On writing the protagonist

The protagonist will want something tangible, like money, a romantic interest, to destroy a facet of society that affected them earlier in life, and so on.

This want will be tied to a personal problem that either haunts, drives or motivates them. Get a sense of what your protagonist’s problem is and how it triggers them into action. 

This problem will usually be aggravated by an inciting incident that forces the protagonist to move from story’s start to a path of action, what Joseph Campbell called the adventure.

Who will the protagonist need to talk with throughout their story? What relationship will be focal to their attention, and thus drive most of the story’s drama? Who will antagonise the protagonist?

The antagonist’s obvious or not-so-obvious actions will oppose the protagonist’s efforts to reach their goal. The adventure will move toward disorder, hitting a peak in the middle of the story, which will make life much worse for the protagonist and lead them to not end up anywhere near where they started.

Breaking up the protagonist’s arc into five acts, rather than three, will always help you visualise their path much clearer. John Yorke from the BBC recommends following a structure like the following:

Act 1: Setup, inciting incident

Meet the protagonist. Establish time and place. Learn about the story’s antecedents. Draw attention to dramatic tensions. 

  • They will start with little to no knowledge
  • In the following scene, they will attain knowledge about the adventure to come
  • In this act’s final scene, they will awaken to a realisation about what they must do.

Act 2: Initial objective achieved

Action gets complicated. Interests clash. Interests spawn. Events accelerate. Tension mounts, building momentum. 

  • They will doubt their actions
  • They will then overcome any reluctance
  • They will then accept their situation and what they must do.

Act 3 (Midpoint): Things go wrong, antagonistic forces gather

Conflict reaches a high point. Hero stands at crossroads, leading to victory or defeat, crashing or soaring. 

  • Here, the knowledge is experimented with, as you the writer gets creative.
  • Here, you experiment with the new knowledge imparted on the protagonist at the midpoint. It usually gets worse for them from here on out.

Act 4: Things go really wrong, precipitating crisis

Reversal. Consequences of act 3 play out, slowing momentum, false hopes/fear heightens tension. If tragedy, then it looks like hero can be saved. If not, then it looks like all may be lost. 

  • More doubt sets in
  • More reluctance grows
  • The protagonist regresses to how they were around act 2 in the face of what’s at stake.

Act 5: Climax with antagonist. Matters resolve for good or ill.

Conflict resolves, through catastrophe, hero’s downfall or victory and transfiguration. 

  • They now reawaken
  • They now re-accept who they are
  • They gain total mastery of their new self.

You will notice the first half of this structure, up until the midpoint, mirrors the second half, like folding a piece of paper at the middle point in a dot point list and seeing how each side lines up.

I recommend John Yorke’s Into the Woods, it explains things in more detail.

Back to writing then.

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