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!