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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • "Building the Right Protagonist," By Eric Dontigney


I’m an organic writer. Mostly that means I don’t outline my novels. It’s not because I’m too good for outlines. Honest. I tried outlining several of them. It’s because the books always drag me off in some direction I never expected. The thing I do try to pin down before I start writing is the nature of my protagonist. Just as importantly, I don’t generally start with character details. Here’s why. 

If you make your protagonist a teenager wizard, for example, you’re largely stuck with coming of age issues. A teenager can struggle with identity, but only in a context of self-discovery. The fluid nature of teen identities means we don’t set a high bar for personality consistency. The pitfall is that it cuts off narrative avenues like an identity crisis.

An identity crisis really only works when it happens to someone with a stable, defined personality. Give Harry Potter an identity crisis, and we chalk it up to growing pains. He’s still figuring himself out. Now, give Dumbledore an identity crisis. That’s a very different animal. It’s potent and jarring because we expect Dumbledore’s core identity to remain essentially stable. What we hand-wave away as growing pains for a Harry functions as a full-blown existential crisis for a Dumbledore.

You also bump into limitations on moral quandaries if you make your protagonist a hardcore hero or anti-hero. Heroes set a pretty high bar for what’s moral. I like to think of hero morality as idealized or amplified everyday morality. They act in the ways we think we should or wish we would in the clutch. There’s not a lot of wiggle room to make a hero act immorally in an acceptable way.

Look at all the flack Man of Steel took for having Superman kill Zod. It’s not like he was a sympathetic villain, either. That dude was insane, bent on wiping out humanity, and actively trying to murder innocent people. If there was ever a good candidate for a public service homicide, Zod was the guy. Yet, despite it being a literal act of last resort, we expected Superman to find a better way.

Anti-heroes pose their own challenges because they’re basically villains. It’s tough to put them into a plausible moral quandary because they see violence, intimidation, and crime as viable solutions to problems. Wolverine is a hyper-violent mass murderer when you get down to it. For all his suave charm, James Bond is a blood-soaked hitman on a government payroll. These characters only work because they’re a shade less awful than the people they fight. They can’t process tough moral questions because they’ve largely rejected normal morality.

All of those challenges contribute to why so many authors select everymen or everywomen for protagonists. They sit in the moral middle-ground between hero morality and villain morality. You can plausibly push them in either direction with the right circumstances. They are simply more malleable than a full-on hero or anti-hero.

After reading all that, you might think it’s an absolute necessity to know the plot details before you start. I’m sure it would help, sometimes, but it’s not a requirement. What you really need to know ahead of time is what kind of journey the main character will take. Once you know that, you can build the protagonist who will be the most interesting on that journey.

Let’s say, for example, I want to play around with a loss of faith. That defines key attributes of the protagonist. The protagonist is probably younger. People who hang onto some kind of faith into their 30’s and 40’s tend to keep it. That faith must be misplaced in some fashion. It must be crucial to how they live their life and make choices, otherwise its loss is meaningless.

I’ll grant you that’s a pretty bare bones character profile, but it does some important things. It’s enough to help structure how this character will think, talk, and act on the page. People who believe in what they’re doing treat it differently than people going through the motions. They’re more passionate and often a little blinded by the light.

It’s also enough to tell me the character can’t be an established hero or anti-hero. If they were locked into one of those two roles, a loss of faith journey wouldn’t track. A hero has already been through that crucible and come out the other side stronger for it. An anti-hero has been through it and found the world fundamentally wanting.

Building the right protagonist must start with knowing what kind of journey the character will go through. It tells you critical things about who the character can be. Not to mention putting some bounds on what they can or can’t do in the opening act. Once you know those things, you can start layering on the details that make a character distinct.

 Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides in Memphis, TN. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Memory Makes Liars of Us All,” in Stupefying Stories #13, his next will be “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it! 


“Talking Shop” is an ongoing conversation in which writers talk about the craft of writing, the business of writing, and what it takes to make it as a writer here in the 21st century. If you’d like to join the conversation and write an article, please send a query first to Bruce Bethke at

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