Episode 6: Who is My Protagonist?


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Episode 6: Who is my protagonist? Transcript

Hi, my friends.

Welcome to Amie Kaufman on Writing, a short podcast that answers one question each week about how writers do what they do.

If you’re a writer, or you’re a reader interested in how your favourite authors craft their stories, then you’re in the right place.

This is Season 1, Episode 6: Who is my protagonist? 

As always, here’s my friend and producer Kate with this week’s question. Hi Kate, how are you?

Hi Amie, I’m good!

This week’s question is from Maya, who says: I’m quite a ways into my draft, and I’ve realized… I think my protagonist might be boring. Maybe someone else is meant to be the star of the show? Maybe I just need to make them more interesting? Do you have any advice on figuring out the right protagonist for your story?

Maya, you’re not alone on this one! It’s actually quite a common challenge. The protagonist—or the main character of your story, the star of the show—is often tricky. There might be an obvious choice—say, you’re writing about a girl who wants to win a reality TV singing competition, your protagonist is probably the girl (or is she—we’ll come back to this) but often it’s less clear than that.

I’ve got two questions I ask myself about my protagonist. I find they can be useful in figuring out who the protagonist should be if I’m starting, but they’re also useful later as a diagnostic tool—if you think your protagonist might be a bit boring, you can ask yourself these questions and use the answers to help spice them up a bit.

So, question one: Who has the most to lose in the type of story you’re telling?

It’s not a story if everything goes well—it’s just an anecdote about a nice day. So we’re looking for someone who has a lot on the line, and who has the potential to suffer a lot of pain. I know that sounds just a little bit horrible, but… well, it is. We’re looking for high stakes, after all.

So we’re looking for someone who needs something. Who really needs it. And there need to be real consequences if it doesn’t happen—as well as the potential for things to go wrong along the way.

Let’s go back to our girl who wants to win a reality TV singing competition. One option would be a girl who’s spent all her life preparing for this. She’s been in choirs at school, maybe she even went to a dedicated music school. She’s been training for years, and she has an amazing voice. This is going to be her big moment. She’s definitely an option. She’s a natural person to follow. And we could definitely get a story out of her—particularly if it doesn’t go according to plan. Maybe on her way out to the stage for her audition she falls over, and she’s so embarrassed and flustered that she screws up her audition? Maybe she gets in on a wildcard but she’s there by the skin of her teeth, suddenly an underdog? Maybe she gets in but has to duet with her ex or something?

There’s a lot we can do with her, but what I want to highlight is that she’s not the only option for your protagonist.

What about someone who has a great voice, but isn’t at that same level as our first girl? Who isn’t quite as talented? But she’s seen every episode of this show, she knows the judges inside out—she’s figured out what to say and how to appeal to them—and though she hasn’t had the chance to rehearse or get any coaching in advance, well… she really needs this. She’s watched every member of her family go into the family business, say they run a dry cleaners, and this is her one chance to change her destiny.

She’s got so much more than her pride to lose, she’s got the capacity to suffer a lot of pain from the setbacks along the way. Her future hangs on this opportunity.

Let’s hit question two. Question two is: Who has the greatest capacity for change. And here, we’re talking primarily about personal change, rather than changing their world.

Perhaps here our first girl wins—if she thinks the only definition of success in life is winning this thing and becoming a star, then perhaps she learns that there’s so much more to it than that. But our second girl could learn that actually this isn’t her only life raft. Perhaps she learns a lot about her family and how much it means to be a part of it, or perhaps she finds a different inspiration. Or perhaps it works and she wins, but learns a lot along the way.

What matters is that there has to be capacity for personal change. If we’re writing a fantasy book about a quest to go get a magical rock from high atop a mountain, the outward pain and challenge no doubt comes from the foes encountered along the way, the trials and tribulations of the travel, the search, and so on.

But if we’re sending a band of heroes off to find that magical rock, then for a protagonist we’ve got to examine their heads and their hearts, and look for the one with everything personally on the line, for the one with the capacity to suffer along the way, and to change who they are in the process. If you’re writing a multi-point-of-view story, which is something we’ll discuss in future seasons, then this needs to be true for all of them.

For one final example, I’ll use the way I thought about this when I wrote Ice Wolves, which is a fantasy for younger readers set in a world where some of the population are shapeshifters, and can transform into wolves or dragons. The wolves and dragons have been at war for years, so when our protagonist—a boy called Anders—turns into an Ice Wolf, and his twin sister Rayna turns into a Scorch Dragon—this is bad news for everyone. Rayna’s actually the more confident and outgoing of the twins. Anders always second guesses himself, hesitates to put his ideas forward, and worries he’s got it wrong. He’s always relied on his sister to choose their path. That means when they’re suddenly separated, he’s got so, so much to lose—his twin, his shield, the person who steers his ship—and he has a huge capacity to change. He made the perfect protagonist for that story.

So, whether you’re choosing your protagonist, or trying to figure out what to add to them to make them interesting:

Do they have more to lose than anyone?

Do they have the capacity to change the most?

Here’s an exercise: If you’re writing, look at your current work and answer these questions for your protagonist. If you’re a reader, pull a couple of your favourite books off the shelf, and answer these questions for their protagonists. Be specific! What will they lose? What change will take place?

And that’s it for this week. Next week, I’ll be back answering a question about how to figure out where your story starts.

In the meantime, I’ll remind you to subscribe, and leave the podcast a review wherever you listen.  It really helps get the podcast in front of new listeners.

You can find me at my website, which is at amiekaufman.com – you can subscribe to my newsletter there, for behind-the-scenes peeks at how I write, and any other news about new books, events or the podcast. You can also submit a question for the podcast on my website. You can find me on instagram at @AmieKaufmanAuthor or on twitter at @AmieKaufman. This podcast is produced by the lovely Kate Armstrong, host of one of my favourite podcasts, The Exploress, which time travels through women’s history one era at a time. You can find her at theexploresspodcast.com.

For now, thanks so much for listening – enjoy your reading, and enjoy your writing.


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