black woman writing in a notebook

The protagonist is one of the four basic elements of novel construction. Concept, protagonist, conflict, and theme intertwine to lay a solid foundation for your story. Writing your protagonist can make or break your novel.

What’s the Difference Between a Protagonist and a Main Character

pinterest pin showing protagonist versus main characters

The protagonist is the leading character of your story. Usually, there is only one protagonist in a novel, but there could be several main characters. So, while a protagonist is a main character (MC), not all main characters are protagonists.

Your protagonist’s decisions affect the plot, propelling the story forward. They will face the most significant obstacles in comparison to other characters.

What Makes the Perfect Protagonist

Writing your protagonist can be tricky because the perfect protagonist isn’t “perfect”. So many writers want to create that perfect protagonist, but characters are flawed beings, just like the rest of us. So, what will make your protagonist stand out?

How To Develop a Strong Protagonist

Step 1: Make them relatable

No one wants to read a story about your protagonist constantly winning, just crushing life with no worries. That crap gets boring real fast. Why? Because it’s not relatable. However, what is relatable is having a goal.

No matter how big or small, we all have at least one goal in life. Writing your protagonist striving to achieve said goal is a crucial piece of your novel puzzle. Everything in your story hinges on your protagonist and their goals, thus, why writing your protagonist is one of the four foundational elements of novel construction.

What is your protagonist’s motivation?

Motivation is the driving force behind your protagonist’s goal. There are many examples of what could motivate your MC.

  • atonement
  • finding love
  • revenge
  • sense of responsibility
  • finding the truth
  • peer pressure

Step 2: Create their backstory

Knowing your character’s backstory will help to make them relatable to your readers and help you understand their goals and motivation. You don’t need to include all of the character’s backstory in the novel, but it helps when writing your protagonist.

Also, make sure to keep your backstory notes, as they’ll come in handy as a reference guide while you write your first draft, but also helpful if you decide to write a sequel, prequel, or turn your novel into a series.

Additionally, you can send your readers a character dossier with backstory info as a lead magnet for your author email list.

Step 3: Give them diverse characteristics

three women walking with the woman in the middle looking back so it focuses on her, showing her as the protagonist.

Giving your protagonist diverse characteristics not only helps to flesh them out as three-dimensional but also makes them relatable, showing representation for various groups.

  • Race
  • Gender
  • Sexuality
  • Religious/Non-religious
  • Mental Illness
Watch Out!

While giving your protagonist diverse characteristics is a good thing, beware of the pitfall writers can fall into of giving them so many characteristics that the reader is confused and can’t get a grasp on who your character is and what’s important to them.

Step 4: Let the readers know how the protagonist feels about their current situation

Giving readers insight into what your protagonist thinks about their situation helps your reader understand them better.

Step 5: Avoid a passive protagonist

It’s good to have your protagonist be passive, at first. In fact, it’s a huge part of most story structures. The “refusal of the call”. But there comes a time in your novel when your protagonist must take action. They must choose to actively engage, and make choices that help them to reach (or not reach) their goal—not have their choices made for them.

Step 6: High stakes—give them something to lose

What are the things your protagonist loves the most? Can you set up some kind of conflict where they stand to lose the thing/person as they go after their goal? High stakes make the story more dramatic and packs a powerful punch to the reader.

Step 7: Have them evolve

By the end of your novel, your protagonist should have undergone a change. This is important for a number of reasons:

  • Gives the readers a reason to care about the character as they watch them struggle and grow
  • Keeps readers invested in the story and turning pages
  • Mirrors real life; as individuals, we are not the same people we were when we were younger
  • Might teach the reader a lesson they might not have learned in their own life
  • Gives the character an arc to follow, whether positive or negative

Summary

Your protagonist can make or break your novel. If readers don’t care what happens to your protagonist, there isn’t any incentive for them to keep reading. Not all main characters are the protagonist; usually, there is one protagonist in a novel.

To develop a strong protagonist they must be relatable. They need goals and motivation for reaching those goals. Your protagonist should have a backstory and diverse characteristics. Readers want to know what the protagonist thinks and how they feel about their situation.

Don’t let your protagonist stay passive too long. Create dramatic moments by raising the stakes. Finally, your protagonist should evolve throughout the story, undergoing some kind of change (good or bad) by the novel’s end.

writing your protagonist: 7 steps to developing a strong main character

Next week we dive deeper into writing your protagonist, focusing on goals.

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