1. The leading character, hero/heroine of a drama or other literary work.
2. The leader of principal person in a movement, cause, etc.
A protagonist used to be known as the first combatant. While this may remain true in some cases, most protagonists these days are reluctantly dragged into the fight (see Wolverine from the recent X-men movies). So if that doesn’t make or break a protagonist, what does? Today we’ll be talking about depth of character, character development, life before your novel and being passive or reactive versus being an active protagonist.
Depth of character is important for all characters, regardless of what kind of writing they’re a part of or how big of a role they play. However, it is of ultimate importance that your protagonist be realistic and easy to relate to. This means you must have depth of character, which is something that is solved by a thorough means of creating characters. Now, I’ve discussed this topic ad nauseam in the article Creating Characters, so I won’t go into it too much here; I’ve also discussed common tropes that have to do with protagonists in my earlier article Clichés and Tropes, which includes white knighting and even bad boys. All of this information is important to creating a great protagonist. So where have you seen a good depth of character in a protagonist? Katniss Everdeen comes to mind—she’s conflicted, sure, but you know every step of the way why she’s conflicted and what, exactly, she’s conflicted about. Girls everywhere relate to her and are able to emotionally connect with her character.
Next is character development—if your hero is a static character then there is no moral to the story. There’s nothing learned, so therefore the audience doesn’t have anything revealed to them. So it’s best to have your overall plot cover some kind of lesson for the protagonist to learn. Sometimes that means more than one development in their character and other times it just means one revelation is enough. Most of the amazing works of our time have the character learning a lot, though not all at once. Take, for example, Pippin Took from Lord of the Rings: he grew up a lot during the ordeal including surviving during combat, thinking before acting and how to deal with loss.
Life before your novel is important for a protagonist—if they didn’t have a life before your novel then what is their starting point? Sure, some give you a little shot of the birth of the hero, or them as an infant before jumping forward (Superman; Harry Potter), but they don’t cut out the middle bits. There was development in between. There were stories and instances there that aren’t necessarily involved in what is happening in the novel you are currently writing. So how do you make these known? J.K.Rowling did a wonderful job of mentioning things in passing—memories Harry had, or something that reminded him of his cousin. That’s the best way to incorporate these into your story, to make reference to them without going into depth.
Having a passive or reactive protagonist in the beginning is quite alright, perhaps that’s your character development point. But leaving a character that way, so they never go out of their way to take control of their actions and portray an active role in making the world a better place (they’re the heroes, come on you know this is what they do) won’t a protagonist make. Once a protagonist makes their goal into defeating the antagonist, creating peace in their world or whatever that particular piece has them doing for the resolution of the plot, then they have become an active protagonist. Behind an active protagonist is active supporters and certainty, a motive for achieving their goal. This ties the character together in a way that makes everything leading up to this point make sense. It gives the novel a sense of completion. This can be seen in Tally Youngblood in Uglies: she only reacts to things done to her, until the end of the book, when she begins to take control and make some of her own moves.
All in all, your protagonist must have a life before your novel takes place, depth of character and character development during the novel and at some point during the story of the character, they should achieve an active role as the protagonist. The hero makes or breaks the story, since they are the main character(s), so make them into a whole person—it’s what your writing deserves.