousy protagonists. Where should tension and conflict come from when everything is pure joy and sunshine?

No, we need protagonists whose lives are imbalanced and for whom a lot is at stake - the more, the better! Either the protagonist is dissatisfied with his current situation at the beginning of the plot and decides to change something about it (proactive protagonist), or his life is thrown out of balance by an unexpected event and he now has to try to get everything back on track (reactive protagonist). The only question is who is causing the avalanche to slide with his plan: the protagonist or the antagonist.

The protagonist is someone who wants to achieve, prevent, get or get rid of something - and that is anything but easy for him. There is the antagonist, whose goal cannot be reconciled with that of our protagonist, the weakness of the protagonist that he has to overcome in the course of the novel, possibly one or the other handicap that he is planning around or with he has to come to terms, and much more. Yes, it's really no exaggeration to say that the typical protagonist has quite a problem. At least one. And even if this is an extremely unpleasant thing from the protagonist's point of view - the more stones, sticks and rotating chainsaws you as the author throw in his way for the novel, the better it is on the way to the desired goal. Job sends his regards. ;-)

But don't worry - we will go into all of these points in much more detail over the next few weeks ...

The whole spectrum of the protagonists

The term “protagonist” allows a much wider range than that of the “hero”. Everyone from small children to old men can have a problem that is not easily solved and that has what it takes to turn it into a novel.

We don't even have to limit ourselves to people with the “protagonist”. An alien, a seagull or an artificial intelligence can also become a protagonist - even if this is likely to present the author with greater challenges than a human protagonist. We can see that it is still possible from well-known examples such as Willam Kotzwinkles "E.T. - The alien", "The Seagull Jonathan" by Richard Bach or "Supertoys Last All Summer Long" (the template for the film "A.I. - Artificial intelligence") by Brian Aldiss.

If you think back in your mind's eye various novels that you have read over the years, you will see what a wide range of completely different characters the concept of the protagonist covers - from classic heroes to (at least initially) wonderfully unsympathetic characters like Ebenezer Scrooge from the Christmas story by Charles Dickens.

For this point of view, the medium is of secondary importance. For our purposes, it doesn't really matter whether we're looking at the protagonist of a novel, a movie, a comic book, or a television series. The less we limit ourselves to a certain medium or even a certain genre, the more we see what can be done - and what has already been done.

So think about what your personal favorite “heroes” from literature and film are. Which characters do not get out of your head even after years and would you possibly be able to tempt you to continue your adventure with ease?

Do you prefer little Mathilda from Roald Dahl's novel of the same name or the sly Emily Thorne from the series "Revenge"? Daryl Dixon from "Walking Dead" or Sherlock Holmes? Jane Eyre or Katniss Everdeen from "The Hunger Games"? Richard Sharpe from Bernard Cornwell's sniper novels or Dexter Morgan from Jeff Lindsay's novels? Bella Swan from "Twilight" or rather Sydney Bristow from the "Alias" series? Frank Slade from “The Scent of Women” or Walter White from “Breaking Bad”?

You may be puzzled by the contrasting “pairs” - but that is exactly the intention. Think about which 'heroes' could win your heart and keep you excited, and which ones left you cold. Write down the characteristics of these protagonists: their strengths, their weaknesses, their goals, and the problems they faced. The more your list grows, the more you will notice that, despite the presumably quite large range of apparently very different characters, certain patterns are beginning to emerge.

Mark these points and similarities and consider why this aspect in particular touches a string inside you and makes it sound. Finding the “common denominators” that many of your favorite characters share will help you develop and write protagonists who will truly fascinate not only your readers, but you too.

The thoughts you are making here are the raw material to build on over the next few weeks as we take a turn at exploring each of the aspects (or tools) that go into constructing a protagonist our readers even after the last page of the novel can no longer get out of your head.

With this in mind, I wish you all the best with your "inventory" and say goodbye until next week!

More articles from this series:


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