Have You Chosen the Right Main Character to Tell Your Story?
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Main characters can make or break a story’s success.
Oftentimes, the doubts we face as we work to bring our main characters to life can seem endless. Are our protagonists’ well-rounded enough? Are they interesting? Will readers root for them to achieve their goal?
Choosing the right main character to carry the weight of your story is absolutely vital, but knowing whether you’ve selected the perfect protagonist can be tricky — or is it? Truth is: knowing you’ve chosen the right main character for your story doesn’t have to be complicated. Here's why!
Can your protagonist carry the weight of your story?
A successful main character must be able to bear the weight of your story’s plot, but what exactly does that mean? A few things, actually. Let’s break ‘em down:
1. They must have a stake in the story.
As events in your story begin to unfold, is there a strong reason your protagonist gets drawn into them? Perhaps a better question would be: what’s at stake for your protagonist if they don’t get involved? How is the price of inaction worse than the potential consequences of action?
If your main character could just as easily stay out of the mire of your story’s plot — and face little consequence as a result — you likely haven’t chosen or crafted a character who can truly carry the weight of your story’s plot.
2. They must interact with the story’s theme.
Think your story doesn’t have or need a theme? Think again, my friend! Even the most action-driven stories are built on theme, which is just another world for the main subject(s) a book discusses. Not convinced?
Just think of Indiana Jones and its themes of good vs. evil, family, forgiveness, and integrity; or Jason Bourne and identity, corruption, and injustice. Talk about two action-heavy series, right?
Themes define stories — all stories — and so strong protagonists must be able to not only interact with those themes, but interact with them in ways that other characters could not. In other words, it's time to make things personal for your protagonist. Tell a story that only they could tell.
What makes the stakes and themes in a story so important? Simply put, it's the stakes characters face that push them to action, while themes are discussed as a result of that action. So naturally, a character must be able to carry the weight of both of these elements if they're to serve as a powerful protagonist.
But just because a character can carry the weight of these elements doesn't mean they're automatically the right character to serve as the protagonist of your story. There remains one more element we need to discuss...
Does your protagonist have the right perspective?
Your main character is the lens through which readers will see your story, so ensuring they present readers with the right lens is key. But how can you know which character will best serve this vital role? Again, we go back to theme — or, to be more specific, thematic statements.
Oftentimes, authors choose to discuss certain themes in their stories because they want to address those themes head on. What they wish to say about each theme via their story’s plot or character arcs is known as a thematic statement.
As we discussed in our article on themes, authors should not view thematic statements as an opportunity to bash readers over the head with a specific message. Rather, a good thematic statement allows readers to draw conclusions about the story’s themes as a result of the protagonist’s experiences.
Knowing your thematic statement is key to choosing the right protagonist for your story for one simple reason: there are endless statements an author can make about a single theme and only certain characters can make those statements. Let’s talk about the theme of family for example...
Through their main character’s arc, an author can make any of these statements about family:
Family will always have your back.
You should stay loyal to family, no matter what.
You don’t have to maintain relationships with toxic family members.
Your parents’ failures don’t have to define who you are.
Family isn’t always blood.
Families aren’t always perfect, but they’re still family.
So, what statement(s) do you want to make about the themes in your story?
Once you’ve defined your answer, it’s time to consider whether the main character you’ve chosen for your book is truly the best character to relate this thematic statement. If they don’t have the right perspective, they won’t be able to serve as the proper lens and your story’s thematic statement may fall flat. Need an example?
Let’s look at The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
One of the main themes in The Lord of the Rings is the corruption of power. The statement that Tolkien makes about this topic is that even the lowest among us have the power to fight corruption. This is why Frodo, of the lowly Hobbit race, is chosen by Tolkien to carry the Ring — the symbol of corruption — to be destroyed in the fires of Mordor.
If Tolkien had given any of his other prominent characters this role, his story wouldn’t have had the same impact. Case in point? Gandalf is a wizard and a demigod. Aragorn is a long-lost heir to a wealthy kingdom. Gimli is of a race of master craftsmen with great ambitions, and Legolas is of an ancient, powerful race of elves.
None of these characters closely resemble the everyday reader Tolkien was trying to reach. But Frodo is of the simple Hobbit folk. He has no claim to power or fame, no incredible skill. He sets out only with a strong moral compass and a simple desire for something more than what he’s be given.
And that’s why his perspective on the world makes him the perfect main character to carry the weight of Tolkien’s story.
What else makes for a powerful protagonist?
If you’ve chosen a character who can carry the weight of your story — who has a stake in the story’s plot and the right perspective with which to tell the story you’d like to tell — you’ve likely chosen the right main character for your book.
Now it’s time to make sure you crafted a strong main character, one that captivates readers’ interests and drives the story’s narrative. How can you do just that? Simple:
Step #1. Make them human.
Strong characters have depth and complexity. Take the time to create a character who is as real as the people around you. How? Get started with our article on the 33 ways you can write stronger characters or our free video on crafting well-developed characters.
Step #2. Give them a journey.
Strong characters aren’t pushed around by your story’s plot; they push it. How so? By having a strong goal and the motivation to achieve it. So don’t skimp out on plotting a powerful story that only your protagonist could tell.