Tips for a Strong Protagonist – Part I

Tips for a Strong Protagonist - Part I by Diana Tyler


Katniss Everdeen. Tris Prior. Celaena Sardothien. Scout Finch. Jo March. Kara “Starbuck” Thrace. (any Battlestar Galactica fans out there?) What do these fictional heroines have in common? They’re, as aforementioned nouns suggest, heroic. They possess atypical traits and talents that set them apart from their peers, attributes that propel them toward a daunting destiny for which they will be tested, tried, and nearly torn apart.

[Tweet “Protagonists possess atypical traits and talents that set them apart from their peers”]

Katniss (The Hunger Games), for example, has mad archery skills, and she’s incredibly resilient and self-sufficient, to name a few of her heroic characteristics.

Tris (Divergent) is selfless and fearless and, well, divergent, not fitting in and yet using this uniqueness to her advantage.

Celaena (Throne of Glass) is a fierce warrior with a hard shell, but deep down she has a soft heart yearning for justice in her world of Erilea.

Scout (To Kill a Mockingbird) is a free thinker with wisdom beyond her years, and she stands up for herself, even fighting a boy who insults her family.

Jo (Little Women), like Scout, is unladylike and doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind. She’s ambitious, crazy about books and creating literature of her own, and is true to herself, even turning down rich, good-looking, good-hearted Laurie because she doesn’t love him.

Finally, Starbuck (I had to throw her in, even though she’s a TV character!) is just plain badass. I mean, come on… She’s the best pilot on Galactica, can hold her own in both heated card games and brawls with the boys, and takes out “fracking” Cylons. She proves women can be just as tough as the men (in her case, tougher!). Like many of the other heroines listed above, she is deeply flawed with a dark past, yet is able to draw strength from her weaknesses, embracing a never-say-quit mentality.



If you read my last series on my experiences with rejection, then you know that the most common criticism I received from editors regarding my first novel Moonbow: The Colors of Iris was that my titular character, Iris, felt distant. This is no small problem! When we think of our favorite film, TV, and novel protagonists, “distant” is definitely not an adjective we use to describe them. We relate to them. We root for them. When they hurt, we hurt. We care whether they live or die. We feel close to them.

Thankfully, I found an incredible freelance editor who helped me whip my manuscript into shape, something I should have done before I let my agent send it to publishers, by the way… (#liveandlearn). Right off the bat, she identified a very specific problem with Iris, then gave me a practical solution on how to remedy it.


Problem: “Iris seems to have little to no physical presence in each scene. By this I mean that she does not feel as if she is physically located in the settings of the story. She feels more like a narrator hovering around observing things rather than someone physically present in the scene.”

Solution: “Give Iris a stronger relationship to her surroundings. Engage the reader’s senses.”


No longer did I feel entirely overwhelmed by the prospect of giving my M.C. a total makeover. My editor had given me very specific feedback and a particular task I could take on in as I set to work on Iris 2.0. I opened up a Word Document, copied and pasted my manuscript into it, and began to explore Iris’s world and how it affected her five senses. As I did this, I started to feel pulled into Petros (the story’s setting) and, indeed, felt I was connecting with the orphan-slave who lived there.

One of my favorite sensory experiences to describe was the feeling of fire churning in Iris’s palms, and then shooting out of them, like mini meteors, toward their target. (By the way, giving Iris a distinguishing talent (a.k.a. superpower!) was my next mission, which I will discuss next week in Part II!)

Here are a few excerpts to show you how I used tactile descriptions to make Iris a bit more 3D:


“My hands feel like they’re going to explode. I cry out in pain and shake my arms as though they’re covered with vicious bees.”

“Two fireballs, the size of my fists, sizzle and hiss through my skin, then soar through the air, arcing over the water like shooting stars and landing with a crackling roar in the center of a Juniper’s trunk.”

“I feel the heat inside me, beating in my heart, burning in my lungs, but it isn’t the same. I turn my hands over and see only pink flesh still cooling from their exhibition at Okeanos. I grit my teeth, close my eyes, and flex every muscle in my body, trying so hard to conjure the doma that I make myself lightheaded.”


Today’s takeaway: Make your protagonist present by using sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch to draw the reader into their experiences. When you read, take note of how authors do this with their characters, and keep a list (I have one in my phone) of powerful verbs and adjectives you can incorporate into your imagery.

[Tweet “Make your protagonist present by using sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch to draw the reader into their experiences.”]

I hope this has been helpful to you and your work-in-progress! What are some of your favorite tips for making your protagonists pop off the page? Please comment below or tweet me @dandersontyler!








Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge