The One Thing Every Protagonist Must Have

wonder-woman-533667_1920What is it that every protagonist in a novel must have? I’ll tell you on the other side of this email I recently received:

Dear Mr. Bell

One of the main pieces of advice that you give in your Plot and Structure book, for a commercial novel, is that the character should always be doing something. Have an active Lead.

In my manuscript, I have a Lead who is at first more passive. Things happen to him more than he takes action. he reacts more than he acts. When he does take action, he fails. My hope was to built sympathy for the underdog.

Then, about the halfway mark, he digs deep and starts taking action and being less passive. I really am hoping to show the reader that this kid has some special spark deep down. It is something you see glimpses of in the first half, but he is never successful. And then after about halfway through, he decides to take the reins.

I know that this is a very short sketch and it may be impossible to advise me based on such little info. Having said that, am I working against your advise TOO much here? Is there evidence to suggest that novels with initially passive main characters rarely sell well?

I wrote back, telling the writer that passivity is a killer. A character may start out passive, but very quickly you must show that he has something, or at least the capacity to develop this something.

And that something is: Strength of will.

There is no novel, no drama, no conflict, no story without a Lead character fighting a battle through the exercise of his will.

As Lajos Egri states in his classic, The Art of Dramatic Writing:

A weak character cannot carry the burden of protracted conflict in a play. He cannot support a play. We are forced, then, to discard such a character as a protagonist … the dramatist needs not only characters who are willing to put up a fight for their convictions. He needs characters who have the strength, the stamina, to carry this fight to its logical conclusion.

Let’s think about Scarlett O’Hara for a moment. Do we want 200 pages of her sitting on her porch flirting with the local boys? Do we want to listen to her selfish prattle or watch her flit around in big-hoop dresses?

I’m not sure we want anything to do with her at all after seven pages or so, but then! She learns that Ashley Wilkes, her ideal, her dream husband-to-be, is going to marry that mousy Melanie!

She immediately lays plans to get him alone at the big barbecue. She’ll tell him of her love and he’ll dump Melanie. Through strength of will she draws him into a room where they can be alone.

Only her plan does not work out as intended. Which is good! For strength of will must be met with further obstacles and challenges and setbacks. The protagonist has to keep fighting, or the book is over.

That’s why, after the setback with Ashley, Scarlett faces a further complication—a little thing I like to call the Civil War.

For the rest of the book Scarlett will have to show strength of will to save the family home and fight for the man she loves (NOTE: strength of will does not always mean strength of insight. Scarlett does not realize until it’s too late who she really loves. Of course, we could have told her. It’s the guy who looks like Clark Gable!)

Now, a character can start passive. But she cannot stay there for long. In Stephen King’s Rose Madder, the opening chapter depicts a wife who is horribly abused by her psycho husband. The chapter ends with the chilling line: Rose McClendon Daniels slept within her husband’s madness for nine more years. 

Wise storyteller that he is, King does not give us more pages of abuse. No, he quickly gets us to a blood stain. It’s what Rose sees on a sheet as she makes the bed one morning, a reminder of her most recent beating. Nothing she hasn’t seen before, only this time it triggers something inside her:

She looked at the spot of blood, feeling unaccustomed resentment throbbing in her head, feeling something else, a pins-and-needles tingle, not knowing this was the way you felt when you finally woke up.

Then comes Rose’s strength of will. She finally does what her husband has strictly forbidden—leave the house. Do that, he warns, and I’ll track you down and kill you.

For us, walking out a door is a small thing, but for Rose Daniels it is the biggest risk of her life. But she does it.

And that’s why we want to watch her for the rest of the book. She will have to exercise her will many times in order to survive.

I told my correspondent, give us something, anything, early in the book, to show that your Lead has strength of will. It can be small at first, but at least it will show us he has the capacity to fight his way through an entire novel.

Look at your own manuscript. Have you given us an opening disturbance for your Lead character to deal with? Show us his determination to do something about it, and you will have accomplished the first task of the storyteller—getting the reader hooked on a character and wanting to turn pages to find out what happens next!

16 thoughts on “The One Thing Every Protagonist Must Have

  1. It’s easy with a murder mystery, especially if your sleuth has a compelling personal reason to get involved in solving the crime. They have to be proactive to uncover the truth.

    • That’s what makes a mystery such a great vehicle for characters – it gives an inciting incident and, as the character investigates, ample opportunity to explore all the characters and make them compelling.

  2. This post is perfect timing for me. Plotting like crazy, and although I did give my protag something to be determined about, I’ll be sure to strengthen that beat.

    Thank you!

    P.S. bought JSB’s book on dialogue, even though I think my dialogue is fine, but fine isn’t good enough… I want it to shine!

  3. Good morning, Jim. Have safe travels today.

    Thanks for another great post.

    Strength of Will – Yes. PLOT AND STRUCTURE helped me revise my first manuscript, giving my lead some backbone much sooner. Thanks.

    I just finished VOICE – THE SECRET POWER OF GREAT WRITING. Very helpful. Loved the examples.

  4. Awesome post. I think you just inspired my next Kill Zone entry (a week from tomorrow), because this opens up a can of worms that can change everything for the writer who wraps their head around it (a topic about which you and I have both published books, and because both of them became #1 Amazon niche bestsellers and continue to rank highly, it shows that writers are hungry to understand this, and need to understand this). Which is…

    There is a structural perspective on the topic of hero passivity. When I read the email send to you (in your post today), it screamed of it, and was actually closely aligned with it from that structural perspective. And your advice was (as usual) spot-on — don’t stay passive for too long.

