The Active Protagonist

How do you write an engaging story with a protagonist that is doing more than simply reacting to the villain? 

Short answer: by designing an active story with a protagonist who chooses her path, despite the hardships. 

Creating a protagonist (protag) who is active in her own story is about far more than just your main character. Whether you are a discovery writer (multi-drafter) or plan out every detail of the book before putting a single word on the page (single-drafter), a few crucial elements must exist. 

Act I: Set up

In addition to story-building, clear motivations must be on the page for the protag. 

  • What is your protag’s expectation for her life? Must be certain and specific. 
  • Does she want to become a warrior/mage/thief/assassin? Is he going to be a homemaker or go into a trade? 
    • In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker wanted to be a pilot, like his father.
    • In Eye of the World, Rand Al’thor just wants to have fun at Bel Tine, maybe steal a dance with Egwene.
    • In Mistborn, Vin wants to be free and until then, avoid beatings. 
  • What are the current trajectories for your tertiary characters, and how does this affect the protag? 
    • Han wants to pay his debts and sees Luke as a paycheck. 
    • Mat Cauthon wants adventure and believes he’ll get that with Rand.
    • Kelsier wants to end the Final Empire and helps Vin reach her full potential so he can destroy the emperor.
      • All of these characters work as antagonists for the story protagonists because they try to force the protag to go against his/her own desire or nature. 
      • But it feels more natural coming from friends or frenemies than from the villain. 
      • These relationships set the tone for the story without feeling reactive. 
      • And we love their dynamics. 

However, the best place to create an active protagonist is during the inciting incident. 

  • The Inciting Incident is the major event that disrupts all expectations—up until now—for the protag’s chosen trajectory, and it must change the protag’s sense of self and their place in the world. This as where to establish new goals for the protag to accomplish over the rest of the book. The inciting incident sets the tone of your protagonist’s journey. 
  • What’s the worst thing that could happen to your character? 
  • Must be a visceral, unforeseeable event. 
  • Must be unimaginable to the protag—worst thing come true.
    • Luke’s family is murdered.
    • Trollocs attack the Bel Tine festival in the Two Rivers.
    • Vin uses her Luck, gaining Kelsier’s attention. Though not a “worst-thing-that-can-happen” event, it disrupts Vin’s trajectory. She can no longer be part of her old crew and has to learn to trust again—the one thing she has learned to avoid. 

To be an active participant in the story, the protag must resist this change in his trajectory. Refuse the call—the protag must push back against the new goals. 

  • Luke does not take the lightsaber from Old Ben.
  • Rand resists going with Moiraine after the Trollocs attack.
  • Vin does not trust Kelsier or his crew. She wants out and considers going it alone.

Even though, the hero will take up the call, the resistance to do so makes them an active participant in their journey.

Act I Break:

  • What is the Global Goal? Must be compelling and garner sympathy. 
  • What is your protag’s new short-term plan (Act II goal) to achieve the bigger picture (Global Goal)? 
  • To be an active protag, there must be a plan to achieve the long term goal.
  • Protag must want something strong enough to go on the adventure to fulfill it, but it always starts with something small and attainable.
    • Luke Skywalker wants to get R2D2 to Alderaan, but his Global Goal is to fight the empire as a pilot. 
    • Rand Al’Thor tries to get to Tar Valon and safety, but his larger goal is not to go insane, maybe even be gentled.
    • Vin becomes a noble to fulfill a role in a con, but the ultimate goal is to strike back at the Final Empire and overthrow the Lord ruler.

Act II: Rising Action

This part of the story is a series of setbacks that prevent the protag from reaching the global goal. Here’s a short checklist: 

  • Act II goal must be clear and binary (pass/fail). 
  • Must be visceral consequences for success or failure. 
  • Goal must be seemingly simple or humble. 
  • Protag cannot be trapped or passive. 
  • Consider a ticking clock. Deadlines drive people to action.
  • Lead the protag toward the midpoint-crisis. 

Act II Midpoint:

  • Action must continuously push the story and the stakes up until this pivotal moment in the story. The midpoint is where stakes are intensified for the protag.
  • Direction of the story shifts.
  • Deepen the stakes. 
  • Protag must recognize an inner-flaw that was previously not realized. 
  • New direction requires a different type of obstacle.
  • Reversals/new directions must happen in close proximity for all characters (same scene/chapter if possible).
    • When the Millennium Falcon reaches Alderaan, the world is gone. In its place is the Death Star, which locks onto the Falcon with the tractor beam and takes the ship captive. There is no going to Alderaan now.
    • First Reversal: Rand and company go into Shadar Logoth and get separated. Midpoint: Rand and Mat go to Caemlyn. Rand meets Loial (an Ogier) who gives them another direction to go—The Eye of the World, rather than Tar Valon.
    • Marsh—Kelsier’s brother—is presumably killed. Lord Renoux—the one noble helping Kelsier—is taken by the Inquisitors. The ploy to overthrow the emperor seems to be in jeopardy. 

