Choosing a protagonist is often more of an event than a process. Writers sometimes feel more like the protagonist chooses them than the other way around. While most of us heed our first instinct to simply chase after this character to see where he goes, it’s important that at some point we analyze the soundness of the story idea by considering whether we have the right protagonist for the right story.
Although many metrics may inform this analysis, theme is usually the best measuring stick. Because theme is the peanut butter that gloms together the bread of the plot and the jelly of the characters, it always provides a good criterion for determining whether the entire recipe is coming together in a way that tastes right.
By itself, a plot is just a series of events. It’s not a story until we zoom in to focus on what these events mean to specific people. Usually, there are many people involved in these events. As seen in the recent fad for retconning classic stories from the viewpoints of supporting characters, a story may offer the possibility for many potential protagonists. As the common saying goes, even characters who look like traditional antagonists inevitably see themselves as the heroes of their own stories.
It usually isn’t difficult for authors to choose a protagonist; we just write about whichever character most interests us. If we feel there are additional characters who dramatically impact the plot, we can always throw in their POVs as well (although, I should say, this should never be done lightly). The most important decision is not choosing a protagonist or choosing a plot or even choosing a theme. Rather, the most important calibration you can make is to ensure all three are aligned.
5 Questions for Choosing a Protagonist Who Is Thematically Correct for Your Story
You know you’ve chosen the right character in the right plot when, together, they create a harmonious theme.
If this sounds easier said than done, it both is and isn’t. Most authors (or rather most people) have pretty good instincts about lining up a story’s parts—or, at the very least, an intuitive understanding of cause and effect. But because writing a story soon becomes an exercise in herding many different bits and pieces of theory and technique, it can also be easy to lose your way through the forest thanks to all those crazy trees.
We talked recently about how to properly balance plot and character, so you avoid “too much” of either. Today, let’s look more closely at how a few well-chosen questions can help you check whether you’ve chosen the most thematically-powerful character as your protagonist. If you discover your protagonist isn’t ideally positioned to both advance the plot and “prove” the theme, these questions can also help you to either identify a better protagonist or tweak things to bring plot-character-theme into better alignment.