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Why Protagonists Matter

Stories are all about emotion. There are a lot of tools that can help you connect with readers from the first word. Your voice, the narration style, picking the right beginning. Each of these tools can give you a little time. But the thing that makes them stick with the entire book is that promise of a resolution at the ending. They want to know how it ends. And in order to create that sense of purpose and wonder, you have to give them a reason to care about the ending.

That’s what your protagonist is for. They are the ones who dive into each new fight, who take every twist and turn, who feel every punch and tragedy. The protagonist is that thread pulling forward as the plot pushes back. Without that thread, it is much easier to lose your readers.

One good way to see this in practice is to look at TV shows. Because of the nature of television writing, they often have to change protagonists as the show progresses, actors leave, and other real-world events effect their plans for the show. Some shows can pull this off and others struggle with it.

But one easy way to contrast different protagonists is to look at the CW DC crossover specials. If you aren’t familiar, the CW channel has a massive amount of DC superhero shows: Flash, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl, Batwoman. And once a year they do a crossover special where they put aside the season plotlines of the various shows and make a what is basically a long movie. This crossover special airs in hour long episodes throughout the week, one for each of the shows. Each episode is part of the overall storyline, but it focuses the characters and issues of a single show. For example, the Arrow episode will focus on Oliver Queen, his quest for redemption, and his issues with leadership and forgiveness. The individual episodes usually start with a series of “previously on” scenes that include the storyline of the crossover as well as scenes from the specific show that this episode is focusing on.

I only like a couple of the shows in the CW DC world. I have this thing about time travel stories. They drive me nuts. So I never watch Legends of Tomorrow, which is all about time travel. But since the plotline crosses into each of the shows, I have to watch the Legends of Tomorrow episode in order to follow the storyline. And each time, I get bored during that episode. I have no emotional investment in the Legends of Tomorrow characters and so their problems bore me, even though they’re working hand in hand with Oliver Queen and still fighting the same bad guy as the last crossover episode.

The other characters may still be there, but because they are no longer the protagonist, I am no longer connected to the story.

And that's on TV, where a protagonist is more a matter of choosing which scenes to show and which conversations to focus on. In a book, a protagonist is a much bigger deal. It not only effects which scenes the reader sees, but it’s also the ideas that are presented in the narration, the bias that goes into each description. In a book, the bond between the reader and the protagonist is an even bigger deal.

Balancing Your Cast

That doesn’t mean that your protagonist has to be the most lovable or the most interesting character. They guide the story, but they don’t have to steal everyone’s hearts. One good example of this is the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The first few movies focus on Will and his quest to save Elizabeth. But everyone is really watching for Jack Sparrow. And then in the fourth movie, they made Jack Sparrow the protagonist and the whole movie was meandering. He might have been lovable and interesting, but he couldn’t carry the story. Viewers never knew quite what Jack wanted or quite what he was trying to do. His goals didn't have clear stakes and consequences. Viewers weren't quite sure what ending to root for. And this made for a less compelling plotline than the first three movies.

So don’t be afraid to shape the story around the character who can carry the plot. And then have your other characters be fascinating, and dazzling, and distracting, and lovable. But don’t hand the protagonist role over to them.

About my coauthor:

Ahna Larson is an awesome editor who was a huge help working on this blog post.

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