top of page


Updated: Aug 9, 2021

The protagonist is the main character of your story. If your main character isn’t the most interesting, complex, three-dimensional character in your story you have to ask yourself, why are they the protagonist at all?


I see this problem in everything from amateur writers’ first drafts to big studio films. You know your story has this problem when the plot happens to the character. This often happens accidentally when crafting a Reluctant Hero narrative—the character through a series of events is forced to go on a quest through no real choice of their own. The problem with this is that characters are what they do. Syd Field says in his seminal work Screenplay,

“Action is character; a person is what he does, not what he says…If you’re writing your script and sense your characters are not as sharp or defined as you think they should be, and feel they should be stronger, more dimensional, and more universal in terms of thoughts, feelings, and emotions, the first thing you must determine is whether they’re an active force in the screenplay—whether they cause things to happen, or whether things happen to them.”

The actions a character takes, the decisions they make are what defines them. If they don’t make any decisions and are simply propelled along by the momentum of the story, then your protagonist is undefined. The actions your character takes should move the plot forward, they should be making things happen. A proactive protagonist is necessary for an engaging story.

On a fundamental level, your story will lack a strong structure, considering the end of an act is marked by a character making an irrevocable decision or action that changes who they are and spins the story in a new direction. It is also essential the audience knows the protagonist’s values in order to empathize with them and understand their motivations, and values are only revealed through the choices a character makes.

See how you can rework your story so that your protagonist’s actions are moving the story forward.


Some writers, particularly those who are just starting out, make their characters flawless because they are afraid audiences will not like a character who makes mistakes. However, the opposite is true. To make an audience empathize with a protagonist, you must make them relatable.

A character with no flaws is impossible for a reader or viewer to identify with. People are flawed, contradictory creatures, and therefore, in order for a story to have the weight of realism, characters should act like human beings. In an interesting story, some of the character’s problems should be the consequences of their weaknesses or mistakes.

Neglecting this aspect of the story is effectively flattening the plot. Flaws also add depth and a sense of progress. A flat character who doesn’t change over the course of a story (with the exception of serialized stories like Sherlock Holmes and James Bond) is incredibly boring. When a character has flaws, they have the capability to evolve over the course of the story—for better or worse.

A character who doesn’t change has no arc, and an audience will not be invested in a character with no arc. Finally, a perfect character is straight-up annoying as it sets a standard for behavior that no one can live up to. Writers might be surprised to find that audiences resent or dislike a flawless character rather than rooting for them.


John Yorke describes the importance of desire in Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story:

“If a character doesn’t want something, they’re passive. And if they’re passive, they’re effectively dead. Without a desire to animate the protagonist, the writer has no hope of bringing the character alive, no hope of telling a story and the work will almost always be boring. Aaron Sorkin put it succinctly, ‘Somebody’s got to want something, something’s got to be standing in their way of getting it. You do that and you’ll have a scene.’”

The protagonists’ pursuit of their desire is the story. A story with a protagonist who wants for nothing is nothing more than a series vignettes or loosely connected events. Otherwise, the character has no motivation, no dimension and that is supremely uninteresting.

Without a desire or goal there is nothing at stake, meaning there is no reason for the audience to care about the protagonist’s adventures. Their desire can be something concrete like a new house, or abstract, like true love. It can be moral or completely corrupt, but as John Yorke says, to want is to be alive.


There are certain tropes, archetypes and cliches that people have seen 1,000 times: the wholesome girl next door, the bad boy, the mustache twirling villain, the mentor, the farm boy who’s secretly The Chosen One. Audiences are so familiar with them that they practically know their lines before they say them.

I’m not saying you can’t have a mentor or a villain in your story, but it’s important to take these archetypes and twist, subvert, or otherwise approach them in a new, creative way. The problem with archetypes is that they’re no more than the scaffolding for a character, and, played straight, their one-dimensional and boring.

So if you find that your protagonist lacks personality, that their actions aren’t driving the plot, or that they generally aren’t as defined as you would like them to be, go down this checklist and see which categories they fall into. Hopefully this article will help you trouble-shoot and construct a main character your audience will never forget!

Want to know why you aren’t getting manuscript requests? Check out this article!

36 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All