In the last post I take a shot at the Hero’s Journey for, among other things, generating boring protagonists. But due to the nature of that project, I didn’t have time to explain how to fix that particular problem. So let’s take a stab at making not-boring protagonists shall we?
The difference between an engaging protagonist and a boring one boils down to a few simple virtues that get complicated by the specific story being told. Those virtues, in order of importance, are: Care, Power, and Wisdom (you will forgive me for corrupting the Triforce but “Courage” is a bit too specific for what I’m talking about). We will tackle them in reverse order.
I say this is the least important but that is kind of a lie. The kind of wisdom I’m referring to is not the DnD stat that implies sound judgment. Rather I mean the subtle understanding of the way the world works. Having wisdom is something like achieving enlightenment–it changes you for the better, but leaves you more like you always were.
In short, it’s something the protagonist doesn’t start out with…it’s something she gains.
No one could survive the cavalcade of nightmares and challenges you are going to inflict on your protagonist without changing in some way. Most people wouldn’t bother, most of the ones that tried broke or died, but your protagonist somehow got through them. How? What does she know that all of those others lacked?
It’s not quick, or easy, but somewhere in the ruckus of trying to survive your protagonist reaches into herself and pulls out the answer. She “uses the force” or “grasps the matrix” or just “realizes she’s been in love with X this whole time.” And because of that, she’s a better, more whole person.
And yes, that does mean every story has an implicit “lesson” to teach, and a moral underpinning. Be wary of stories that claim to be without these, because they’re lying. More on that in another article.
Power is the trickiest of the three to get right. Too much power and there’s no conflict, but too little power and the reader gets suspicious every time forward motion is made regardless of the protagonist’s incompetence. So, how do you get the balance right?
A good rule of thumb is “The Protagonist has a seat at the table.”
When all the bigwigs gather for decisions, your protagonist is there. When Superman and the Justice League convene, your character is able to sit in and watch. When the Legion of Doom plot, the only reason they can ignore your protagonist is that they don’t know about her yet (and are distracted with something more obvious).
Now, obviously you don’t jump right to the head of the table, nor are you immediately at the right or left hand. However, you’re not outside the banquet hall altogether–shivering with cold and wondering what everyone is doing in there. No, you have an invitation, but it’s not your party yet.
It may not be the best seat, heck it may even be the worst. But your protagonist should have enough personal power to hang around with the good guys, and to be a item on the bad guys’ agenda. Any one who ignores the protagonist, or questions her being there, exists to be shot down–either by someone smarter higher up the ranks, or by the protagonist herself showing why she has a spot at the table.
Keep in mind that this refers to all forms of power. Even if your protagonist is a wimp, they should still be smart enough to contribute, or specialize in a field the good guys need, or just plain be cunning enough to advise. Whatever it is, your protagonist needs to be good enough at it that her voice cannot be ignored.
This is the big one. The thing that defines an interesting protagonist. They CARE. Their village getting destroyed, offends them to the point where they topple the evil empire. They fall in love so hard that the wacky shenanigans they undergo to win their beloved’s hand are justified (at least in their own head). Someone has been murdered, and by golly, and they will not rest until the killer is brought to justice. The inherent conflict of the story exists in part because your protagonist refuses to roll over and let the bad guys get away with it. Even if they begin the story as a very small fish in a very big pond, the fact that they care so much means it cannot last. They will find a way to make themselves heard, if it takes everything they have, up to and including their life…they will see change made.
They care that damn much.
“But Kandagger,” I hear, “that’s a very specific sort of protagonist. What about the kind that specifically DON’T care about anything? The snarky, jaded, type that are just trying to get through the day without all of the shenanigans they keep getting pulled into.”
Well, hypothetical strawman, you answered your own question. If that protagonist truly didn’t care about anything, they wouldn’t keep getting caught up in those wacky adventures. That character type, actually DOES care, a very great deal in fact. However they’ve explicitly sealed away those portions of themselves as a defense mechanism (probably based on stuff that gets revealed in flashback) and the main thrust of the story somehow ought to help break them out of that funk. And even yet there’s still stuff that presses that character’s buttons, and heaven help the person who has pressed them.
Of course, part of the trick is getting the audience to care about the same thing the protagonist does. But that’s also another article.
Until next time, keep writing.