Craft the perfect protagonist to elevate your message
In the realm of storytelling, whether for a game-changing brand narrative or a chart-topping novel, your central character is not just a tool, but the driver of success. Experienced business leaders and accomplished writers alike understand that a well-crafted protagonist can be the gateway to audience engagement and retention.
What does that look like? It all comes down to five things: want, need, flaw, strength, and personality. Let's dive into each of these features together.
Want: What is the goal?
Every main character must have a goal. It can be big (think Frodo destroying the One Ring) or small (Elle Woods winning her boyfriend back) but it needs to be there. Why? Because the plot of any story is about the actions they take to achieve this objective. If your narrative ever feels like it's meandering or losing focus, it's probably because you stopped having your main character pursue their goal.
This component is just as important for businesses. Many companies make the mistake of viewing themselves as the main character, but this can lead to a lack of understanding of what their target customers are trying to do. In successful business storytelling, the customer is the main character. Their goal is to find a solution to their problem.
Pro Tip: Make sure your main character's goal is tangible and external. Otherwise, there's no clear marker for whether they have succeeded or failed in their quest. "My main character wants to be successful in life" is too ambiguous. A more measurable goal statement might be, "My main character wants to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company."
Need: The heart's desire
As fun as it is to see the main character get what they want, that's not the most meaningful part of the story. But beyond external goals, there's an inner craving: a profound desire that shapes who they are as a person. Fulfilling this need shows they have completed their emotional journey. In marketing, need is the top of the branding ladder: the social, emotional, and spiritual benefits that a product or service can provide.
Some common needs in storytelling are things like acceptance, self-respect, love, connection, forgiveness, and redemption. But these aren't the only ones. In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge's need is to develop compassion. In The Devil Wears Prada, Andrea's need is to reconnect with the people who are most important to her. A main character's need can be anything, as long as it comes from within.
Pro Tip: The main character may not always be aware of their need. In some stories, their need may even be the opposite of their external goal. Many great protagonists don't accomplish their goals at all, but they still grow as people. Often, they're going after what they think they want, only to discover that it wasn't what they needed all along.
Flaw: The beauty of imperfection
People are imperfect. They make mistakes, sometimes big ones. If your main character is flawless, your audience will struggle to relate to them. Giving them imperfections makes them feel more authentic, allowing your audience to see a bit of themselves in your narrative. The essence of a hero's journey is to overcome this flaw in order to fulfill their need.
A strong character flaw has tangible consequences in the story, creating obstacles that hold the main character back from accomplishing their goals. Think of Pride and Prejudice: The main character, Elizabeth, is judgmental and quick to jump to conclusions. This leads her to misinterpret the actions of Mr. Darcy, the man she falls in love with, and almost causes her to lose him forever.
Pro Tip: Traits like greed, jealousy, vanity, ignorance, and obsession are all strong flaws because they have the ability to hinder a hero's progress. Customers' flaws may be more mundane, like anxiety, self-doubt, or fear of commitment.
Strength: Celebrating the bright side
Just like a flaw pulls a character down, a strength propels them forward. Your character's strength is a positive trait that helps them get through challenges. It also makes them more likable. In a business narrative, you can connect more with your audience by spotlighting their strengths.
You'd be surprised how far your audience will follow your hero when they have a reason to root for them. Even characters who seem like terrible people at the start of the story can be redeemed in your audience's eyes if you give them a smidge of humanity. Maybe your protagonist is spoiled and vain, but dedicated to their family. Maybe they're an evil tyrant with a soft spot for the poor and needy. A well-established strength signals that there's hope for positive change.
Pro Tip: Ideally, your hero's strength has value on their journey. For example, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie's humbleness is what saves him from meeting the same fate as the other kids on the tour.
Personality: Crafting a distinct identity
A main character who's missing a developed personality is half-baked at best. Your protagonist's unique quirks, habits, and values differentiate them from other, similar characters. These are the traits that make a character linger in people's minds long after the story is over. Sherlock Holmes isn't just a detective; he's an eccentric violinist who's addicted to solving mysteries. James Bond isn't just a spy; he's also a martini-sipping ladies' man with a dry sense of humor.
It's important to consider these aspects of your hero to give them dimension and depth. What do they believe? What do they do for fun? Who are they when they aren't on their quest? Take a look at your customer profile or character outline and ask yourself how well you really know them, beyond the basics. This information can help you figure out how they might respond to situations and what approach they might take to pursue their goal.
Pro Tip: If you're stuck, tools like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator can give you ideas. You can also take inspiration from real people, like celebrities or historical figures.
Why developing your protagonist is non-negotiable
For any storyteller in any industry, a strong main character is more than just a nice-to-have. It's the key to making your book, film, or brand narrative unforgettable. A compelling central figure can be the difference between a story that fades and a story that sticks in the minds of the audience.
Looking to level up your protagonist? As a storytelling consultant, I've worked with authors, business leaders, screenwriters, and more to sharpen their narratives and drive audience engagement. Want to learn more? Set up a free consultation.