by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
What makes an effective protagonist? There are a lot of theories out there that list a number of critical characteristics, but I think they confuse an effective protagonist with an effective plot. The protagonist is the main character of your story. The plot is what happens to, around and because of your protagonist. And whilst an effective plot must be interesting, goal-oriented, active and full of tension and twists, an effective character need only be two things.
The human brain is a weird and wonderful thing. Most notably, it is hardwired for stories. Readers have subconscious expectations about the key components and pace of a story – years of listening to and reading stories has given them an appreciation of the three act structure: They expect trouble for the protagonist, they expect trouble to intensify, they expect the protagonist to achieve and then have their hopes dashed, and they expect the protagonist to triumph (unless they are reading a tragedy, in which case, they expect the protagonist to fail).
Just as they have a subliminal understanding of the storyline, they also have a precognitive awareness of the protagonist. Interestingly, this understanding of the protagonist is bedded in the word itself. Protagonist is an ancient Greek word that means “one who plays the first part”.
And this is definitely one of the two critical components of a protagonist. They must arrive in the story’s beginning – after all, it is their story. But it’s more than just being early and, indeed, more than just being first.
To be a protagonist, the character must be the first with whom the reader empathises or sympathises. I won’t delve into the semantics of empathy vs sympathy, suffice to say they both are defined as a compassionate response to another undergoing a recognised trial or tribulation.
The protagonist, therefore, must not only appear early in the story, they must also be noticeably suffering from something which elicits an emotional response from the reader. They must be victimised (but not necessarily a victim). They must be suffering – even if this suffering is a) trivial (I missed the train; I broke my watch; My date stood me up; My dog ate my homework) and/or b) in no way relevant to the real trial(s) the plot will eventually throw at them.
I came to this conclusion after watching the first episode of The Newsroom Season 3. Whilst we were first introduced to the character of Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) way back in Season 1 Episode 1, we weren’t given cause to feel sorry for him. He wasn’t suffering – in fact he was the aggressor. And whilst he is, possibly, the central character around which the other characters and plots revolve, for me, he is not the protagonist. I don’t cheer for Will – he didn’t grab my sympathy first (and hasn’t really grabbed it at any stage of the series). For me, the (largely obscured?) protagonist is Maggie Jordan (played by Alison Pill). We meet Maggie a scene later – she’s having a very public disagreement with her dominant and arrogant boyfriend who is trying to weasel out of meeting her parents…again.
Ding, ding, ding – we have a winner.
Now, I don’t like Maggie – she’s kind of neurotic and lets herself get pushed around and sometimes just says things that make me cringe. I don’t relate to Maggie – I would dig a whole through the newsroom floor before I had anything that even remotely looked like a disagreement with my boyfriend in front of my colleagues/boss. I don’t even sympathise/empathise with Maggie in most cases throughout the series – mostly I find her annoying.
But, for some unknown reason (which is now not so unknown), I found myself cheering for Maggie throughout the first episode of Season 3 – much as I had silently cheered for her during the previous two seasons. All because, in that first episode of Season 1, she took pole position in making me feel sorry for her. (Incidentally, it is probably the same reason that I still don’t cheer for her ex-boyfriend, Don. Ever).
And, the “feeling sorry” is key once we consider the three act structure – the whole putting a character up a tree, throwing rocks at them and letting them find their way down. An introduction to a character experiencing an extreme feeling of elation or achievement or confidence can elicit empathy and emotional responses from readers – but it doesn’t predispose us to cheering them on when it is time for them to face their hurdles.
So, forget about making a character likeable or interesting or active – let the plot achieve that for them. Just make sure they turn up early (if not first) in the story and make sure they have a hint of suffering about them with which to pull at our heartstrings.