This post originally appeared on Medium in February 2021. Highlights made by readers.
You’ve probably heard lots of writing advice about fleshing out your characters, whether it’s by using physical descriptions, body language or backstory. The protagonist is the main character, the person whose story it is that you’re writing, and it is absolutely important that you have a fleshed out, three-dimensional vision of who this person is so that the reader can, too. Likely, you’ll know things about this character that might not ever directly make it onto the page. What kind of coffee do they drink? What are their greatest fears? Are they allergic to iguanas?
Subscribe to the Hello Writers! podcast in your favorite player!
However, there are three essential things that you must know about your protagonist — your main character — in order to drive your story forward and keep your reader engaged.
This is more than just who this person is. We are presenting this person to the reader within the context of events, in the midst of which they are going to have to make decisions that will continue to propel the story forward.
The three questions I’m going to share with you here today are crucial for a number of reasons. They’ll tell you where to start your story, they’ll drive the decisions you make for your protagonist and the events surrounding him, and they’ll ensure that you are creating that essential internal storyline — the growth and change of the protagonist over the course of the story. Remember, this growth and change is what keeps readers engaged more than wild action or crazy events. It’s the internal story of the protagonist that lets us connect to the story on a personal, familiar level.
Note: Just for kicks and giggles, I’m going to continue on with the Star Wars example from the last article. Please bear with me…this will get it out of my system, I promise.
1. What does the protagonist want?
This is crucial. Without this desire, there is no story. There is just a haphazard series of events. There is usually both an external desire — something they want outside of themselves — and an internal desire — a feeling they want to feel. The two are most likely interconnected.
Let’s explore this with the beginning of the original Star Wars movie. What Luke Skywalker wants externally is to leave his home and become a rebel pilot. What he wants internally is to feel like he’s doing something that matters in the bigger picture. Often that external desire is an action — wanting to do something — or an object or experience — wanting to obtain something. The internal desire is always a feeling.
2. What is at stake if she doesn’t get what she wants?
Without stakes, there is no story. (See the theme here?)They may be external, as extreme as life or death. Or they may be internal, some feeling or self-knowledge that they want to avoid.
Without stakes, the reader simply won’t care. And if a story is a little boring, it’s probably because the stakes aren’t high enough. We can’t be afraid to raise the stakes for our protagonist. How much you want to put them through the wringer is up to you, but for the reader to care, the stakes have to be suitably high.
That said, they don’t have to be profound. If Luke Skywalker had wound up staying on his home planet for his whole life, he would likely have survived and lived a perfectly normal life. But his emotional stakes were tremendously high. We knew from the get-go how much it mattered to him that he got to leave at some point, to become the person he sensed he was supposed to become. If he’d never gotten the chance, he would have lived a life filled with regret. Who among us has not worried about that before? It is a common human experience. Not profound, but substantial.
3. What is standing in the character’s way?
What is keeping them from going after what they want? The answer is likely something external AND something internal. Maybe what she wants is illegal and she’s afraid she’s not brave enough. Maybe what she wants is wildly expensive and she doubts her ability to ever make enough money. There is likely something physically standing in her way and also something emotionally standing in her way. In Star Wars, Luke was physically kept from enlisting by his uncle, but also by his own reluctance to defy his uncle, and probably no shortage of uncertainty about how to go about it if he did.
Put it all up front.
The answers to all three of these questions should be evident in the beginning of the story. If you’re writing a novel, that would be in the first chapter, probably even the first few pages. If you’re writing a shorter piece, it would be evident in the first paragraph or two.
It has to be.
Here’s why: the reader is going to use that information to help them decipher every decision that the protagonist makes. It is also going to help you, as the writer, hold onto the reins of the emotional, internal story. At every turn, at every crossroads, the answers to these three questions are going to tell you, the writer, what your protagonist needs to do next.
Would you like some support as you clarify your protagonist?
Schedule an Unstick Your Story consultation today! >>