Choosing a Protagonist

Whose story is this? Who will be your protagonist? This is one of the first decisions you must make.

The protagonist is the hero or heroine of your story. He or she is the central character, the person around whom the events of the story revolve and usually the one who will be most affected by the outcome.

The protagonist is the person with whom readers most closely identify, with whom we form the strongest bond. You want readers to care about him or root for her to succeed. This doesn't mean that your main character has to be thoroughly likable. We readers have faults of our own, and we can empathize with characters who are less than one hundred percent admirable. In John Cheever's story The Five-Forty-Eight, we follow a man named Blake as he makes an uneasy commute home from work, stalked the whole way by a young woman who, he fears, intends to do him harm. In the course of the story we come to realize that Blake is self-centered and ruthless, and that the woman may be justified in her anger. Yet Cheever sustains our willingness to identify with Blake until we reach the resolution on the last page.

Make sure your protagonist has a strong personal stake in the matter at hand. Perhaps she has a need to fill or a goal that she must achieve, or she or someone close to her is at risk. When you put a believable character into a compelling situation, the reader will gladly come along for the ride. Sometimes, though, we encounter a lead character who is wandering around to no apparent purpose, while all of the excitement is happening to someone else. If the protagonist doesn't have a good reason to be involved, the reader doesn't either and will likely put the story down unfinished.

Whose story it is affects what the story is. Change the protagonist, and the focus of the story must also change. Events affect different people in different ways. If we look at the events through another character's eyes, we will interpret them differently. We'll place our sympathies with someone new. When the conflict arises that is the heart of the story, we will be rooting for a different outcome.

Consider, for example, how the tale of Cinderella would shift if told from the viewpoint of an evil stepsister, as Chelsea Quinn Yarbro did in her short story, Variations on a Theme. Or suppose we heard about Romeo and Juliet's romance from the perspective of Juliet's mother. Gone with the Wind is Scarlett O'Hara's story, but what if we were shown the same events from the viewpoint of Rhett Butler or Melanie Wilkes?

Who the protagonist should be is not always obvious. Don't automatically give the story to the character who shows up first in your mind or the one who clamors the loudest for your attention. You might have to have two or three characters try on your story idea and model it for you before you discover which one it fits most comfortably.

Let's go back to our newly caught spy from Chapter One. At first glance, the logical protagonist would seem to be the accused man. His story might be fascinating, but it is not the only one you could tell. What is his wife's story? Or his twelve-year-old son's? How about his boss, or his foreign contact, or the young assistant who idolized him? All of these people's lives will be affected by this turn of events, and one of them might offer you a fresher, more intriguing perspective to explore.

If you're writing a story and start feeling stuck, try handing your idea to a new character and letting him run with it. As he carries it off in a new direction, you may be surprised and delighted at the way the story begins to flow again.

The Self Assessment Test

The Self Assessment Test

Self assessment is the procedure of

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  • Lyla
    What is at stake for the protagonist in the five forty eight?
    8 years ago

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