5 Questions for Choosing a Protagonist Who Represents Your Story’s Theme
Choosing a protagonist is often more of an event than a process. Writers sometimes feel more like the protagonist chooses them than the other way around. While most of us heed our first instinct to simply chase after this character to see where he goes, it’s important that at some point we analyze the soundness of the story idea by considering whether we have the right protagonist for the right story.
Although many metrics may inform this analysis, theme is usually the best measuring stick. Because theme is the peanut butter that gloms together the bread of the plot and the jelly of the characters, it always provides a good criterion for determining whether the entire recipe is coming together in a way that tastes right.
By itself, a plot is just a series of events. It’s not a story until we zoom in to focus on what these events mean to specific people. Usually, there are manypeople involved in these events. As seen in the recent fad for retconning classic stories from the viewpoints of supporting characters, a story may offer the possibility for many potential protagonists. As the common saying goes, even characters who look like traditional antagonists inevitably see themselves as the heroes of their own stories.
It usually isn’t difficult for authors to choose a protagonist; we just write about whichever character most interests us. If we feel there are additional characters who dramatically impact the plot, we can always throw in their POVs as well (although, I should say, this should never be done lightly). The most important decision is not choosing a protagonist or choosing a plot or even choosing a theme. Rather, the most important calibration you can make is to ensure all three are aligned.
5 Questions for Choosing a Protagonist Who Is Thematically Correct for Your Story
If this sounds easier said than done, it both is and isn’t. Most authors (or rather most people) have pretty good instincts about lining up a story’s parts—or, at the very least, an intuitive understanding of cause and effect. But because writing a story soon becomes an exercise in herding many different bits and pieces of theory and technique, it can also be easy to lose your way through the forest thanks to all those crazy trees.
We talked recently about how to properly balance plot and character, so you avoid “too much” of either. Today, let’s look more closely at how a few well-chosen questions can help you check whether you’ve chosen the most thematically-powerful character as your protagonist. If you discover your protagonist isn’t ideally positioned to both advance the plot and “prove” the theme, these questions can also help you to either identify a better protagonist or tweak things to bring plot-character-theme into better alignment.
1. What Does Your Protagonist Bring to This Particular Conflict That No Other Character Does?
If you could switch out your protagonist for another member of the cast without significantly changing either the events of the plot or the thematic intent of the Climax, you can be pretty sure you’ve got a deadbeat protagonist on your hands.
This is also true if you could mix-and-match your protagonist for a brand-new character who is (or at least seems to be) completely different. For example, if the heroine of your YA romance is a mousy introvert, but the events of the story wouldn’t be much affected if you turned her into an angry stoner—then she’s two-dimensional and thematically-vapid in either case.
The protagonist is the monarch of characters. The title raises this particular character above all other characters. But there must be a reason for this elevation. The character must prove worthy. This doesn’t necessarily mean the character needs to have special powers or mad skillz. What it doesmean is that the character must have or develop qualities that qualify her interaction with the plot events to represent the thematic meaning of those events.
Examine your primary cast and ask yourself what sets your protagonist apart? How will this story change her in ways it will not change the others? How will she drive the plot in ways no one else could? How will other characters be impacted by her in a way that could have happened with no other character?
2. Why Is This Conflict Your Protagonist’s Plot—And Not Anyone Else’s in the Story?
Why is Star Wars about Luke and not Han or Leia? Arguably, both Han and Leia are more interesting personalities. Certainly, a story with Leia in the lead could have mirrored many of the same plot beats and revelations as Luke’s—since they share Force talents and a parental relationship with the hated antagonist who murdered their surrogate families.
Although a story with Leia in the lead could potentially have been just as interesting, it would not have been the same story. The central plot in the original trilogy belongs to Luke because it’s naïve, idealistic farm-boy Luke who starts out as the zero. When the story begins, Leia already seems ten years older than her twin. She’s too experienced and worldly to represent the story’s underlying thematic arc of the journey from Fool to Master. To try to tell anywhere close to the same story from Leia’s POV, you’d have to start earlier in the timeline and completely change her personality.
Han and Leia may have gotten more zippy dialogue than Luke did. But the purity and the power of the Hero’s Journey could only have been represented in this particular plot by this particular protagonist.
More than that, this choice is reinforced structurally throughout the story. Despite the time given to Han and Leia’s subplot, the structural backbone of the conflict is always and obviously Luke vs. Vader—which ties in perfectly with the thematic throughline of Good vs. Evil.
3. What Is Your Protagonist’s Greatest Virtue?
Sometimes it can be difficult to determine what specific offering a protagonist-elect brings to the table. If you think about it too hard, the lines can start to blur to the point where it seems as if the story could be told with just as much interest and power from any POV. Fortunately, there are a couple additional questions you can ask to help you understand a proposed protagonist’s unique offerings.
The first thing to consider is your protagonist’s good qualities. What virtue does this character represent that is not initially present in any other character? It may be the protagonist teaches this virtue to other characters as you go, so think specifically about the contrast between your protagonist and the rest of the cast in the first half of the story.
For example, your protagonist may be kind when all others are cruel. He may be brave when others are cowardly. She may be smart when others are ignorant. He may cling to hope when all others despair.
It’s possible this “virtue” may also encompass a special skill. But skills don’t usually represent theme in the same way as virtues. Whatever the virtue, it should not be random. This character’s kindness, bravery, intelligence, or hopefulness should prove crucial to the development of the plot—either directly or perhaps ironically.
4. What Is Your Protagonist’s Greatest Flaw?
Even more telling is the second question you can ask about your protagonist’s moral relationship to the theme. What is her greatest flaw? To maintain thematic continuity, the flaw/weakness is very often the mirror image of the virtue. It is the virtue taken full circle, to its farthest extreme, to the point where it is no longer admirable or helpful.
The virtue of kindness may arise from a painfully conflict-averse character. Physical bravery may mask emotional cowardice. Intelligence may ride side by side with socially-destructive arrogance. Hope may be blind.
Most protagonists start out with enough good qualities to endear them to audiences (or at least to stoke interest when juxtaposed against less likable tendencies). But those qualities will rarely start out dialed all the way to ten. Rather, when the virtues are held back by a partner flaw, they represent both the possibility and the need for thematic change.
5. How Does This Virtue and This Flaw Directly Influence This Plot—and What Do They Say About Both the Plot and the Protagonist?
In a well-constructed story, the plot will be constructed to initiate the latent change found in the tension point between the protagonist’s specific virtue and flaw. The machine operates only because all the pieces are designed to work together.
When the plot is created from actions arising out of a specific protagonist’s virtues and flaws, you’ll never have to wonder if you’re choosing a thematically-pertinent protagonist. You’ll also never have to wonder if your plot and your theme are organic to one another. When the protagonist is both creating the plot and deriving personal meaning from its events, you know you’ve chosen the right character.