Creating a Compelling Protagonist

Authors Alana White and Patricia Hudson tackled this topic at the June 2023 Historical Novel Society conference headlining with this question: Who will take your story from good to great?

As always, I took notes! Alana White began with these concepts:

  • the key to creating compelling protagonists is emotions and plumbing the deep emotions of your characters
  • you have to discover – or invent – where the human heart of your character is in conflict with itself
  • a key question to ask as you lay the foundations for your novel: what does your character want and why? Other key questions: what are your characters core needs? How far will they go to defend those needs?
  • The notion of obstacles – including the obstacles presented by the character him/herself – must drive every scene and every chapter.
  • and of course, the stakes have to be high for your protagonist
  • Other aspects to consider about your main character:
    • what has happened to them in the past that shapes who they are and what drives them?
    • what are their most important relationships?
    • how are those relationships tested?
    • what choices do they make and why?
    • to whom do they reveal their most private thoughts?

Patricia Hudson offered her six best tips:

  • choose your protagonist very carefully and be aware of the potential need for sensitivity readers. I used sensitivity readers when writing The Admiral’s Wife since one of my characters was Chinese American.
  • find the most effective point of view – POV – for you protagonist – first person, close third person, distant third person (award-winning author Emma Darwin has an excellent series of posts on point of view).
  • where’s the trouble? Begin at a major inflection point in the main character’s life.
  • Introduce your character carefully – definitely not with an ‘info dump’ – and gradually bring in more details.
  • ask yourself the question: what does my main character yearn for, what drives them. Fiction is the art form of human yearning.
  • be meticulously organized in your research.

A few other points:

  • trouble needs to occur early, for example on the first page or paragraph. Film and TV have affected the need for such immediacy in fiction.
  • the first few sentences of a novel set up the promise for the reader – what kind of story this will be.
  • give significant attention to creating your antagonist. This character has to be a worthy adversary for your main character. Authors must also plan out the antagonist’s role and actions with care.
  • For every scene, ask what role the scene is playing in the protagonist’s journey.

I hope these notes are of interest to readers and writers alike!

Alana White’s novels include The Sign of the Weeping Virgin and The Hearts of All On Fire, books one and two of the Guid’Antonio Vespucci Historical Mystery Series. Patricia Hudson is the author of Traces – a novel about the Boone women.

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The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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