Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Basics for a worthy protagonist {aimed at NaNoWriMo writers especially}

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 29•21

Thousands of writers around the world are getting ready to buckle in for NaNoWriMo, an accountability community and method for writing 50,000 words during the month of November. Fifty thousand words of a novel, that is.

No matter your writing level, your story needs a kickass main character. Now, I don’t mean you need a brawler, a bully, or beast to headline your story–instead, you need someone who readers have never met before. An unforgettable someone who fascinates and captivates.  Someone who readers can care about, empathize with.

A story person who can carry the weight of the storyline.

Create a worthy protagonist: 

A fictional person who is about to face some of the most interesting events and hardest challenges of his or her life. Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice is a good example.

A protagonist who has skin in the game. Elizabeth’s situation–living with her family because she has no means of support–means she is in an inescapable position.

A character you can pile on troubles and miseries and he or she won’t topple. Well, maybe topple, but then is capable of rising again to face the challenges of the story events. This means your protagonist can stand up to his or her opposition, enemies, and travails, however difficult.

A character with realistic and possibly relatable flaws. In Pride and Prejudice Lizzie Bennet possesses a sharp tongue that matches her quick wit, but she’s also prone to jump to conclusions {prejudice} and might be prouder than is good for her…

A character who is complicated and complex, which in turn leads to inner conflict. This means protagonist battles his/her circumstances hindered by his or her personality, nature. 

Use characters with significant histories {backstory} that cast a shadow onto the present. Typically this means past traumas or troubles that somehow mess with his/her ability to face the story conflict and hardships. In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet’s family is dysfunctional, in that the father is uninvolved and distant, their mother is an ambitious busybody, and her younger sisters will chase any man in a uniform. Which is going to lead to a scandal that the family might not recover from.

Lizzie’s older sister Jane is typical of a woman of her times–Regency England–who seems to accept society’s norms and has a sweet disposition. Oh, and low expectations. Lizzie, on the other hand, is different from her sisters–a reader, a dreamer and yet a realistic type because she’s aware of her family’s flaws and disapproves of her father. But importantly, she’s a woman who will not marry unless her beloved is a perfect match.

But the ultimate backdrop for this story comes from England’s inheritance laws. The family’s five daughters unable to inherit their family estate because they’re female, which creates a threat that hangs over the story. All stories need an overarching threat. Think worst-case scenario. Here’s an excellent explanation of the Regency English era.

Fiction typically, but not always, is told from the protagonist’s viewpoint. The pov character is the reader’s entrée into the story world, the lens we view the story through. The prideful Lizzie provides access into society’s norms and expectations for females. Thus, she serves as a reflection of the story’s themes and premise. {It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune, must also be in want of a wife.}

If Pride and Prejudice was told from elder sister Jane’s or Lydia’s viewpoint it would be a far different tale. Less complex and involving, since Jane isn’t exactly a firecracker and 15-year-old Lydia’s agenda is all about romance with a dashing soldier, Mr. Wickham. No matter that his agenda is ungentlemanly at best. Then there’s the matriarch, Mrs. Bennet,  who is well aware of the unfairness of inheritance laws and is determined her daughters will be married because that’s all the security they can hope for. While Mrs. Bennet is realistic, it’s doubtful she’d provide an honest perspective.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart


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