    Four-part story structure (the step-child of 3-act dramatic structure; it’s actually the same thing, it’s just the Second Act broken into its two contextual parts – resulting in four “parts” for the whole story, divided by the Midpoint context shift) defines four different character archetypes (more on that in 13 days) that help the writer do just what you (Jim) advise so clearly here. Which is… don’t stay passive for too long… but also, don’t show your hero being too successful in attacking their problem/situation/opportunity too early. As authors we have to torment the hero (and the reader) for a while to engage with the dramatic tension they came for.

    Don’t mean to hijack your post here, Jim, but as you know, every time we stick a finger into the bubbling vat of story, we touch on a vast array of topics, all of which end up connecting to exert force on each other. This post does a great job of isolating that critical element: passivity versus proactivity, and how/when to handle it in a story.

  5. “I told my correspondent, give us something, anything, early in the book, to show that your Lead has strength of will.”

    Directly relating to the main story? Or not necessarily? (sort of like an unrelated pet the dog moment)?

  6. Jim,

    Yes! This strikes me as vital. The lead wants something badly and demonstrates her (as you so will put it) strength of will in pursuing what she wants, whether it’s escaping an abusive husband, solving a murder, stopping a nefarious plot, defeating a bad guy etc. As she struggles to attain her goal, failing and things getting worse, that strength of will keeps her going.

    She must want something, want something badly, and go after it with an obsessive focus, which springs from “strength of will,” a stubbornness of character. She’s not going to quit, and we have to see that early on.

    Thanks for yet another great post! Safe travels.

  7. Great advice as usual. And since I am preparing a workshop on heroes for SleuthFest, I may have to steal from this, Jim. (with attribution, of course! Will include your books in my handout). I sort of felt for your letter writer because I understand what he is trying to do — give his protag a low starting point that allows for great growth. But as you said, you can only let this go on so long before the reader (esp mystery/thriller) grows impatient. If you can hint that there is something in this “passive” hero’s character that we can recognize just needs to be awakened, we might stick around — part of the tension then comes from waiting for that special moment. We all love to root for such underdogs; we identify with them. But we have to have a promise that it will come.

    I always think of Sheriff Brody in “Jaws” when I hear writers talk about a passive hero. Brody is sort of a squish in the early going, buffeted by the politics of his town, cowed by the mayor. In the book, his wife is even cheating on him. Shoot, the guy can’t even swim. But circumstances force his growth rather fast until there he is at the end, mano a mano with the shark…and he triumphs.

  8. Thanks for another great post! This answers a question that I’ve been pondering for my WIP. She starts out a bit passive too, but is helped by another major character to see her potential. Now I see that I must show her potential early. That helps me over the hurdle. Thanks again.

  9. I think it’s John Truby that suggests one way of solving this problem: have the goal change as the story continues. For example, if your protag has the goal of finding out who killed someone, that might be their first goal. However as they get more information, that goal will change – possibly around the first plot point, and maybe once more at the Midpoint, and Second Plot Point (thanks Larry!).

    So at the first plot point they might realize that the murder wasn’t an isolated instance, and that it was arranged by a mob family because of XYZ. So then their goal will be to find out more about the mob family, who did it, and why.

    That goal might change again if they find out new information that tells them that this was actually a hit based on an old grudge held by the mob against the victim’s family, who supposedly was responsible for killing a relative of the mob family twenty years ago. And on it goes.

    Basically, you don’t need to have your character weak in the beginning- you just need to give them a series of revelations that change their goal as the story progresses, making it so they have to increase the amount of will they exert to solve the problem.

    And hopefully you’ll tie your protag’s goal in with their psychological and moral need, so that only by solving the problem/achieving their goal, will they also fix their character’s need- which of course will show the growth that letter writer was aiming to show.

  10. Passive = Bad

    Reluctant = Good

    Brody is a perfect reluctant hero with events tugging at him while he just wants to read the paper. Other examples include Stu Redman in The Stand (drinking beer in a dusty Texas town when the car careens into the gas station) and Rick in The Walking Dead (waking up in the hospital to find everything has, um, changed, but he still has his small town middle-class viewpoint intact.)

    Some days you just don’t feel heroic. Unfortunately, sharks, plagues, and zombies often don’t leave you any choice. It is a great character because he has to examine himself while the vortex just keeps swirling faster and he has no choice but to rise to the occasion. And yes, women can be reluctant heroes as well. Was there any character wishy-washier than Walking Dead Carol?

    But at some point, long long before the midpoint (I’d say before the end of the first act,) Charlie Brown has to grab the football and run with it or he’s not the protag.


  11. 1. If they are too passive, that would tell me there is not enough conflict , nothing to fight for, no reason to “do something”… definitely says lack of conflict to me. No conflict = no story.

    2. We all hope and want to believe we’d “do something” in a bad situation, so we want our hero to “do something” or it’s hard to want to identify and stay with them.

    3. Sometimes I think people get confused between passive and peaceable, gentle, or kind. Someone who prefers to handle problems in other ways if possible, because they are nice and bad people like to stomp on that. A character like this might let something seemingly slide a bit to give someone a fair chance to correct themselves (but be keeping on eye on things), or giving a warning, or give seemingly benign help to someone who is being picked on- without going after the baddies- so they seem passive, but they are still actually “doing something”. .. The line just hasn’t been crossed yet.

  12. Pingback: Links To Blog Posts on Writing – October 2015 | Anna Butler

Comments are closed.