4 Essentials in Developing Your Protagonist

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Ana Howard | Fiction Novel Editor | Book Editing Associates

pro·tag·o·nist

noun \prō-ˈta-gə-nist\

: the main character in a novel, play, movie, etc.

: an important person who is involved in a competition, conflict, or cause

(Source: Merriam-Webster)


One of the most common mistakes I see in aspiring authors’ novels is an underdeveloped protagonist.  The reader must feel as if he or she knows your leading character well in order to develop empathy and care about what transpires over the course of the book.  Four of the essentials to make this happen are:

  1. Give your protagonist a past.  I’m not recommending long stretches of backstory, but be sure that the reader knows something of the main character’s history that led him or her to the place in time when you open the book.
  2. Make sure your character wants something that drives the novel.  This not only develops character but creates essential tension.  Ask yourself what are this character’s fervent hopes and dreams and desires, and make sure the reader knows.
  3. Paint a vivid inner emotional life for your protagonist.  I don’t mean to suggest long paragraphs telling the reader how he or she feels, but do impart in a subtle and yet clear way how the character reacts to events in the novel.  Make sure that the emotional responses resonate and change as the book progresses.
  4. And finally, draw an arc of character development over the course of the novel.  The protagonist must undergo some kind of transformation, growth and/or gaining of insight.

These, plus the use of vivid descriptions, captivating dialogue, and dramatic interactions will help you make your protagonist memorable.

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