Saturday, 24 September 2011

Do You Know What Your Protagonist Is Doing Right Now?

I wanted to talk about your hero but if you're like me, you may not know who that is yet. If you have a story and a character, you probably have a protagonist.

What's the difference between a protagonist and a hero?

 The hero solves the problem. The hero saves the day. The hero defeats the antagonist. The hero gets the girl or boy or saves a marriage or bonds with the kid or almost always walks off into the sunset (or um, dies trying).

 The protagonist tells the story.

 In order for this to happen, the protagonist must have a story to tell, a reason to be in the story, and most importantly, a voice.

But wait! you say. The antagonist stands in the way of the protagonist! I never said your hero and your protagonist couldn't be the same person. If you just so happen to have a protagonist and a hero who are not the same person in the same story, it helps tons if your antagonist stands in the way of both of them. That means either the protagonist and the hero want the same thing, or the antagonist stands in the way of two people or your story has an antagonist and an enemy of the hero.

Your protagonist has a unique voice, a strong background, witty dialogue, and an unavoidable connection to the hero. Does your protagonist have a story?

(Always remember that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.)

The story structure can be fulfilled by plot - plot being where things happen - but it can also be fulfilled by character development. Plot has a nasty tendency to happen to heroes (and anti-heroes which we'll get to later, when I can I finish rolling my eyes at them...still rolling); character development happens to protagonists. If your protagonist doesn't develop in some way throughout the story, then in the Cadillac of writing that is your story, your protagonist is the hood ornament.

Writer, please!

Your hood ornament should be the color of the walls in the den where the murder took place, not your freaking protagonist.

Ever see The Usual Suspects? It totally looks like Kevin Spacey is a protagonist, and one of the dull ones who sort of exists in a nebulous wordspace (or screenspace in this case) until the end when it's revealed that he's - I really have no idea if you've seen the movie or not. Basically, he's removed from the action. He tells the story, so he's the protagonist. Not even a very interesting one. The thing is, all is forgiven or better yet, ignored, because his story is just so damn compelling that we are sucked in to the plot. If ever you are tempted to use your protagonist as a story telling device rather than a character in her own right, just remember that The Usual Suspects did it first (or at the very least, before you) so don't rest on your laurels. Build your protagonist. Make him fight, make her choose, make him defeat the antagonist and make me cheer by the time he does it.

So what's your protagonist's story?

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