FRIDAY NOTES & NEWS: Finding your Protagonist


Copyright is held by the author.

ON AND off over the course of the last two years, I’ve written a first-draft of a novel. I gave it to a few trusted beta-readers to review, confident the bulk of the book was spot on, and I would only get a few suggestions for changes, which would be more like tweaks really. Boy, was I wrong! Turns out, that in the minds of those reviewers the character I thought was my protagonist was, in fact, not. They had assumed another character was the protagonist. And, yes, it is a major character, but still, how could they make such a mistake? Or was it my mistake?

Realizing my hope for an easy rewrite was off the table, I began questioning my assumptions — and everything else about my characters.

Had I made the error of confusing the narrator with the protagonist? Just because a character narrates a story doesn’t make that character the protagonist. Is Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, the protagonist or is Gatsby? Most people would say Gatsby—even though Nick’s character, through his friendship with Gatsby, changes during the course of the story.

Or have I made the error of creating an antagonist who is way more interesting than my designated protagonist? And how do I fix that?

Or maybe I have two protagonists, who pursue separate goals, and have separate outcomes?

Looking for some clarity, I researched the subject, and picking and choosing from a variety of excellent sources readily found on the Internet, hit upon a series of questions to ask about my characters:

A protagonist must have a desire or a goal to strive for. What is the character’s conscious desire? What is the character’s unconscious desire? Consciously, I’d say Gatsby wants Daisy. Unconsciously? Acceptance, love, happiness, in short, the “American Dream” or maybe to just stop feeling like he’s not good enough.

A protagonist must be willful. There are always exceptions, but generally readers do not like passive protagonists. So, how often are things done to your character versus how often does the character do things to further his/her/their aims?

Readers must empathize with the protagonist. The protagonist doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) a paragon of virtue, but readers must — if not like — at least relate to the protagonist — see themselves in the character.

Whose quest is it? All stories are quest stories. So, whose story is it? Who consciously decides to make a move to further their aims?

In other words, while still maintaining the essence of your story, if you were to eliminate characters one by one, which character would remain? Which character is the most essential? Which one could you not get rid of and still have your story?

That’s your protagonist — or protagonists. (You could have more than one.)

I’m still trying to figure out mine, but now, instead of dreading working on the second draft — I’m excited to get started. I have a game plan.

Contributor News

Janet Garber’s story, “Family Values” appeared in Boomer Cafe, her poem, “Trees in a Hurricane,” was in Tiny Seed Journal, and her personal essay, Baby Love, was published by Mom Egg Review here:

Alec Lavictoire’s debut novel The Black Cup was published on May 29th and is available everywhere. I want to thank you for the early support of my writing journey. Check out my website at Alec Lavictoire | Author 

Cameron Eickmeyer has optioned my first screenplay tentatively titled “Spare the Rod” with Dragonfly Bay Films.

  1. What a lovely start to the week with these positive and instructive remarks and notes. A welcome boost for writers and philosophers because the Odyssey that you describe that pertains to the protagonist applies equally to everyone in their personal yet unconsciously collective lives. Now, back to my poetry!

  2. Thank you for this, Nancy Kay. Very helpful as I begin to tackle the 2nd round of revisions to my novel WIP (a 3 book series), and begin the rough draft of Book 2.

  3. This is excellent. Thanks for sharing your insights with us.

  4. My question is this: Why show a first draft (of anything) to anyone? A first draft just begins to scratch the surface of the thing. Any other opinions have absolutely no worth at this stage. To me, it is like the writer wants a shortcut. And all you get from other readers is ‘this is the way I would have written it..’ A writer must do drafts and drafts and drafts and when the writer can go no further then maybe show it to other eyes. It is the writer’s vision. Writer, singular.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *