The Five Key Components of a Protagonist
Storytelling resources, how-to guides
© 2021 Isabella Bailey
All rights reserved.
I like to think of main characters like cakes: delicious when baked thoroughly, but you can’t take them out of the oven before they’re ready. Plot is critical too, of course, but that’s more like the frosting. It doesn’t matter how long you spend on the decorations; if the cake underneath is mushy, then the end result will be unappetizing, no matter how you slice it.
If you want to write a story that really resonates with your readers, the kind of story that people can get lost in, you need to create a well-rounded main character. When I’m plotting a new book, this is always my first step. Why? Because as humans, we respond to the humanity in a story: the struggles, strengths, defeats, and triumphs that mirror our own. If you don’t cultivate a strong protagonist, their actions may come across as unrealistic or forced, which is an immediate turn-off to readers. You risk your main character appearing passive, flat, and—dare I say it?—boring.
In order to weave a compelling character-driven narrative, you must ensure that your protagonist has five basic components. These form the foundation of a strong story.
WANT: What does your character want?
Every protagonist, no matter the medium or the genre, must have a goal, whether it's big (Frodo must destroy the One Ring in Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings) or small (Elle Woods must win her boyfriend back in Amanda Brown’s Legally Blonde). The actions they take throughout the plot will naturally be in pursuit of this goal.
Establishing what your hero wants early on ensures that your readers have a basic understanding of what kind of story they're getting into. This isn't to say that your novel can't include twists and turns, but twists are impossible to write when you haven't adequately set the expectations you plan to subvert.
It's crucial that your hero wants something that is tangible and external. Don't fall into the trap of saying, "My protagonist's goal is to find himself" or, "My protagonist wants to be successful in life." These are too ambiguous. They don’t give your character something solid to pursue. Some better alternatives might be, "My protagonist wants to visit every country in the world" or, "My protagonist wants to become the CEO of his company." These new goals are specific and actionable, allowing readers to know whether the protagonist has succeeded or failed in their quest.
Here are some more examples of protagonists with strong goals.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein: Bilbo must reach the Lonely Mountain and help the dwarves steal Smaug’s treasure.
The Odyssey by Homer: Odysseus must find a way to get home to his wife and son.
Paper Towns by John Green: Quentin must track down his neighbor, Margo.
Your protagonist's goal drives your plot. It will be the basis for their actions and adventures throughout your novel, and a vehicle for something that's just as important: character development.
NEED: Want gives your hero a purpose; need gives them depth.
As fun as it is to see the main character achieve what they’ve been fighting for, that’s not the most meaningful part of the story. What will really resonate with your audience are the insights your protagonist gains, and the growth they experience, in the process of pursuing their goal. While want is external, need is internal, and unlike want, need should be intangible. Common needs include things like acceptance, self-respect, love, connection, forgiveness, and redemption.
It’s important to remember that your protagonist may not even be aware of their need. In fact, sometimes what they want runs directly counter to what they really need. Many great protagonists don't accomplish their goals at all, but still grow as people. Often they’re pursuing what they think they want, only to discover a deeper reward in the changes they go through along the way.
Let’s use one of my favorite chick lit novels, Lauren Weisberger's The Devil Wears Prada, as an example. The protagonist of the book, Andrea, is determined to survive a year working for one of the most demanding magazine editors in the world. She’s convinced that this is the key to launching her journalism career, but in the process, she gradually alienates her friends and family. (Spoiler alert!) Ultimately, horrified at what kind of person she’s become, Andrea tells off her boss and quits her job, deciding that the people she loves are more important than a work opportunity. What she wants is to complete her yearlong stint at the magazine, but she forgoes this goal in favor of what she needs, which is to reconnect with the people who are most important to her.
Here are some other examples of protagonists with strong needs:
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: Ebenezer Scrooge needs to develop compassion.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini: Amir needs to redeem himself for his past mistakes.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: Scout Finch needs to learn to look past other people's outward appearances.
Remember, your protagonist’s need is the ultimate driver of their growth. It’s the key to a satisfying ending, and it gives your story an added infusion of emotional depth.
FLAW: What creates challenges for your protagonist?
How boring is it when a main character never makes mistakes? I’m sure we’ve all read stories like this, where the protagonist can seemingly do no wrong. They’re bland. They’re forgettable. Above all, they’re unrealistic.
Humans are imperfect creatures. Everyone messes up, and we each have issues that often we ourselves can’t see. A developed protagonist is no different. They have problems too, and they make mistakes—sometimes big ones. This is what makes them interesting.
