Settle in, Grasshopper. Your literary mastery begins with this one fundamental, universal truth. You ready? Here it is:
All. Stories. Begin. With. Character.
There. I’ve just saved you the cost of a creative writing MFA.
Alright, maybe it’s a little bit more complicated than that. But it’s a very real and very important truth that all stories come from characters—whether these characters happen to be talking bugs or orcs or witches or warriors or supermarket checkout girls. They’re characters with very human strengths, weaknesses, and desires. Characters are the birthplace of story.
What is “character”?
Characters are the personalities that populate the world of your story.
Some of these characters are set decoration, while others are conveniently-placed plot devices. Then there are the most important characters: the characters that create, decide, react, and make things happen as your plot rolls towards the finish line.
These main characters are what make the world of your story real for the reader. Even if you craft a beautiful story with imagery, setting, and clever turns of phrase, it’s when readers see their own hopes, struggles, and needs reflected in your characters that they truly get engrossed in the story. That’s when your story begins to matter.
Let’s look at some of the characters you’ll see in your writing.
The protagonist is the main character in a story
In any story, the protagonist is the main character—the hero (at least in their own eyes) and the guiding light. That doesn’t mean that they’ll always be an upstanding moral citizen, but it does mean that their actions and motivations are what drives the story forward. They’re the lens through which the reader sees the story unfold.
The word protagonist comes from the Greek word, prōtagōnistēs, which means “principal actor.” The protagonist would be the first billed player in a stage drama. Today we would call this the headliner, or the star of the show.
That makes the protagonist the center of your story. It’s important to remember that any one of the people the protagonist meets along their journey could be the protagonist, if the story were told just slightly differently—but it isn’t. Not this time.
In order to have a strong, engaging protagonist, you’ll need to figure out what they want most, what they need, and what they need to do to get there. Then your protagonist and your reader go on that journey together. If you as the writer have done your work well and crafted a protagonist that’s engaging and dynamic, the reader will stay with them until the very last page.
Other characters who interact with the protagonist
Usually the protagonist isn’t the only character in a story. There are several other kinds of characters who interact, support, or antagonize the protagonist:
Once upon a time, our brave hero got out of bed, ate some wheaties, and went to work. He had a great day. Then he came home and settled in to watch his favourite show on Netflix before having a nice, peaceful sleep.
I mean yes, it does have a certain warm, cottagecore optimism to it. But is it a story? not really. In order for the protagonist to go on a journey—whether that’s physical journey, a spiritual one, or an emotional one—they need to want something. And someone or something needs to be standing in the way.
The word “antagonist” comes from the word ancient Greek antagōnizesthai, which means “to struggle against.” Simply put, the antagonist gives your protagonist something to fight.
An antagonist is what stands in the way of the protagonist. It can be anything from a megalomaniac wizard bent on world domination to an overbearing mother with her own ideas of what’s best for her daughter (I’m looking at you, Mrs. Bennet). The antagonist might be a classic, moustache-twirling villain, but they also might be the sort of obstacle we all encounter in our day-to-day lives. An antagonist is simply someone who wants something that is in direct conflict with what our protagonist wants.
Over the course of the story’s character development, one (or both) of them will either end up with nothing, or learn to want something else.
The supporting cast
Here’s a sociological experiment: go and ask one hundred people who their favourite character in Harry Potter is. I bet you a chocolate bar not one of them will say “Harry Potter.”
While our protagonist is essential in delivering the theme of the story (more on theme down below) and helping us, as readers, learn something about ourselves along the way, it’s often the secondary characters that really stay with us after the book is closed.
These characters all support the protagonist’s story arc in some way—whether that’s leading the protagonist in the right direction, giving them something to fight for, throwing them a game-changing curveball just at the zenith of act two, or challenging them to grow beyond what they thought they were capable of—but they should also be unique individuals that resonate intimately with a wide variety of different readers.
Some of the supporting character archetypes you might find in your protagonist’s story are the best friend, the love interest, the mentor or guide, and the trickster. Whether they’re helping or hindering, their job is to keep the story moving. And don’t forget—every one of these fictional characters sees themselves as the hero of their own story with goals, struggles, and motivations (that’s how we get subplots).
What’s the difference between a protagonist and a hero?
We’ve already learned what a protagonist in a story is. But is a protagonist the same as a hero?
While heroes can look very different depending on the setting, theme, and cultural background of the story, it really comes down to this: a hero is someone who always tries to do the right thing—even when doing the right thing is hard, and even when they have too much to lose. A hero puts the needs of others before their own.
Does that mean your protagonist has to be a hero? Historically this has often been the case, because it’s been proven to work. Readers like heroes. We like having someone to look up to, someone who shows us the best of what we could be. But there’s a rising trend in film and literature of subverting the hero/villain dynamic and telling the story from another point of view.
