Welcome back!  The time has come for you to apply what you’ve learned over the past two weeks to the creation of your story’s protagonist. This is a crucial step in the storytelling journey. I know that inventing a main character can be challenging, so we’ll take things one step at a time as we journey through the process, with you at the helm.

Today, we’ll discuss some basic protagonist information. It’s okay if you don’t have the answers; this is just a starting point as we explore character creation.  Lagos Egri writes, “Character is the fundamental material we are forced to work with, so we must know character as thoroughly as possible” (Egri 33).  With that in mind, let’s get started.

Who

You have a story to tell, so who is the main character who will help tell it?  This is a fundamental idea to think about and decide upon before you begin even to outline your story.  There are millions of character choices, so choosing the right protagonist for the story you want to write is essential.  

Since they are “the person who has the central problem and who drives the action in an attempt to solve the problem,” the protagonist has to be someone the audience can connect with and be willing to follow as the conflict unfolds (Truby 58).  What is your main character’s name?  Is their profession connected to their role in the story?  Do they have a family?  Do they hold any strong moral or political beliefs that might be put in doubt as the story unfolds? 

These are just basics to consider.  We’ll dive deeper into this area in subsequent posts.

What

What motivates your protagonist?  What are their wants and needs?  What is the goal they must achieve by the end of your story?  What are they willing to do to reach that goal?

Your main character’s “wants will be stronger if it is something specific, something the audience can easily understand and relate to,” while a “need tells what the unconscious wants from the character; this often is the true motivation for” them (Cowgill 49).  

It’s very important for you to have a clear idea of what your main character wishes to achieve or gain by the end of the story.  Your protagonist doesn’t live in a vacuum; they exist to propel the storyline forward and engage the audience.  

Where & When

Does your protagonist live in a studio apartment or a sprawling estate?  Does the story occur in Downtown Los Angeles or a rural town in Iowa?  What year is it?  What season?  Are any historical events taking place while the story unfolds?

Your story’s location and time period can provide context for your main character and why they’re there in the first place. For example, if your main character is a 1970s LAPD detective investigating a serial killer, we understand why they work and live in L.A. 

But you can also have the classic fish-out-of-water scenario where your protagonist is out of their element in an unfamiliar location.  

Robert McKee says, “A story’s SETTING is four-dimensional – Period, Duration, Location, Level of Conflict” (68).   He breaks these down further:

“PERIOD is the story’s place in time;”

“DURATION is the story’s length through time;”

“LOCATION is a story’s place in space;”

“LEVEL OF CONFLICT is the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles” (68-69).

All of these aspects influence your main character, how they see the world, and what their place is in it. 

If your protagonist is a female doctor, how she’s perceived by society in the early 1900s will be quite different than if that same character is in a similar story in 2024.  

Why

This gets to the real heart of the matter.  Why does the protagonist need to achieve this goal?  Why does it matter to them?  Why does it matter to the audience?  

The ‘why’ is a key reason behind your main character’s motivation to fight for what they want no matter the sacrifice or cost to them in the long run.  They must be willing to justify the reasons they are willing to fight for and get to this goal no matter the stakes and opposition they encounter.

Consider why your protagonist is after what they’re after in the story and how far they will go to reach that goal.

How

This is the question to consider once the story begins following the inciting incident.  How will the main character plan to reach their goal?  How will they know when they’re close to reaching it?  How will they find allies to trust?  How will they get the tools they need to go after the goal?  How will their existing skills and tools help them toward that goal?  How will they handle conflict that arises?  

These are some general questions to think about while you create your protagonist.  It’s okay not to have all the answers, and it’s definitely okay to give your main character weaknesses and flaws that will make their journey a challenge.  

Final Thoughts

Wow! That was a lot of information. Creating a protagonist should be a fun experience, but crafting a compelling, active, and empathetic hero takes a lot of time and work.  Luckily, we’re just diving in, and there’s plenty more to come!

See you next time!

Sources:

Cowgill, Linda J.  Writing Short Films: Structure and Content for Screenwriters. Lone Eagle Publishing, 1997.

Egri, Lajos. The Art of Dramatic Writing. Simon & Schuster, 2004.

McKee, Robert. Story. Harper Collins, 1997.

Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story. Faber and Faber, 2007.

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