Tag Archives: determining the protagonist

Motivation, the Character’s Quest #amwriting

The rough draft is called ‘rough’ for a multitude of reasons. This earliest of manuscripts is where we are thinking out loud, finding the true story, so it is bumpy, uneven. We begin with an idea, a ‘what if,’ and as we write, an awesome cast of characters leap onto the page.

Sometimes the side characters are so great, they overshadow the person we originally thought was the protagonist. What do you do if you have chosen a protagonist, but another character suddenly seems to have a more intriguing way about him? You must make a decision–who will be the central character?

If, as you are writing, a different character than the one you originally thought was the protagonist comes to the fore, consider rewriting your beginning to reflect that change. If you are participating in NaNoWriMo and you are 26,000 words into it, don’t scrap it–simply continue forward, but insert a note to go back and change the beginning once November has passed. You wrote those words, and even though they will change in the next draft, they were hard-earned and count toward your official wordcount.

When you have a group of great characters, all with strong storylines, determining who makes the most compelling protagonist can be difficult. Sometimes you must write half a novel before you realize which character has the most opportunity to take full advantage of all the possibilities.

For whatever reason, this never happens in my fantasy work. It is when I am writing contemporary fiction that the story sometimes shifts in a direction I hadn’t planned and identifying just whose journey I am following is easier said than done. As the rough draft progresses, I have to keep in mind that motivation is the key to discovering both who the protagonist is, and who is the villain of the piece. Motivation is the character’s quest to fulfill his/her deepest needs.

  • Who among these people has the most to lose?
  • Which character do you find the most interesting?
  • Whose personal story inspired this tale in the first place?
  • Who will be best suited to take full advantage of all this plot’s possibilities?

The character who best answers those questions must become the protagonist. If necessary, the story will have to be rewritten to reflect that change.

Most of us remember the “five Ws” of journalism. These five words that begin with the letter ‘W’ form the core of every story. Who did what? When and where did it happen?

Why did they do it?

As a reader, I dislike discovering the author is at a loss as to why their protagonist wants to do the task set before them. Random events inserted to keep things interesting don’t advance the story but motivation does.

Suppose we have a protagonist who realizes her marriage is failing. Anna is a well-educated, professional woman, a writer of paranormal fantasy. She is married to another writer, David.

What motivates her? David is strong, charismatic, egocentric, and brilliant. There is nothing he doesn’t feel entitled to, and he will do anything to achieve his goals. Although she is a best-selling author of popular fiction and is the person paying the bills, Anna has made a habit of catering to his needs.

At first, Anna wants to keep her marriage together and presents herself as whatever she thinks David wants her to be. She feels as if she casts no shadow of her own.

Once we know what the characters desire we know who the protagonist is and also we know who will be the best antagonist.

Now, let’s see who the other characters are:

Anna and David rent a secluded house on the wild Washington coast for the summer. They invite 3 companions to join them for the summer, as a working retreat. All five characters have deadlines, and that is their official reason for accepting Anna’s invitation. However, the four other characters each have their own agendas. Other than Anna, they each have strong personalities, are charismatic, and are used to a certain amount of privilege. At first, although it is subtle, each of them uses and manipulates Anna for their own purposes.

Every member of the cast has a secret, including Anna. With the revelation of each secret to the reader, the motivations for subsequent actions become clear.

Unless each character’s desires and needs are clearly defined, the events won’t make any sense. Without clear motivations, all you have are a bunch of drama queens cooped up in a house by the gloomy Washington North Pacific coast.

Once we know who has the most to lose and what motivates each character, we know which of them has the most compelling story. At that point, we have our protagonist. The second draft will be much easier to write.

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