Lessons from “Story” – Part II: What Every Protagonist Needs

Welcome back! Last week I talked about the importance of “getting intrinsic” with your writing, that is, knowing and exploring the inherent, overarching message that sits at the heart of your story. This week, I’m going to touch on the number one character in your book, the one whom your audience should empathize with and root for most: the protagonist.

Think for a moment about your favorite protagonists from any work of fiction, be it novel, short story, play, or film. If you want, choose three or four and write down their names. Here are a few of mine:

  • Maximus Decimus Meridius (from the movie Gladiator)
  • Anne Shirley (from Anne of Green Gables)
  • Jo March (from Little Women)
  • Logan/Wolverine (from the X-Men movies)

Do you have your favorites in mind? Terrific! Now, write down why you’re such a fan of them. I won’t bore you with the reasons I love Maximus, Anne, Jo, and Wolverine, but suffice it to say, I admire their courage, their inner strength, fire and ferocity, their boldness. These traits are easily perceived and therefore easily identifiable. But, as story expert Robert McKee argues, there is something going on within each of these likable main characters that captures my attention and wins my love even more: their arcs.

Writing blog on character arcs by Diana Anderson-Tyler


The term “character arc” is well known to us writers. After all, we’re well aware of what an arc is, and logic tells us that a character arc simply suggests a rising journey a character takes from one point to another. Granted, this “rising” journey doesn’t mean our character is always on an emotional, intellectual, or spiritual high, defeating internal demons, destroying external foes, discovering her (or his) true self – we need conflict, and plenty of it, to shape her into the overcoming hero we need her to be. Rather, the rise of the arc symbolizes the overall effect of our protagonist’s quest; it represents evolution.

Character arcs are vital to good storytelling because they are slices of the story shared by all humanity.

Going back to the protagonists you listed earlier, think about their individual arcs. Maximus, for example, shifted from being a beloved general uninterested in politics whose sole desire was to return home to his farm to a beloved gladiator fighting for the wellbeing of Rome. In the first X-Men movie, Logan (Wolverine) is a hostile loner who seems more beast than man. As the story progresses, however, we see his hard shell begin to crack as he comes to care for his fellow X-Men and becomes invested in their cause.

These and thousands of other character arcs are celebrated because they reflect mankind’s age-old passion for redemption, for heroism, for defying impossible odds, for good triumphing over evil, for conquering the enemies, both within and without, that keep us from realizing our full potential.

Think of The Iliad, for example, an epic poem penned thousands of years ago that high schoolers still study and enjoy every year. It is ever resounding and ever relevant because its main character, Achilles, a warrior of wrath, brutality and bitterness, is also revealed to be a man well acquainted with grief and anguish. He slaughters because of his own inner wounds, wounds that only just barely begin to heal when he commiserates with Priam, the enemy’s king. We can all, on some level, identify with him. He’s a man consumed with animosity and unbridled emotions he cannot control. We read his story because we want to see if and how he prevails, because we want to do the same.

Quote on Characterization via Diana Anderson-Tyler

Wherever you are in your writing process, stop and ask yourself these three questions:

1.) Where is my protagonist beginning internally?

2.) Where is my protagonist ending internally?

3.) Who does my protagonist portray herself to be on the outside, and how does this contradict who she is on the inside?

Taking time to think beyond the external components of your main character’s opening and final scenes (things like setting, minor characters, descriptions, cool plot devices, and outer conflicts) will ensure that he or she is rounded rather than flat, deep rather than shallow, and original rather than cliché.

I hope you’ve found this post helpful! What are your thoughts on creating compelling character arcs? Leave a comment below or tweet me at @dandersontyler. I would love to hear from you!

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