Lessons Learned: Writing the Protagonist

January 9, 2018 7:53 am Published by

When I began Running Man a year and a half ago, I didn’t really have a plan for it. Later when I began The Spark, I had a better idea of what I wanted. And I think this shows through the most in how I wrote the main characters. Here I’ve assembled some tips and notes for writing a protagonist.

Before we start, some introductions: Running Man centers on the Werewolf and the Ghost, two monster folks living together in a dystopian city. The Ghost is annoyed by a mandatory evacuation, distrustful of the city’s guards, and curious about the “spark” – whatever that is. As for the Werewolf, there isn’t much to say about him, despite him being the other protagonist and slightly more prominent than the Ghost.

The Spark focuses on three neighbors: Metti the devil, Piper the harpy, and Vinny the vampire. These three evacuated at the same time the Werewolf and Ghost did in Running Man. In The Spark, Metti and Piper play the most prominent roles as protagonists as they try to uncover information about the mysterious “spark”.

What is the protagonist’s goal?

Giving the protagonist a goal immediately makes them more compelling. They are no longer just a body performing actions – their goals give them thoughts and motivations, which is more interesting to readers.

The first major difference in these stories is the goals of the protagonists. Let’s look at Running Man first. The Werewolf has no goals. His goals are whatever suggestions he takes from the Ghost, but ultimately he has no motivation for what he does. We learn nothing about him throughout the story. The Werewolf could be anyone. The Ghost may have a goal – it’s their idea to question the evacuation and try to learn what the spark is, but their reasons for wanting this are not clear in the story. We have virtually no insight into these characters as people.

In The Spark, the three friends discuss their motivations. Metti’s reason for wanting to know more about the spark is, at least on the surface, altruistic. She says that even if the three of them aren’t badly affected, this event disrupts other people’s lives. Piper indicates that the evacuations interfere with her job. Vinny isn’t as motivated as these two, but eventually agrees with Metti’s reasoning.

The Spark’s two main protagonists immediately have a reason to want to find out more about the spark and possibly stop it. They have reasons and some motivation for what they’re doing, which the Werewolf doesn’t clearly have. The characters of The Spark have the appearance of thought, making them seem more like believable people – and thus more compelling.

Active and passive protagonists

How these characters function in their story is probably the other major difference. The Werewolf may seem like he moves his story along as an active protagonist, but he really doesn’t – the Ghost does, and the Werewolf follows their prompts, serving as more of a passive character. The Ghost is literally whispering in his ear the whole time, and he follows along. If anything, the Ghost is the active protagonist who guides the passive Werewolf.

In The Spark, Vinny is somewhat passive – he only does anything because Metti convinces him. Metti and Piper are more active characters, motivated by their own wants and needs. Although the story starts with the spark evacuation, these two characters continue to push the plot along themselves instead of being pushed like the Werewolf. Metti decides to distract the guards and lies her way in and out of an investigation, and Piper sneaks around, listens in, and picks up useful details. These characters put in most of the work for progressing their own story.

Moving the story

As discussed, the protagonist often has a want, need, or goal. We can see this The Spark but not in Running Man, and it contributes to how the protagonists were represented. Metti and Piper express wants and needs which drive them to actively move the story along. Vinny doesn’t worry about the spark until Metti points out others’ wants and needs, at which point his guilty conscience pushes him to help out. He’s not the most active of the three, but he shows some signs of a moral code or empathy that can drive him to act.

The Werewolf, as mentioned earlier, really has no goals and we ultimately know little about him. Despite his cheery demeanor there appears to be nothing below the surface, good or bad. The Ghost appears to be motivated in some ways, based on their distrust of guards and questioning of the spark. We don’t learn about their exact motivations, but they are implied by how they push along the story.

Building the protagonist

Even when we don’t know a character’s exact motivations, we can see them when the character actively participates. Why does Metti care about the other citizens? Why does the Ghost question the spark? We don’t know, but their actions show that they must have reasons. This makes them somewhat compelling and opens up the door for further character development and exploration. If you’re like me and didn’t put too much thought into the character, it’s still possible to build them up based on how and why they move the plot.

And perhaps you can even develop a passive character into an active one. I’m still planning next year’s comic – maybe I will find a way to return to the Werewolf and force him into an active role. Maybe his passiveness, always listening to the Ghost, is his flaw that he must overcome. Maybe he must discover his own goals and motivations and find out who he is.

Perhaps this is the final lesson on protagonists for now: you don’t have to write your protagonist perfectly from the start. As you tell stories, you will find out what works and what doesn’t. You may even be able to turn writing flaws into story strengths! And if not, you can apply what you’ve learned to the next story. You just have to resolve to learn more and keep making stories.

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