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.