A novel’s protagonist is the reader’s gateway into the experience of your story.
As with all things creative, there’s no one perfect way to construct that gateway. We just want the protagonist to show us why this story matters. Let’s dissect a few alternative approaches for the attributes that are bound to be most convincing—this character’s motivation, a compelling desire, a goal-oriented perspective, and an inner conflict that is itching to be resolved.
1. Show your protagonist in scene on page one.
It is generally accepted that while actively scanning for orientation to your story, your reader will latch onto the point-of-view character you present first. Lisa Barr, in her award-winning novel Fugitive Colors, will show us how this is done—in a prologue, no less. It opens in Chicago:
Yakov Klein slowly ran his finger over the cover of the art book he was about to steal from the library, as a burglar would a precious jewel just snatched from a glass case. Pressing the book to his face, he inhaled the familiar dusty scent of his latest prize: Gustav Kilmt. It was a delicious moment, but one he would have to savor later, in the secrecy of his bedroom once the lights were out and his parents were sleeping. Right now, he had to get out of the library without getting caught.
Right away, Lisa uses sense imagery to evoke within us Yakov’s own forbidden desire. The last sentence attaches stakes to his scene goal. Even without yet knowing why we should care, we are wondering: can he get away with this?
In the next paragraph we see him tuck the book beneath his overcoat and make a beeline to the exit. Then:
From the corner of his eye. Yakov saw a little girl, no more than five, holding her mother’s hand and watching him. He knew what she saw—what everyone saw when they looked at him—the long black wool coat, the tall black silk hat that was still too big, and the payis—long sidelocks—that Jewish custom had required him to grow his whole life. It was a uniform borne of a different century. Yakov, son of Benjamin, raised as an Orthodox Jew, wore some version of the same clothing every day—black and white, a wardrobe devoid of color or change—and he hated it.
That’s why he stole the art book. If truth were told, that was why he had been stealing art books since the week after his bar mitzvah, nine months earlier. He desperately needed color.
Ah, motivation revealed. And “Yakov, son of Benjamin” extends the shame of getting caught to his family as well. Especially since he’s the only child of Benjamin—through overheard arguments, Yakov knows that his mother deals with the shame of being unable to give her husband more children. Then she discovers his sketches.
“I’m afraid for you, Yakov.”
“Don’t be,” he said, sitting up straight, knowing she hated when he slouched. “I’m not afraid.”
“But your father…and the rabbi. It is forbidden. The drawing. You need to study your Torah.” His mother’s tone was stern but her gaze was milky and far away. “You are too young to understand. But passion, dreams of something else, something better—can destroy.” Silent, slow-moving tears began to fall lightly against her cheeks.
Are you still talking about me, Mama? Yakov wanted to ask, but knew better. Instead, he reached for his mother’s trembling hand and held it tightly, protectively, inside his own.
“I won’t tell him,” she promised through her tears. “But you must stop. You must…” Her voice trailed away.
That day, his art and his lies became hers; an umbilical cord of shared but necessary silence.
A page later, when the rabbi challenges Yakov in front of the class (stakes!) about the Klimt book he had been trying to hide, Yakov boldly gifts the rabbi a sketch he had drawn of him, in which “his heavy-hooded eyes bulged not with the wrath of a dissatisfied teacher but with the joy of Morning Prayer. It was an intense, intimate moment that Yakov had captured.”
The rabbi tore his gaze away from the image and stared at Yakov. Known as a man who could scold like a snake and reduce a boy to tears with a mere glare, the rabbi was, for the first time, speechless, that finger hanging limply at his side. There was well over a minyan of witnesses as the rabbi stood in silent awe of his worst student’s God-given talent.
That look was all Yakov needed to confirm what he knew: He was chosen.
Suffice to say that when you hear prologues are discouraged, they aren’t talking about one like this, whose every sentence sets up the motivations that will be hidden by a budding young artist who, six years later and now calling himself Julian Klein, breezes into Paris in chapter one and ultimately makes it his mission to expose Nazis confiscating “dangerous” modern art—including Klimt’s—during World War II.
