How to Develop a Complex Protagonist | Jane Friedman

How to Develop a Complex Protagonist | Jane Friedman

Photo by Mark F. Griffin

Today’s post is by author and editor Ken Brosky (@Grendelguy).

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the protagonist of your story needs to be interesting and fully developed. We’ve all heard this a thousand times before. It’s why you can find dozens and dozens of character questionnaires around the internet. What does your protagonist like to eat? What are their fears? What time do they go to bed at night?

All these things are good to know. But when you’re ready to plot out your story, I’d recommend zeroing in on a few specific things that are less focused on how interesting your protagonist is, and more focused on how complex your protagonist is. This complexity will drive the plot into far deeper places than your protagonist’s lunch preferences.

1. What does your protagonist want?

If it’s a murder mystery, the answer to this one is probably pretty simple: your protagonist wants to solve the murder. This desire to accomplish something will drive your protagonist to get to the end of the story. It gives your protagonist agency, which is crucial. Many weak stories have protagonists who are simply ushered from scene to scene rather than taking any control over their situation (imagine a horror movie where everyone is literally just fleeing from the killer, or a disaster movie where half the scenes involve people running away from calamity!). Your protagonist must want to accomplish something.

2. What does your protagonist need?

This is a different beast altogether. This is where things get deep for your protagonist. Something is missing. Something they don’t fully see just yet. Your protagonist wants to accomplish something … but in order to accomplish it, they need to change in some meaningful way over the course of the story. If your protagonist starts out as an immature person, they can’t get what they want until they realize this and become mature. If your protagonist starts the story as an alcoholic and they need to get sober, then they can’t accomplish their goal without first achieving this. My favorite example of this is Star Wars. Luke Skywalker wants to take down Darth Vader and the Empire, but in order to do this, he needs to understand what it means to be a Jedi (in other words, he needs to mature and acquire wisdom over his journey). This is why, in The Empire Strikes Back, it was so important for Luke to fail: he got the chance to face Darth Vader, but he hadn’t yet accomplished his need. Luke hadn’t yet matured into a Jedi.

3. What external forces are pushing back?

Your protagonist will always only be as interesting as the forces of antagonism allow them to be. This means that if you throw a bunch of easy challenges at your protagonist, the reader will grow bored and lose interest. The external forces are the obstacles that become more and more difficult as the story progresses. This is why writers often imagine a plot outline as an upside-down V: because we want our protagonist to face steeper and steeper challenges. These external forces will test them and give readers an opportunity to empathize.

4. What internal forces are pushing back?

In Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker must face Darth Vader again. As if that external threat isn’t enough, Luke faces an internal dilemma: he now knows that Darth Vader is his father. He doesn’t believe he can kill his father, and he’s conflicted. This internal conflict is what drives the emotional arc of the third act. Luke Skywalker doesn’t want to face Darth Vader again, but he’s matured and knows that he needs to. Audiences become emotionally invested in the outcome. Your protagonist should also feel internal conflict as they move through the story. and I know that can be a difficult step to imagine! So here are a couple questions to think about as you develop your protagonist:

  1. What hidden faults does your protagonist have? As the writer, you know this person more than they know themself. Use this to identify faults that you can expose in the story.
  2. What hidden strengths does your protagonist have? This can be just as crucial to understand. Over the course of a story, you use external conflict to draw out your protagonist’s hidden strengths.

and there you have it! With these four elements, you’ll be able to create a more complex protagonist and a more interesting story.

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