Does a Story Need a Protagonist?

Although some stories do not feature a protagonist, or a character who is recongizably the leading character, most do. If the answer is yes, you probably need a protagonist, then the next question is, how do I write a good one?

Great stories feature great protagonists right? So how do you write a protagonist that will thrill your reader? Remember, protagonist is just another word for the leading character in your story. It’s the person that features the most in your tale, and the person from whose persepctive the reader experiences most of the story.

There’s no one secret to writing a great protagonist, as every protagonist is a little bit different (otherwise readers would get bored). But in the way that history appears to rhyme, there are underlying similarities between lots of the most successful and loved protagonists in literary history.

Below we take a look at some of the core elements that can help to make your reader fall in love with your leading character, keep the pages turning, and help you to build a fan base that returns again and again.

Stories generally do need a protagonist. To write a good one you need to understand what makes characters sympathetic, plan out a goal, a flaw, and make them relatable. Once you have understood how to write a great protagonist, you will see how essential they are to most stories and understand their plot function.

How do you Write a Sympathetic Protagonist?

You’ll hear this all the time, but what does it mean? It means they win sympathy from the audience. Well, what kinds of people win our sympathy?

Actually, the rest of the article is kind of a list of the kinds of people we feel sympathy for.

For starters, think of a person that you don’t feel any sympathy for. It would be an arrogant person, or a bad person, or someone that you don’t like for some powerful reason.

So it might be fair to start by assuming that we feel sympathy for people that we like, especially when they are going through difficult times.

Here’s a look at how to write a sympathetic character in a screenplay.

Does a Main Character Need a Goal?

We often like people, and therefore feel sympathy for them when they suffer, if they have an objective or goal we approve of.

For instance, someone who is trying to be a good mother, or is trying to make a difference in their community, or is trying to save the world.

Generally a contemporary hero can be defined as someone who puts others’ needs before their own, right?

So consider giving them an objective that puts someone else’s needs first. Sound like your favourite protagonist from your favourite story? I know, right? 

Here’s an interesting article on how actor’s find their character’s objectives.

Should all Main Characters have a Flaw?

If someone is too good we just won’t buy it.

People are flawed. Like you and me.

But, we’re doing our best with the circumstances we’ve been given, right? We all pretty much think of ourselves in the same way, and we’re all the hero in our own stories.

The moment we stop being the hero in our own story, we’ll start to take measures to reassert that heroic status. Enjoy thinking about all that.

But the point of this is to acknowledge that the best characters are flawed.

Think of Superman’s moments of doubt, or his weakness to Kryptonite. Think of Robert Jordan’s fear in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Think of Ron’s cowardice in Harry Potter, or Snape’s bitterness.

Check out this video for more thoughts about character flaws.

What Makes a Character Relatable?

Who do we relate to? It’s a bit of a tricky question actually … it’s tempting to say we relate to people like us. But is that right?

Why is everyone obsessed with the British Royal family?

Why when they have a family spat do we love to hear about it? Is it because of the surprising relatability of family drama?

Is this why Hamlet is about a royal family? Why many ancient tragedies and Shakespearean ones too are about royal families?

Are those pieces really just about family dynamics, dressed up and made a little snazzier by making them royals?

Perhaps this raises the ‘significance’ of the story, and makes it feel more worthy and worthwhile.

I think the answer is to try to make the nature of the problems the protagonist is dealing with relatable for the audience i.e. if the protagonist’s main probably is whether to buy an Omega or Rolex watch, we’re not going to relate to that (except for you, yes you with your money).

But if Hamlet, say, is a Prince, and his main problem is that he misses his Dad, well that’s something we can relate to, and perhaps we’re obsessed with the Royals because what we’re learning is just how similar the lives of the rich, powerful, and famous our to ours in many respects. 

Bonus content: enjoy!