Who is your main character? More importantly, why are they making the decisions they’re making in the story? If you want your reader to care about what happens next, the best way is to answer these three essential questions about your protagonist. You can’t guarantee someone will like your book, but you can increase the chances that a reader will connect with your story.
Hello writers. Welcome to the Let’s Write Your Novel podcast. I’m Stephanie Dethlefs, writer and book coach. And this is the place to be if you’ve got a story on your heart, but you need a bit of clarity, accountability, and support to finally write your novel. In each episode, I give you one skill or strategy to apply to your novel. And we’ll also take a peek into your mindset about the process. I’m here because your story matters. You deserve to write it and you have a reader out there who needs it. I’m glad you’re here. So let’s get to it.
So you can’t control what a reader thinks about your book, right? But you can increase the chances that a reader will connect with your story. What we’re gonna talk about today is one way to do that, which is getting really clear on some things about your protagonist. You’ve probably heard lots of writing advice about flushing out your characters, whether it’s by using physical descriptions, body language, or even backstory while all of those things are important because your characters are after all folks you’re going to be spending a lot of time with. There are three essential things that you have to know about your protagonist or your main character in order to drive your story forward and keep your reader engaged. The protagonist is that main character, the person whose story it is that you’re writing. And like I said, it’s absolutely important that you do have a fleshed out three dimensional vision of who this person is.
So yes, you’ll know things about this character that might not ever directly make it onto the page, but that will inform the decisions they make. What I want to share with you today is more than just who this person is because we’re presenting this person to the reader within the context of a story, within the context of a series of events in the midst of which they’re going to have to make decisions. And those decisions are what is going to propel the story forward. The three questions I’m gonna 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 them. And most importantly, they’ll inform the growth and change of the protagonist over the course of the story. Remember this change in your protagonist is what keeps readers engaged more than any wild action or wild events.
It’s the internal story of the protagonist that lets readers connect to the story on a personal familiar level. So without further ado, let’s jump into these three essential questions to ask about your protagonist. And because I’m a bit of a nerd who grew up in the seventies and eighties, <laugh>, I’m going to use the original star wars movie as my example. Okay. So question number one. What does the protagonist want? This is crucial. I cannot stress it enough. Without this desire, there’s no story. There’s just a haphazard series of events that happen to occur. Now, just to make it a little more complicated, there is usually both an external desire, something they want outside of themselves and an internal desire, a feeling that they want to feel. 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.
So basically he wants travel and a new job, but 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 it might be an object or an experience which is wanting to obtain something. The internal desire is always a way that they want to feel. So first we ask, what does our protagonist want? Next we ask what is at stake. If they don’t get what they want, there are always stakes in a story. They might be external stakes and they might be as extreme as life or death, or they might be internal stakes, some feeling or self knowledge that they want to avoid. Let me repeat this because it is so important: without stakes, there is no story. And if a story is boring, it’s probably because the stakes aren’t high enough.
We can’t be afraid to raise the stakes for our protagonist. We have to put them through the wringer. That’s our job as the writer, how much you want to put them through that wringer is up to you. But for the reader to care, the stakes have to be high for the protagonist. And again, the stakes need to not only be external, but internal as well. What is the way your protagonist most desperately does not want to feel those stakes. Those are the motivations for their actions. This is human nature. We try to avoid feeling a way we don’t want to feel. And we try to gain a feeling that we do want. If they don’t get what they want, they will feel the way that they don’t want to feel. And those are the internal stakes that said the stakes don’t have to be as extreme as life or death elation or total devastation.
<laugh> 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 stakes were tremendously high because 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 that chance, he would’ve lived a life filled with regret. And who among us has not worried about that before. Right? It’s a common human experience, not profound, but incredibly important.
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Okay, so we’ve asked what does the character want and what is at stake now for the third question, what is standing in the character’s way? What is keeping them from going after what they want the answer as with the other two questions is something external and something internal. Maybe what they want is illegal and they’re afraid they’re not brave enough. Maybe what they want is wildly expensive and they doubt their ability to ever make enough money. There’s likely something physically standing in their way and also something emotional standing in their way in star wars. Luke was physically kept from enlisting in the resistance by his uncle, but also by his own reluctance to defy his uncle and probably no shortage of uncertainty and fear. So a quick review, what does your protagonist want? What is at stake and what is standing in their way now?
Here’s the kicker. All of this should be evident in the beginning of the story in a novel. This should become obvious almost right away within the first chapter. At the very least, 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 this is what’ll help ensure that they care about what happens next. It’s also going to help you, the writer, hold onto the reins of that 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 is going to do next. Writers, spending time with these three questions is perhaps the most important thing you can do for the health and wellbeing of your beloved protagonist. By doing this work, you can increase the chances that a reader will connect with your story. I’ll talk to you next week.
Thank you for being here today. If you like, what you heard, would you please take a moment to leave a review on iTunes so that it can reach more writers who could use the little support today? I would appreciate it so much happy writing.