Tips for a Strong Protagonist – Part III


If you are a dreamer, come in

If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,

A hope-er. A pray-er, a magic bean buyer…

If you’re a pretender, come sit by the fire

For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.

Come in!

Come in!

How’s that for an invitation to today’s post? Okay, I admit that I am not the wordsmith behind that delightful poem. In fact, it belongs to Shel Silverstein, one of my favorite writers as a child. Lately, I’ve found myself revisiting old books I used to obsess over and read again and again growing up, and his Where the Sidewalk Ends is one of those.

Today, I’m continuing on with tips for your “flax-golden” tale’s protagonist, based on lessons I’ve learned along my own artist’s journey. So far, my tidbits have been these:

  • Use sensory descriptions to make your main character come alive to and be cared about by readers.
  • Make sure your M.C. is elevated above the rest of your cast by giving him or her special abilities, attributes, powers, etc.

My third tip is one that I actually had hammered into my head in film school. It’s one that seems so obvious, and yet it’s easy for authors, especially new authors, to overlook it: your protagonist must have a concrete goal that drives the story forward.

In Gladiator, which is a classic, high-concept, Oscar-winning film, Maximus seeks vengeance for the murder of his wife and son. A secondary goal, one might say, is that he avoids having other goals that could distract him from achieving what he’s fighting for. He doesn’t get pulled into politics or wrapped up in a romance with Lucilla; he’s purely focused on bringing justice to that icky Emperor Commodus.

In The Princess Bride, Westley wants to win back Buttercup from Prince Humperdinck and live happily ever after. Not even the Cliffs of Insanity, an R.O.U.S. (Rodent of Unusual Size), or the torturous Pit of Despair can stop him.

Throughout The Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss’s primary goal is to protect her family. Her pretend romance with Peeta, becoming a crowd-pleasing celebrity, and taking on the role as Mockingjay are all steps she must take to keep her mother and sister safe, a responsibility she had even before the reaping changed her life forever.

Diana Anderson-Tyler blog for writers

The purpose of every single scene should be to either push your character closer or farther away from his or her goal. This is where conflict comes into play, because your M.C. shouldn’t be successful all the time. There should be obstacles at every turn, both internal and external.

Again, using Gladiator as an example, Maximus faces an internal obstacle when he suspects Commodus of killing his own father, Marcus Aurelius. His decision to refuse loyalty to Commodus, the new emperor of Rome, leads to the first major external conflict: his family’s execution. Now a slave, he effectively gives up on life until he’s inspired by a riveting speech from Proximo, a former gladiator, and learns that if he fights well enough, he can face Commodus and have his vengeance. But still, his journey isn’t easy as Commodus learns that Maximus is alive (his soldiers lied and told him he’d been killed) and does everything in his power to see to it that he perishes in the arena. Now we have protagonist versus antagonist, each with opposing goals, working against each other, which makes for an excellent watch or read!

I could go on with more examples, but I think you get the idea! No matter the genre you’re writing in, be it romance, fantasy, or action-adventure, your protagonist needs to want something so desperately that they’ll go to hell and back, if necessary, to get it (like Odysseus and Aeneas literally did in The Odyssey and The Aeneid, respectively).

Ask yourself as you enter every scene, “What does my main character want, need, and intend to do about it?” Knowing those answers will ensure that your scene doesn’t meander and serve merely as filler, but rather intensifies the drama and pushes your story toward a satisfying conclusion.


I hope you’ve found today’s tip useful! As always, please comment below with your own favorite pieces of writing advice, and/or tweet me @dandersontyler!

Diana Anderson-Tyler, writing blogger


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