The protagonist is the most important character of your story. In order to have readers rave about your protagonist—and your story—you have to craft an active one. That’s why you’ll find 4 fundamental steps to craft an active protagonist in this post.
4 Fundamental Steps to Craft an Active Protagonist
The questions that follow may seem very simplistic, but I want you to take some time to think about them.
- Who is the story about?
- What does he want?
- What stands in her way?
- What will the protagonist do about that which stands in his way?
Knowing the answers to these questions will help you craft an active protagonist. Let me tell you how…
1. Who is the story about?
Choosing a protagonist is hard work. There are many criteria that needs to fall into place in order to craft a protagonist that will draw the reader into your story.
Look at the protagonist as being the reader’s guide through the story. You therefore need to offer the reader a good reason why she should care about sticking with her through an entire story.
If you’re still debating on what type of protagonist you want to craft, check out this post on categorizing your characters, this one on heroine archetypes, this one on hero archetypes, and/or this one on antihero archetypes.
A protagonist doesn’t have to be a ”good guy” or even a nice person. She can just as well be an antihero with darker characteristics. All that matters is that your protagonist knows what she wants, knows what is in her way, and know what she will do about it. An active protagonist means that your story has a dynamic energy that moves the story forward, and that’s what you want to be aiming for.
So, at the end of the day, your protagonist should have a clear goal/desire/need that she actively tries to accomplish by overcoming the obstacles that appear in her way—and perhaps even change her tactics and strategy when necessary—to ultimately get into a position where she has the opportunity to accomplish her goal/desire/need in the climactic moment.
If you craft a protagonist with this as a basis, you will have a story that actively unfolds because the protagonist is active, and not because something is happening to her (which makes for a passive protagonist, and that’s not what you should be aiming for).
2. What does he want?
Everybody wants something, and your protagonist’s goal/desire/need should be something he wants badly enough that he can go to great length to acquire whatever it is he wants. If your protagonist want something bad enough, it will drive the story forward. If he doesn’t want anything badly enough to do something to acquire it, nothing will happen in the story that’s worth reading.
Your protagonist may have an external as well as an internal goal. An external goal is a more ”the bigger picture” kind of goal while an internal goal is much more personal to the protagonist. You can also say that an external goal is what the protagonist wants while the internal goal is the reason/motivation why the protagonist wants to achieve the goal.
Examples of external goals: to save the world, to help someone else, to get a job, to build a house, etc. Examples of internal goals: to become a better person, to overcome a fear, to protecting the self, etc.
You can chose to have one or the other; a great external or internal goal can help you craft an extraordinary protagonist as well as a riveting story. However, you can also combine the two. Imagine what you can craft if your protagonist has a powerful external and internal goal that are intertwined. You could drive the protagonist relentlessly, take away the option of turning turn back, give him no choice but to succeed, and through that make him the character that drives the plot forward.
For example: if your protagonists external goal is to overthrow the corrupt government, the internal goal may be to redeem himself for the things he did when he was a part of that government.
Whatever type of goal you choose to give you protagonist, it has to be the most important thing in the world for him.
3. What stands in her way?
This is the key to creating something that’s an essential component to any story: conflict. The story will be boring if your protagonist’s goal is easy to achieve. Your protagonist needs to face challenges and work to get what she wants in order for the reader to keep reading your story. The harder the protagonist is forced to work for her goal, the more will the reader engage with her.
This doesn’t mean that the goal has to be a larger-than-life task. But it does have to be hard for the protagonist to achieve.
The antagonist is the most direct way to set obstacles for your protagonist. While you are crafting obstacles your protagonist is struggling to overcome, you’re also crafting an antagonist that will do whatever it takes to accomplish her goal. These two opposing forces in your story will create great conflict, which is what you’re aiming for.
What will the protagonist do about that which stands in his way?
This is ultimately what defines an active protagonist. He will not stand aside and wait, he will do something about the situation. He wants something bad enough to acquire it no matter which obstacles are in the way. This kind of resolve and determination is often what makes readers care for protagonists.
There will, of course, be moments of doubt and confusion, but what counts is that your protagonist persists. This is what makes readers love certain protagonists.
Think about character you love. Why do you love them?
Why do so many love Harry from the Harry Potter books? Because he won’t stop fighting the dark no matter how many times Voldemort tries to end him.
Why do so many love Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings trilogy? Because no matter how dark it gets, he always tries to look at the world from a brighter, more positive perspective, ultimately becoming the big hero.
In other words, if you don’t have a protagonist that is actively involved in the plot, you risk crafting a passive story that will bore readers. And I know that’s not the response you want from readers.