For this reason, your hero must start out with a flaw, a negative character trait that has tangible consequences in the story. It must create obstacles, whether directly or indirectly, and hold your protagonist back from accomplishing their goals. The essence of a hero’s journey is to overcome this flaw, to move past it or grow beyond it in a way that allows them to fulfill their need.
When creating your protagonist, consider traits like greed, jealousy, dishonesty, vanity, ignorance, vengefulness, and obsession. These are strong flaws, because they have the potential to hinder your hero’s progress and give your story greater depth.
While traits like clumsiness, shyness, naivete, indecision, and idealism can also be useful, they aren’t major flaws. Your hero’s success or failure will likely not hinge on their ability to overcome these issues, which is why you should always aim to give them at least one stronger flaw in addition to any “softer” ones.
Here are some examples of protagonists with strong flaws:
Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell: Scarlett O’Hara is manipulative, ungrateful, and selfish.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: Elizabeth Bennett is judgmental and quick to jump to conclusions about other people.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Jay Gatsby is obsessed with winning Daisy’s affection.
An impactful flaw is critical to a well-rounded protagonist. The greater your hero's weakness is at the beginning of your story, the more satisfying it will be to see them triumph in the end.
STRENGTH: What makes your audience invest in your hero?
Your protagonist also needs a strength, a positive trait that periodically shines through. This acts as an effective counterbalance to your hero's flaws, keeping readers invested even when your character messes up. By displaying both the positive and negative sides of the human experience in your protagonist, you can ensure that they are three-dimensional and easy to root for.
Even characters who are utterly reprehensible at the start of the story can be redeemed in the eyes of your audience if you give them a smidge of humanity early on. Perhaps your protagonist is a greedy business mogul who also happens to be a dedicated family man. Maybe they’re insufferably vain, but also empathetic to other peoples’ problems. It’s likely that your character’s strengths will benefit them on their journey, so consider that as well. Some common strengths are loyalty, bravery, ingenuity, tenacity, love, and charisma.
It's important to remember that your hero's strength should not outweigh their weakness, or you risk telling a boring story. That said, it's an excellent tool to have in your back pocket, and it signals to your audience that there is hope for a cathartic resolution.
Here are some examples of protagonists with meaningful strengths:
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle: Sherlock Holmes is intelligent and highly observant.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl: Charlie is humble and selfless.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson: Lisbeth Salander is tough and tenacious.
Strengths, when used properly, are a magical device. They provide nuance and dimension to your story, and inspire readers to follow your hero even when they stumble.
PERSONALITY: Who is this person, and what sets them apart from other characters?
First-time writers tend to overlook this ingredient, but a character who’s missing a developed personality is half-baked at best.
When I say personality, I’m not talking about archetypes (although these can be useful starting points). I’m talking about nuanced, consistent, and believable behaviors and emotions, the things that set your protagonist apart from someone else in similar circumstances.
There are many ways to craft your hero's personality. Some storytellers enjoy using tools like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, while others prefer a less scientific approach. The method you use is up to you. What’s important is that you have a thorough understanding of how your protagonist thinks and behaves. This means giving careful consideration to their history, their typical emotions, and their go-to responses to events. Here are some important questions to consider:
What is your character’s background? Where did they grow up? What was their childhood like? How did this lead them to where they are now, physically and emotionally?
How does your character typically respond to situations that go their way? Do they gloat? Celebrate? Sit on their laurels? Start planning their next move?
How does your character typically respond to situations that don’t go their way? Do they sulk? Throw their hands up? Get angry and take it out on those around them?
What are your character’s hobbies and interests? What do they do in their spare time?
What does your character fear? What are they ashamed of?
What are your character’s beliefs? Are they religious? Spiritual? Do they have strong political leanings?
Remember that your character’s personality must be in alignment with their strengths and flaws. If your character has a shy, withdrawn personality, then they likely won’t respond to situations with anger or violence. If your character is a power-hungry misanthrope, they probably won’t spend their weekends volunteering at soup kitchens.
Don’t be afraid to dig deep here. Your goal is to have a crystal-clear picture of your main character. The more of these questions you ask yourself, the clearer that picture will become.
Creating a strong protagonist can often seem like a daunting prospect. There are lots of interconnected parts to address, and it’s tempting to bypass this process completely. Once you master it, however, you’ll wonder how you ever went without it.
Your main character is the most important force in your novel. Much of your plot will flow from their want, need, flaw, strength, and personality. When these components are developed well, they form the foundation of a compelling story, one that will leave an impression on your readers long after the final page.
© 2021 Isabella Bailey
All rights reserved.