Act II Break—Crises: 

  • Internal Stakes, what internal struggle is in jeopardy? 
    • Luke wants to be a pilot but needs to use the force to win.
    • Rand does not want to channel the true power (or go insane doing it) but has to learn how to defeat the Forsaken.
    • Vin does not want to trust anyone because she fears betrayal but has to trust Kelsier to learn how to burn metals. Everyone will betray her, as her brother taught her by his own actions. 
  • External Stakes, what are the physical ramifications if the protag fails?
    • If Luke fails, the rebel forces will lose. More people will die.
    • The Dark One is trying to kill/capture Rand. The Forsaken are returning. End Times.
    • Vin could be betrayed and then become enslaved or killed.
  • Philosophical Stakes: What is the philosophical question driving the story? The answer is in doubt here. The “truth” perpetuated by the protag must be questioned. 
    • Must challenge the reader’s sense of reality.
      • SW: Many people believe the Force is a parallel to religion and the struggle between good and evil. Will Luke surrender himself to a higher power (the Force) to achieve his goals?
      • WoT: If Rand channels, he could go insane. Is the fate of the world worth the cost of his mind?
      • MB: Vin must decide, is it worth trusting someone, even though they might betray you or let you down?
  • The Crises is the “all is lost” or “rock bottom” moment. 
    • The protag must be failing or at risk of failing at all three stakes here.
      • In Star Wars, Luke and gang are surrounded by the enemy and trapped in a trash compacter. 
      • In WoT, Mat is on his deathbed, paranoid and feverish. Rand is without many supplies and needs to reunite with Moiraine so she can heal him. Thom Merlin is helping them, but he sacrifices himself to a Fade. 
      • In Mistborn, Kelsier is killed by the emperor. The rebellion failed. Vin goes in to kill the Lord Ruler, herself, and is captured.
  • Reader must ask, “how is the protag possibly able to win now?”
  • Bring out the ugly truth buried in your story.
    • Villain must poke at this ugly truth and illuminate the deepest fears of the protag. 
    • Villain’s logic seems irrefutable. 
      • This is the way. Grow up and realize it.
      • Crucial component: Villain can’t be wrong (risk 2D characters). 
  • Protag must share the villain’s point of view.
    • Luke is enticed by the dark side.
    • Rand is courted by the Dark One.
    • Vin wines and dines with the nobles who have caused so much suffering to her caste (and even falls in love with Elend, a noble). 

Act III climax and resolution

Internal, external, and philosophical conflict must come to a head, which are driven to a climax: The moment in which your protag changes and becomes a better person (hero’s epiphany), or they fail to change and remain stuck as they are. 

  • Best epiphanies are universal—gives a new way to look at the world that is deeper than the villain’s. 
  • Must resolve the philosophical problem set up at the crisis moment. 
    • How is the villain’s philosophy refuted?
      • To avoid tropes, the Villain can’t be wrong, but has to be cynical, petty, or simply shallow.
      • The Villain is looking at the world through an obtuse lens—not wrong, but not wholly right either. 
    • How can the question be answered in a way that is resonant? 
    • It must be felt by both the protagonist and relatable for the average reader.
  • Epiphany leads to success in the philosophical stakes. 
  • Must reach a deeper meaning of the villain’s point of view.
    • In other words, must see beyond the villain’s cynical world-view. 
      • I’m poor, but rich in love.
      • I never left my home town, but adventure means living a happy life.
  • Win or lose, the internal and external stakes are resolved. 
    • Was the war won?
    • Was the town saved?
    • How was the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled?
  • SW: In the end, Luke uses the force and destroys the Death Star. He realizes that he is part of a power greater than himself. He will embrace becoming a Jedi in truth.
  • WoT: Rand seizes the true power and fights the forsaken. In the end, the safety and well being of those he loves is more important than he is. Moiraine reveals Rand is the Dragon Reborn.
  • MB: Vin kills a god and saves her world from tyranny. This would not have been able to become a reality without trust. In this case, Sazed—Vin’s friend—rescues her from prison and helps her reach the emperor, who with his dying breath gives Vin an ominous warning.

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