Who’s Driving Your Story? Two Qualities Your Protagonist Must Possess

Monday, January 23, 2012
by Bonnie Hearn Hill

Vampires? Zombies? Steampunk werewolves? Trying to dream up a fresh plot for a young adult novel can take you to some crazy places. Yet until you have a strong protagonist, you have only a daydream, not a story. This is as true in young adult fiction as every other genre. There are no shortcuts. Not even the most dazzling over-the-top plot can conceal an undeveloped protagonist.

Your protagonists race your plot forward, swerve around obstacles, and yes, sometimes barrel over the antagonists in their paths.

Sometimes the antagonists barrel over them.

Is your protagonist a sleek, nitrous-injected Corvette, or is he a Gremlin so meek and sickly, that even you, the author, feels the need to get out and push?

Think about some of the traits of great protagonists. Are they intelligent? Warm? Giving? Clever? Brave? Those are perfectly good traits, but if they are all you have, you’re running the risk of a perfect character. Have you ever known a perfect person or someone who pretends to be? What happens when you encounter these people in real life? Do you like them? Can you relate to them? Can you stand to spend any time in their presence? Case closed.

If you want to touch hearts and sell books, your protagonist needs only two basic traits. Think for a moment. What two traits can allow you to trust your story with this character you’ve created? These two. Your protagonist must be proactive, and she must be sympathetic.

• Memorable protagonists are proactive.

A strong protagonist protags. That doesn’t mean that he rushes out the door like a modern day Don Quixote. Something happens—a change—that forces him to take action. Perhaps a loved one is in danger. Maybe he’s motivated by money, honor, even a threat. Regardless of how reluctant your protagonist, something compels him to move forward and refuse to give up, win or lose.

• Memorable protagonists are sympathetic.

You want your reader to cheer for and relate to your protagonist. In order for that to happen, that character must be worthy of such attention. In short, your protagonist needs to be sympathetic or at least empathetic.

Sounds easy enough, right? It’s safe to say that an unfeeling tyrant who marches through the countryside searching for orphans to steal is not sympathetic. Yet, it’s rarely that simple. A protagonist who cares for nothing, who feels nothing, or who robotically floats through his life is just as unsympathetic.

Only by revealing the vulnerable parts of his character, the squishy underbelly that most people try to protect, can we allow the reader to feel for him. The protagonist must have a hole in his life, and you must reveal it.

Maybe Mary had to drop out of school to raise little sis. Unfulfilled dreams are an excellent hole. Or she could be in love with somebody who will never return her feelings, which might remind her of how her father always loved the other sister more. A hole in your life is some missing element that both drives and impedes you. You’d better believe that every person on earth has one.

What’s yours? Look around at your friends and family. What are the holes in their lives? What makes them vulnerable? Any person who claims to have it all together, to possess everything he ever wanted, is usually concealing the biggest gaping black hole that ever devoured a galaxy.

Remember, your goal is to reveal the deep emotions that we’re taught as children to hide. Shame. Longing. Envy. Guilt. Those feelings come without words or a thought process, and with the exception of sociopaths, they are universal to the human condition.

Zombies aren’t enough. Great protagonists may possess many qualities, but they must be both proactive and sympathetic. With that combination, you’ll outshine the numerous YA novels limping along on plot alone. Your proactive character will keep the reader turning pages. And that hole in your character’s life will make the reader care.


Author, teacher and public speaker Bonnie Hill worked as a newspaper editor for 22 years, a job that, along with her natural nosiness, increased her interest in contemporary culture. Her novel, Intern wascalled “a page-turner” by Publishers Weekly. Killer Body, a thriller about our weight-obsessed culture, was a Cosmopolitan magazine “pick.” She also wrote three newspaper thrillers featuring hearing-impaired reporter Geri LaRue for MIRA Books, the young adult Star Crossed series, and most recently, Ghost Island, a paranormal love story. Her publication credits include short stories, nonfiction books and articles.

Bonnie's new online class for WOW! Women on Writing starts on Wednesday, February 1, 2012! Sign up now for WRITING CHARACTER-DRIVEN FICTION while there's still space available. For details and enrollment, visit our classroom page.


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