I generally start out writing with only a vague idea of who my protagonist is. She (it’s usually a she) is definitely not me, but of course she’s absolutely me. Bits of me. Me as a deranged highly opinionated sorceress princess. Me as a very confused middle school English teacher with firm opinions about poetry. Me as a pale white person who is more like a determined software virus than a human being.
And it isn’t until I’m well into the story that I find out what my protagonist wants. Because she always wants something.
And so does your protagonist, even if you don’t know what it is at the moment.
“Protagonist” means “main actor,” and the protagonist is the one whose desires drive the story. Desires for revenge, for love, or for independence; a need to escape, the wish to have a family, or to be secure.
When I was teaching English, I was often struck by the way my students saw the main character’s actions as predetermined by the circumstances. I thought I was the only person who felt that way; it’s because readers identify completely with the protagonist if the writer did her job, and so they often don’t notice how many real choices the character actually had in each situation.
But you’re the writer here, not the reader.
You may have been happily writing along following your character’s adventures with delight, but right now, stop and decide what he wants out of life, because it’s key to making your protagonist’s actions believable and making your plot work. Otherwise, your reader will stop suspending his belief and get annoyed.
Here’s how to find out: Go look at major decision points, and try to imagine how your protagonist could have chosen otherwise. If it’s a romance, why was that particular person so captivating and not terribly irritating? If it’s a mysterious death, why investigate it and not just walk away or get someone else to do it? If it’s a memoir about taking care of your parent, why did you bother? Why didn’t you move out of state?
Because there actually was a choice there.
My deranged princess chose to escape her captors and crash-land on a strange planet. She could have stayed a captive, shivering and pleading with her enemies, or she could have allied herself with them. My teacher could scramble that enormous egg she found on the kitchen table instead of putting it on a hot tray to incubate. And that anonymous virus person? She had so many choices besides moving into someone else’s story and putting it to the torch.
Those choices must also pose a clear risk. There is nothing (aside from an All Bad Villain) more boring than an Invulnerable Hero. Yeah, you may be writing a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which your main actor surmounts impossible odds in order to become the Emperor of the Universe, but those impossible odds had better pose a threat of some sort, even if the threat is terminal embarrassment.
It doesn’t take much to nudge your protagonist into being more human. Just interject a moment of reflection, a statement of intention, or an instant in which she wavers between two choices and settles firmly on the one she really, truly wants.
And after that? Keep writing. It’s still November.
Tomorrow: What do you have to lose?