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Friday, August 7, 2015

Tip #7 for Fiction Writers: How to Create a Great Protagonist

Tip # 7: How to Create a Great Progatonist    

By Peter Gilboy


Okay, you’ve got an idea for a story. Now you want to make it work in a really winning way. Your first step is the Protagonist.  That’s the leading character in your story. Here is the first tip to making a great protagonist.

Empathy: Empathy isn’t sympathy. Sympathy is when we feel sorry for a person.  Empathy is when we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

Your reader must be able to empathize with—identify with—the protagonist; there must be some shared piece of humanity between your protagonist and your reader.

Your reader should be unconsciously rooting for your protagonist. Getting behind your protagonist. The reader should be able to feel like he or she is in the protagonist’s shoes. This creates a bond between your reader and the protagonist. They want your protagonist to succeed. They want to keep reading to see what happens.

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You may remember Max Dembo. That’s the character Dustin Hoffman plays in the fine film Straight Time.  (I’m using a film here as an example because more of us have seen the same films than read the same books.)

Max is an ex-con. Just out of jail. Yes, a criminal. But we still like him. He’s gentle. He’s vulnerable. He’s a worldly guy. He wins us over with that hesitant, Dustin Hoffman smile.  He also wins over Jenny Mercer who works at a canning factory. Hmmm.

You’ve already figured out that Max doesn’t go straight. And he can’t, not after he handcuffs his parole officer to a highway divider, with his pants down, no less. Oops.  But we love him for it, don’t we. Max has been treated badly by the parole officer, and now the guy gets his due. We are for Max. We are with him. We want things to work out. We empathize.

Now Max is on the run, and he’s back to his old tricks. He robs a market, a jewelry store, and even a bank. But we are still with him. Yes, we like the criminal. We feel his tension. We feel his need. His tension becomes our tension. We root for him to get away with it, with all of it.  How does it work out?  No spoilers here.  You’ll have to get the film.

This means that your protagonist doesn’t have to be a goody-goody.  Vito Corleone wasn’t a goody-goody.  Nor were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Certainly not Jack Bauer. You could make a list. But what they all have in common is that we can ‘relate’. We can empathize. We actually like them. There is humanity there for all of them.

Or take Jodi Picoult’s fine novel House Rules.
Here there are a number of protagonists:
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Emma, the mother coping with a teenager with Asperger’s.  Are you a parent? Does your kid have a problem? Then you’ll understand. 

Then there’s Jacob, the teenager with Asperger’s. He can only think literally. No nuances. You can’t say “Catch you later” or "Give me a break," because he'll take it literally. No exceptions. And Jacob is a budding crime buster. With his special mental acuity, he figures things out that the police can’t. We like him. We love him. So endearing, he wins us over.

Oh, and don’t forget Theo, the brother who is always in second place next to his brother Jacob with all his special needs. We like Theo too.  Except that he was at the crime scene also. He’s not perfect, just like we’re not perfect. We can relate.

And Rich, the kind detective who learns to be a better detective from Jacob. And then he has to accuse Jacob of a heinous crime. And arrest him. We feel divided, just like Rich does. We are torn too. Oh, and did I mention that Rich is attracted to Jacob’s mother, Emma?  Hmmm, how will that work out?
4 protagonists that we care about even though they are in conflict with one another. We understand each. Each has a piece of humanity that we relate to. It’s our humanity. And it all goes toward a great story.
In your next read, or even you next movie or TV show:
1.     Identify the protagonist right off
2.     Actively observe your feelings toward him or her.
3.     Observe how the writer coaxes us to like the protagonist. (Or fails to)
4.     At what point or page are we “in”; that is, at what point or page do we finally relate?  Or not relate? 
 Adam Snow reveals who Madeleine really is.
Adam Snow reveals who
Madeleine really is.
5. Examine how your feelings toward the protagonist affect your enjoyment of the book. 
6.  And check how do your feelings change from the first page of the book through to the end. 
That’s yet another conscious step toward building a better story, writing a better book.

Thanks for reading. More Protagonist tips to come.    

Peter Gilboy is a former ditch digger, short order cook, bartender, truck driver, soldier, counselor and academic.  He has been in jail only once. Peter almost always takes his meds.  
His website is    You can contact him at

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