Starring the Protagonist

We all get that the protagonist is supposed to be the star of the story, right?  Of course!

But it’s not all glamor and star billing.  This character role must fulfill certain functions, especially when it comes to satisfying reader expectations.

In commercial fiction — meaning stories written for mass entertainment and usually genre-tailored — the protagonist is a hero.  Male or female doesn’t matter.  This character should take charge of the story action, should be heroic and larger than life in doing so, and should stand up to the antagonist in the story climax.

Did you know that in ancient Greek, part of the meaning of “hero” is sacrifice?  In effect, a hero — by the most ancient definition — is someone willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of others.

Okay, so a fiction hero has the following responsibilities:

1) drive the story forward by pursuing a goal

2) stay active rather than passive

3) stand up to the antagonist despite the risks

4) bring about the solution to the story problem

Given all that, we can then design our protagonist accordingly.  This individual may not be heroic at the story’s beginning, but will be at the center of the action while getting the most viewpoint pages and reader attention.  Therefore, construct her with certain abilities and traits that will qualify her to grow into acts of heroism.

THE LIGHTNING THIEF by Rick Riordan, published 2005 by Hyperion Books, illustrated by John Rocco

Percy Jackson, the young protagonist of Rick Riordan’s hit series THE YOUNG OLYMPIANS, is a dyslexic school kid bored on a field trip until his math teacher turns into a harpy (as in Greek mythological monster) and tries to kill him.  From the first chapter onward, Percy starts discovering that he can stay alive, tackle big adventures, and find out what happened to Zeus’s missing lightning bolt.

So, your hero may be Joe Ordinary as you’ve currently designed him.  That’s okay, as long as he’s Joseph Extraordinary inside.  Have you made him tenacious, stubborn, determined, pro-active, and gutsy?  Think about Mattie Ross in TRUE GRIT.  She’s a young girl in the Old West, trying to hunt down vicious gunmen.  She’s not big and strong.  She’s not a gunslinger.  But she’s not going to quit until she achieves justice for her father’s death.

Cover for the 1968 Simon & Schuster 1st edition hardback of TRUE GRIT by Charles Portis

Have you given your hero skills that will enable him to do what’s necessary?  If it’s implausible for your protagonist to be a bomb expert, then has he hired someone to do the job for him?

Heroes that are soft, squeamish, laid-back, passive, reactive, and uncomfortable with confrontation — and never grow away from those traits — simply do not possess the qualities that will enable them to fulfill protagonist function.

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