Motivation: he is an outsider in his own family/community
Desire: to pursue his art
Inner conflict: the very words binding him to his faith—he was chosen—are used to show why he must part with it
Goal-oriented perspective: he needs a life full of color
2. Build up your protagonist before his big entrance.
In A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving chose not to bring Owen on scene right away, but to have our narrator, John Wheelwright, build him up as a bit of a folk hero:
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
In exposition featuring short vignettes, Wheelwright shows us how he and his other friends bullied Owen for being so small; while seated in Sunday school, they couldn’t resist picking him up and passing him back and forth overhead. In one scene, the boys are swimming at the quarry, following Mr. Meany’s rule to always swim one at a time with a rope tied around their waists. When Owen plays a prank by slipping the rope and hiding to watch the boys, he is deeply disappointed that no one panicked and dove for him. Owen complains to his tormentors, his dialogue rendered in ALL CAPS to remind us of the trials of his wrecked voice, yet he never rats on them.
He had such a small strike zone that on the ball field, the coach would say, “Have a good eye, Owen!” which was code for Owen not to swing so the team could rack up a walk—until the day the coach, hoping to end an interminable game, actually tells him to swing. Owen hits the ball so hard it kills John Wheelwright’s mother in the stands.
Through the entire 42-page first chapter, this question from page four continues to resonate:
How could I have known that Owen was a hero?
Motivation: to overcome small stature and weak voice and get people to notice him
Desire: to matter
Inner conflict: he wants to be around the other boys even though he has not yet earned their respect
Goal-oriented perspective: little people can make a big difference
3. Introduce the catalyst of change first, and then bring on the protagonist.
This approach shows that simply bringing a character on first won’t necessarily make her the presumptive protagonist. Here is the opening of Sonja Yoerg’s bestseller, True Places:
The girl knew before she opened her eyes that Mama was gone. She always knew. The air inside the cabin cradled a hollow space, a missing shadow of warmth, an exhaled hum. The absent heartbeat. Early mornings were best for hunting, she accepted that, but loneliness was a heavy cloud to wake up in all the same.
The rest of the chapter shows the wonders and dangers of living deep in the woods as the girl brings along an “imaginary friend” to look for the woman who is key to her survival.
In the second chapter we meet Suzanne, a harried volunteer and mom to two teens, who in many ways has trained her successful husband to rely on her to meet all of their needs. Driving between obligations and hounded by fresh texts, she’s feeling so used up she wonders if she should try to perform tasks more efficiently, delegate more, or refuse to perform. In a pique of frustration, she steers away from her civilized life and onto the Blue Ridge Parkway—she feels the engine’s power beneath her and the fresh air sharp in her lungs—where her trajectory will intersect with the unnamed child from the opening chapter, who will change her life.
I never once thought that the protagonist would be the child. It’s interesting to analyze why.
For one thing, the child’s name isn’t used. Naming Suzanne is a powerful indicator that the girl we will eventually know and care for as Iris is, in the opening, serving as an agent of change.
The girl’s immediate goal to find and save her mother has high stakes, as it raises a question of survival, but think about it: as soon as we learn that Suzanne will dedicate herself to the girl’s survival at the end of act one, that story question will be addressed.
Suzanne, on the other hand, is consumed with concerns that rise higher on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. She comes across as a good person in a relatable crisis, with many people counting on her, and we’ll wonder how her intersection with the girl’s very different worldview will impact her ability to lead a better life. Tucked beneath that is the subplot about whether Iris will ever be able to acclimate to “civilization.” Those are both book-length questions.
Let’s compare our potential protagonists using our rubric.
Motivation: to find her mother
Desire: to end her aloneness
Inner conflict: (not yet apparent)
Goal-oriented perspective: she must find a way to survive
Motivation: to escape her overburdened life
Desire: to self-determine
Inner conflict: she has filled her schedule to please those she loves, but lost herself along the way
Goal-oriented perspective: despite overwhelming responsibilities, she adds another, choosing to personally ensure the girl will be all right
See how there’s more fuel in Suzanne’s story engine?
This last approach shows that we cannot automatically count on a chapter one introduction to spotlight the gateway of your story; that light must also arise from within your protagonist.
As an experiment, set aside your long list of author goals (to show this and explain that) and open your story with your protagonist pursuing a scene goal driven by his own motivations. Show us why this goal matters to him, why it is unfolding in this time and place, and then show us how he reacts when it is complicated. You may find that your protagonist will meet your author goals all on his own, all the while better orienting your reader to the story and effectively gaining her interest.
Which of these approaches appealed to you most as a reader, and why? What additional clues do you see in these examples that make you curious about the protagonist’s journey? Have you ever had to shore up a weak protagonist, and if so, do you have additional ideas to share?
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