For example, the hit film Maleficent retells the timeless story of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of the classic villain of the story, the dark witch who places a curse on the princess. In that film, the protagonist is the villain, not the hero.
Marion Zimmer Bradley also made a villain the protagonist in her novel The Mists of Avalon, a retelling of the Arthurian legends that tracks the story of Morgaine, one of the saga’s major antagonists.
Making a villain the protagonist can be a very effective technique, but it’s tricky to do right. Instead of the protagonist being a hero who’s a mirror that shows us our strength, stories whose protagonist is a villain show us our weakness. This can take both the reader and the writer to a place that’s not entirely comfortable. But if the story is done well, with well-crafted character development, it’ll also show us how these weaknesses can be overcome, and that strength can be found where we least expect it.
How a protagonist communicates the theme of your story
Theme is something that tends to develop organically as your story and characterization progress. Many writers only discover what the theme is after they see their characters grow, change, and learn. To begin, ask yourself what your protagonist wants, what they need, and what they need to overcome in order to get there.
At the beginning of your story, your protagonist should have a need that is unfulfilled—even if they’re content in their day-to-day lives, before the introduction of your inciting incident, there’ll be something missing that keeps them from feeling whole. For example, they might be professionally successful but isolated in their personal lives, or they might have a loving tight-knit family whose demands keep them from growing as a person.
In these instances, your theme might be things like the importance of a work-life balance, or seeking out people that bring out the best in you, or letting go of old traditions that are no longer healthy. The way your protagonist interacts with these ideas and comes to accept them through their character development will also help the reader understand why those themes are important.
Once you begin to see the questions your protagonist is asking themselves and the struggles they’re facing as a result, you’ll be able to see the theme that’s naturally emerging and understand how to share that theme with your readers.
Protagonist examples: 7 great main characters in literature
(To read about the antagonists that correspond to these protagonists, see our article on antagonists.)
1. Sherlock Holmes
Untouchable and unflappable with a mind like an expertly trained orchestra, Sherlock Holmes is very much the intellectual equivalent to James Bond. This fictional character first appeared in literature in 1887 and has been engaging readers and viewers ever since.
Holmes is a great example of a protagonist with well-balanced strengths and weaknesses. Readers love him for his skill with just about everything under the sun, from science and law to art and literature—all which have served him well as he worked to unravel cases in his detective work.
But his failings arise when he needs to try and understand the human heart, the passions and feelings that drive people to do the things he works to understand. The BBC series Sherlock describes him as a “high-functioning sociopath”: some scholars have suggested that Sherlock Holmes may have been autistic. It’s this dynamic play of weakness and strength that makes him seem all the more real to us.
Tall, dark, and so internally damaged by self loathing and trauma that he needs to put on a cape and beat baddies senseless on the rooftops of a gritty broken city. I mean, relatable, right?
In many ways, Batman works as a classic hero because he shows us what we could become if we allowed our shadows to consume us. And yet, he exhibits an extraordinary inner strength that keeps him from becoming one of the villains he fights against. He shows us that when there is no light left in the darkness, maybe you can begin to heal by becoming that light for others.
3, Vianne Rocher
In Joanne Harris’ classic novel Chocolat, Vianne Rocher is a woman who blows into a small provincial French town in a rush of gently spiced cocoa powder and indulgent indecency. Her rootlessness and her disregard for the religious fasting season observed by much of the village quickly divides the people there.
In time, her passion and empathy touch the lives of many and show them that denying your desires can be a very damaging thing. They, in turn, show her that it’s not such a bad thing to finally belong somewhere.
4. Robin Hood
One of the most classic heroes in literature, this protagonist is characterized by his unmatchable archery skills, his camo-toned wardrobe, and his utter disregard for any societal constraint whatsoever. For many of us reading the stories of Robin Hood as children, shedding the skin of expectation and going to live in the woods sounded like the ideal way to live out your days.
And yet, Robin isn’t blind to the cruelty and injustices in the world around him. Living in a society where heroes are few and far between—their good King Richard has abandoned his kingdom for the far-off crusades—Robin Hood shows us that when we see wrong being done in the world and no one to stand against it, we can make a big difference in people’s lives by stepping into that role ourselves.
5. Mortimer Folchart
The leading player in Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart books, an epic love letter to readers everywhere, Mo Folchart is a mild mannered bookbinder with the curious ability to read characters out of the stories they came from. Once he finds himself and his family caught in one of these storybook worlds, he starts to question how much of himself he needs to give up and what he needs to become in order to protect the ones he loves.
For many of us, being caught in the pages of our favourite faerie tale would be a dream come true. In this story, however, we see how important it is to be true to yourself even as you continue to learn and grow.
