Defining Your Protagonist . . . or Keep It Simple, Stupid!

It’s common practice for writers to begin their story world and all it entails with protagonist design: how tall or short they are, how fat or thin, young or old, the color of their hair and eyes, their gender, and such and such.

But all that fancy window dressing is just meaningless physical description if it doesn’t affect the plot.

Or if asked of their story (and this is prevalent with beginning writers) they’ll present a loquacious description of the protagonist’s physical world: its exotic flora and fauna, its various native races and alien species, its contesting political intrigues as well how the ruling classes have divided the countries, and such and such.

Which also doesn’t matter if it doesn’t affect the plot.

Nobody cares how interesting your world, be it a water planet where everyone lives under the sea and eats seaweed farts, or a desert planet where humans have wings and drink tears from the crying sentient clouds, or whatever else floats your imaginary boat, if your protagonist is ill-defined because you’ve spent too much time world-building (you know who you are: making colorful maps, and endless lists of family trees, blah blah blah . . . 99% of which no readers will ever even see) and not enough effort creating a great protagonist with a clear goal and defined consequences.

This is called Procrastination, the sinister bane of amateur writers, and though you may feel as if you’re being productive spending countless hours drawing your protagonist until you sketch then color their perfect coiffure and precise drape of clothes, what you’re really doing is falling victim to your subconscious tricking you into believing you’re being productive when you’re not.

World-building is not writing.

Tallying endless lists of perfect protagonist names is not writing.

Drawing and coloring beautiful maps of their fantastic world is not writing.

Writing is writing because writing produces results.

And when it comes to designing your next great protagonist, the best place to start is with the recipe of two simple steps:

1. pick the best adjective which describes your protagonist’s personality.

2. pick the best noun which describes your protagonist’s occupation or profession.

Take your time and choose the best two, as these two descriptors are the core of your protagonist, because your protagonist is the core of your story. Strip everything else of them away and these two basic qualities remain intact. They provide the foundation upon which everything else of your character and their story is built.

When considering your protagonist’s personality, imagine their flaws and virtues then pick the dominant quality that sets them apart from the rest of your cast. Choose wisely as per how it affects the main conflict of the story as well their character growth arc, be it virtue or vice.

And when considering their occupation or profession, limit yourself to what they do for a living or how they earn that which sustains them. Think: job. Don’t complicate it by trying to over-explain everything about your complex protagonist; that’s what your story is for to reveal. Trim the fat and be concise. Yes, we are so much more than just how we earn our means of financial sustentation, and our job is only a small part of who we really are, but if I stopped you on the street and asked you what you do for a living your instinctual response is your job and not that soul-smiling butterfly-flutter passion ruling your heart of hearts. Same too your protagonist.

For both core qualities it’s best to adhere to the law of K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

The K.I.S.S. method breeds simplicity, and beginning with the bare bones basics allows that everything you add afterwards only complements their character.

Think of yourself the baker and this process as making a delicious cake because everybody likes cake. A cake has three parts: the sponge, the icing, and the toppings.

Let’s start with the sponge, or the two core descriptors of your protagonist. First a personal adjective and an occupational noun:

A plucky farmboy . . .

A hapless boxer . . .

An aquaphobic sheriff . . .

Second, add to your protagonist sponge the icing gist of the main conflict of their story, your protagonist’s primary story goal, beginning with Must:

. . . must prove his worth against the world heavyweight champion in a once in a lifetime bout . . .

. . . must overcome his fear of water and kill a man-eating shark terrorizing the local swimmers . . .

. . . must join the Rebel Alliance and master the mysterious ways of the Jedi Force . . .

The third ingredient is the death stakes toppings involved if your protagonist fails to achieve their main story goal, beginning with Or Else:

. . . or else the man-eating shark will continue its voracious slaughter of innocents without end.

. . . or else the evil Empire will use its planet-destroying Death Star to eradicate the Rebel Alliance and rule the galaxy through uncontested militant tyranny.

. . . or else he’ll live the rest of his miserable life a disrespected failure.

Then you join the ingredients into what is called a logline, a one sentence description of your overall story minus everything unimportant (ergo anything that doesn’t affect the plot):

An aquaphobic sheriff . . . must join the Rebel Alliance and master the mysterious ways of the Jedi Force . . . or else he’ll live the rest of his miserable life a disrespected failure.

A hapless boxer . . . must overcome his fear of water and kill a man-eating shark terrorizing the local swimmers . . . or else the evil Empire will use its planet-destroying Death Star to eradicate the Rebel Alliance and rule the galaxy through uncontested militant tyranny.

A plucky farmboy . . . must prove his worth against the world heavyweight champion in a once in a lifetime bout . . . or else the man-eating shark will continue its voracious slaughter of innocents without end.

Now I don’t know about you but something doesn’t taste quite right with these story cakes. We’ve combined the proper ingredients though perhaps to the wrong recipe, you say? And I concur. So let’s whip up another batch and bake three more:

A plucky farmboy . . . must join the Rebel Alliance and master the mysterious ways of the Jedi Force . . . or else the evil Empire will use its planet-destroying Death Star to eradicate the Rebel Alliance and rule the galaxy through uncontested militant tyranny. (Star Wars: A New Hope)

A hapless boxer . . . must prove his worth against the world heavyweight champion in a once in a lifetime bout . . . or else he’ll live the rest of his miserable life a disrespected failure. (Rocky)

An aquaphobic sheriff . . . must overcome his fear of water and kill a man-eating shark terrorizing the local swimmers . . . or else the man-eating shark will continue its voracious slaughter of innocents without end. (Jaws)

Ahh, there we go. Each bite is scrumptious in our tummies since we’ve followed the appropriate recipe with tender loving care.

Because we’ve kept it simple, stupid.

Everything else you add to this basic recipe only complements your protagonist and their tasty story.

Happy writing!

adronjsmitley.blogspot.com

Essential plotting guide for Plotters and Pantsers! Amazon: $6.99 paperback, $2.99 digital, or FREE with Kindle Unlimited!

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Blog for writers on everything plot, character, and story structure architecture at: adronjsmitley.blogspot.com

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Adron J. Smitley

Blog for writers on everything plot, character, and story structure architecture at: adronjsmitley.blogspot.com