Monday, March 1, 2010

Which Protagonist is Yours?

Is your protagonist just a regular guy? How about a hero? Maybe she's a dark protagonist.

Today I'm going to continue with some of the things that I learned in superagent Donald Maass's class.

He said there are three types of protagonists, the regular guy, the heroic character, and the dark protagonist.

For a story about a regular guy to be interesting, something amazing has to happen to them. Something completely and utterly off the hook, otherwise, there's no story. For instance it would be hard to write a story about a regular guy buying groceries at the store. However, if the regular guy is in the grocery store when a giant earthquake rips a 10 foot gash through the middle of the floor, and he has to hang over the edge to rescue a supermodel that's fallen into the chasm, well, that's a bit more interesting, right?

OK, let's say your protagonist is a heroic character. Let's say they are a cop, or a fireman, or an airline pilot. In this case, you expect crazy things to happen to them, and it they act normally, it's boring. So the cop saves the day by shooting the bad guy, ho hum, the fireman leaps into a burning building and rescues the kid, yeah, heard it a hundred times. It's their job so we expect them to act that way. Get the picture? What makes it a story is if there is something different or unique about the heroes.

Maybe the airline pilot is afraid of heights. Maybe the cop is an opera fan that races motorcycles. Better yet, what if the cop sings opera while racing motorcycles? OK, maybe that's silly, but what if the fireman hated cats?

I'm sure you could come up with a lot more interesting ones, but the point is, heroic characters need a quirk or something different about them so that they don't come out too perfect. Perfect is boring.

The dark protagonist has to be a conflicted character. What does your dark protagonist hate about themselves? What are they powerless to change? What is the one thing that they would like to do better, but what ensures that they can't? There needs to be a struggle or you won't have a story.

Which protagonist is yours? Why are they interesting?


  1. My protagonist is a dark protagonist, a private detective with a messed up past--a former client and lover was killed with his gun and died in his arms--and has just been going through the motions, doing just enough to pay the rent and stay drunk, for the past ten years. Of course a case comes along which gives him his chance for redemption, as well as solving the mystery of who killed Sara.

    Funny, when I started reading this, I thought my protagonist was a regular guy. . .

  2. Cool post! I have a heroic protagonist, and he's got some great perks! I'd really really like to write a conflicted protagonist. That's next on my list!

  3. My protagonist(s) is/are, pretty much, just regular guys/girls. I think it is who they are as individuals, what choices must they make, and the reasons behind the choices is what makes them interesting. The internal struggle versus the outer struggle.


  4. Great post! I recently read Maass's FIRE IN FICTION book and found it so interesting!

  5. My protagonist is a woman. She hurts. Her war-weary soul is wounded. She helped create the new society she lives in, but she still feels alone. She is more than an ex-soldier. She is the personification of free will and individuality. She is femininity wrapped around sleek and dark violence.

    During the bad times, the mad times, her men called her Goddess of War. Her platoon is dead, but their label lingers. Perhaps they were right. Maybe she is the Goddess of War.

    Or, maybe, she's crazy.

  6. My protagonist is dark. A teenage girl who struggles just to love herself.

    However, that's just from one of my story ideas. :)

    Liz H. Allen


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