6. Bilbo Baggins
Few fictional characters in literature are so deeply associated with the comforts of home: good food, cozy blankets, warm firelight, and loyal friends. This is what makes it so tense and engaging when our hero has to leave these comforts behind for the chance at something greater.
Although unwilling at first—a classic example of the “hero’s journey” of storytelling—Bilbo grows through his adventures in ways he could have never imagined. Even as he faces greed, goblins, and a fire-breathing dragon, he never sacrifices his own values, going so far as to betray his friends to keep everyone safe.
By the time he returns home to his cozy hobbit’s cottage, he has grown wiser, developed new skills, and gained a treasure trove of stories to tell.
7. Dr. Henry Jekyll
Strictly speaking, Dr. Jekyll isn’t the protagonist of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”; as was popular in literature of that time, the protagonist was a smaller character through which we could view the events of the story (Ishmael in Moby Dick is another such example). But Dr. Jekyll has been so deeply ingrained in our literary consciousness that we see him rising again and again in stories, film, and television.
Dr. Jekyll struggles with the battle between his conscious morals and his base desires. We’re fascinated by this character because this is an internal conflict that so many of us experience on so many levels. It’s both fascinating and cathartic to see it being given life and form as Dr. Jekyll quite literally rips his weakness out of him—and finds that his weakness may be more formidable than he thought.
What’s the difference between a protagonist and an antagonist?
One of the major differences between protagonists and antagonists is that while there can only be one protagonist, there can be many antagonists.
Let’s go back to Harry Potter, a seven-volume epic brimming with characters. The titular character, Harry, is our protagonist as well as our hero. So who’s the antagonist? Most people would say Lord Voldemort, the big bad leader who wants to wipe out half the magical society and rule what’s left.
These people would be right—Voldemort is the primary antagonist. It’s the protagonist’s battle against this character that drives the plot. However, this isn’t the only struggle our hero faces. Other antagonists in this story include Draco Malfoy, Dolores Umbridge, Vernon Dursley, Cedric Diggory, and Ron Weasley, among many others.
Now obviously, not all of these characters are bad people (although some of them are), but each of them at some point wants something that is in direct conflict with what the protagonist wants. Sometimes this struggle will last for an entire book, sometimes a chapter, or sometimes only one scene. Anytime there is conflict between the protagonist and another character, that character becomes an antagonist in that moment.
This isn’t a bad thing—it gives roundness and depth to your character development. It’s only through conflict and resolution that your story can move forward and your characters can grow.
3 ways to write a protagonist readers will fall in love with
As you can see, there is no single right way to write a great protagonist or a great antagonist; they’re as varied and unique as human beings themselves. But by studying some of the protagonists that have captured the hearts of readers in the past, we can see patterns of what resonates with us and makes them memorable. Here are a few tips.
1. Give them a superpower
In some cases, this may be an actual superpower; in others, it might simply be a strength that is unique to them alone. It might be a photographic memory for numbers, the ability to fix cars previously deemed unfixable, a singing voice that can break hearts from a mile away, the ability to make people smile when they’re in the darkest depths of hopelessness.
Highlighting a primary strength in your character gives them depth, dimension, and a place to begin building relationships with other characters.
2. Give them a weakness
A protagonist’s strength is what makes them interesting, but a protagonist’s weakness is what makes them human. Maybe, like Sherlock Holmes, they have difficulty connecting with other people. Maybe they handle time constraints very badly, or freeze up when faced with modern technology, or allow their insecurities to push people away.
It’s the juxtaposition between your protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses that determine how they interact with the world around them and how they respond to the conflicts that drive the plot.
3. Give them someone to fight
At last, the villain of the show. As you might guess, there’s no one right way to craft the perfect antagonist. However, every good antagonist plays off of the protagonist in some way. It might be that the two are different incomplete parts that together create a balanced whole; it might be that they’re inversions, each highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of the other. The antagonist might show us what the hero of the story could have been, or what they might still yet become.
Once you know who you want your protagonist to be, ask yourself: what are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? What do they need most? What are they most afraid of? Then see if you can find a way to take these aspects and turn them inside out. This will give you the antagonist of your story.
Sometimes, as we’ll look at closer in our article on conflict, your antagonist might not be a person. It might be a group of people or organization, an impersonal force of nature, or even a weakness inside themselves. Whatever you choose for your antagonist, however, should still come from the questions you ask about your protagonist.
A well-crafted protagonist makes for powerful storytelling
When people read stories that truly resonate with them, it’s often because of a genuine, well crafted, believable protagonist. When we read a story and are able to see our own strengths, weaknesses, hopes, and desires reflected in a character who uses them to learn and grow, these become the stories that stay with us for a lifetime.