Real Protagonist

TSS #048: Turn a Shallow Protagonist into a Real Hero

by | May 6, 2023

Read Time: 5 minutes

Hey 👋 – Welcome to the Saturday Storyteller, where your protagonist goes from zero to hero faster than a gas tank fills up.

Here’s what I’ve got for you today: 

  • Hero failures and real transformations
  • Examples from novels and films
  • 2 hero prompts for ChatGPT

The protagonist is the lifeblood of your story.

As your central character, the protagonist’s journey, growth, and transformation must captivate the audience and drive the story forward. But crafting a complex hero with clear motivations and an engaging backstory can be a challenge for many writers.

In this article, I’ll explore how to overcome common pitfalls when creating a flat or underdeveloped protagonist. Then I’ll provide insights and examples from novels and films to help you bring depth and nuance to your story’s leading character.

Flat and Underdeveloped Protagonists

A shallow protagonist will ruin your story’s potential.

Weak heroes result in a lack of emotional connection between the audience and the character’s journey, inevitably hurting the plot and overall narrative.

In “John Carter,” the protagonist, John Carter, is a former Confederate Army captain transported to Mars, where he becomes involved in conflict between Martian species. Although his personal survival is at stake, the audience never fully invests in his journey.

This lack of investment stems from poor exploration of his internal struggles and backstory. Going deeper into John Carter’s past and strengthening his connections with supporting characters would have made his transformation more impactful and emotionally appealing.

Adding Traits and Backstory

Many writers try to address a weak protagonist by simply adding more backstory or details about the character’s appearance, hobbies, or past experiences. They may also try to make the protagonist unique by giving them unusual abilities or quirks.

This can work to some degree, however, these additions often fail to address the core issue if they don’t explore the character’s motivations, desires, and conflicts.

In the film “Lucy,” the protagonist, Lucy, gains superhuman abilities from an experimental drug. While her powers and special traits are showcased, her motivations, emotional depth, and character growth are lacking, preventing the audience from fully investing in her journey.

Because Lucy’s rapid transformation from an ordinary person to an all-powerful being doesn’t allow the audience to witness her struggle and adaptation to her newfound abilities, making her journey less emotionally compelling.

Why These Attempts Often Fall Short

Simply adding traits, abilities, or backstory without thoroughly exploring the protagonist’s motivations, desires, and conflicts can lead to a main character that stays flat and unrelatable.

It may also create an imbalance, with focus shifting to less important details rather than the protagonist’s emotional journey and growth.

Strategies for Developing Rich and Dynamic Protagonists

a. Understand and convey the protagonist’s motivations and goals:

  • Ensure your protagonist has clear motivations and goals that drive their actions and decisions throughout the story, creating a well-rounded protagonist with depth and purpose.

In “The Martian,” protagonist Mark Watney’s goal to survive on Mars and return to Earth drives the entire narrative. His motivations and goals are effectively displayed through his relentless pursuit of survival, resourcefulness, and his ability to maintain a sense of humor in dire circumstances. Watney’s scientific knowledge and problem-solving skills are showcased through his efforts to grow food, establish communication with Earth, and ultimately execute his escape plan. His determination, resilience, and ingenuity resonate with the audience, making his struggle for survival emotionally compelling.

Try this prompt inside ChatGPT to develop the motivations and goals of a character:

ChatGPT Prompt for a protagonist:

“Design a multidimensional protagonist for a [Genre] story, complete with fears, flaws, goals, and aspirations. Establish a clear, unmistakable overarching story objective that must be resolved by the end of the three-act structure.”

b. Create a strong character arc:

  • The protagonist’s growth and transformation are vital for engaging the reader or viewer. Consider how your protagonist will change and grow throughout the story, and use this transformation to create an emotional connection with the audience.

For example, Tony Stark’s transformation from a selfish billionaire to a self-sacrificing hero in the “Iron Man” film series and the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe is a powerful character arc that connects with audiences. His journey from a carefree playboy to a responsible leader and mentor showcases personal growth, making audiences relate and care about what happens to his character.

Try this prompt inside ChatGPT to develop a character arc for your protagonist:

ChatGPT Prompt for a protagonist’s character arc:

“Craft a compelling story arc by utilizing the Three-Act Structure for my protagonist based on these details [insert brief details about your protagonist such as personality or loose story summary]. Outline a narrative centered around [Theme or Subject], detailing each act and its key events for my protagonist.”

c. Embrace complexity and nuance:

  • Avoid relying on stereotypes or one-dimensional traits. Instead, develop protagonists with a mix of strengths, weaknesses, and internal conflicts that make them feel real and human.

In “The Godfather,” Michael Corleone’s character exemplifies complexity and nuance in storytelling. Initially, Michael wants nothing to do with the family business but is eventually drawn into it due to his father being shot and a deep desire to protect his family.

Michael’s transformation from a war hero to a ruthless mob boss is gradual and filled with internal conflict. This depth and development make Michael Corleone’s character memorable and emotionally impactful.

d. Show, don’t tell:

  • Use actions, dialogue, and interactions with other characters to reveal your protagonist’s traits, motivations, and emotions, rather than relying on exposition. This creates a more immersive and engaging experience for the audience.

In “The Silence of the Lambs,” Clarice Starling’s determination, intelligence, and vulnerability are revealed through her actions and conversations with both her mentor, Jack Crawford, and the manipulative Hannibal Lecter. These interactions effectively convey her character without relying on lengthy explanations, drawing the audience into her emotional journey.

e. Incorporate relatable challenges and internal conflicts:

  • A protagonist facing relatable challenges and internal struggles can help the audience connect with them on a deeper level.

In “The Lord of the Rings,” Frodo Baggins, an ordinary hobbit, must confront his own fears and weaknesses as he embarks on a quest to destroy the One Ring and save Middle-earth. Specific examples that showcase Frodo’s relatable challenges and internal conflicts include his struggle with the corrupting influence of the Ring, as well as his growing sense of despair as the journey becomes increasingly dangerous.

And in the Mines of Moria, Frodo demonstrates his resilience and courage when he decides to continue the journey despite the loss of their wise guide, Gandalf. Also, Frodo’s internal conflict reaches its climax at Mount Doom, where he faces the ultimate test of his willpower as he is tempted by the power of the Ring. These moments not only highlight Frodo’s relatable challenges but also allow the audience to connect with him on a deeper level.

Crafting a Protagonist That Captivates

By focusing on character motivations, growth, complexity, showing rather than telling, and incorporating relatable challenges and conflicts, you can create a real hero.

Because implementing these strategies and drawing inspiration from successful examples will put you on the path to crafting a memorable and complex protagonist that will make audiences care and root for them until the very end.

That’s it for this Saturday.

If you feel like TSS offers creative writing insights unlike the rest, tell a fellow storyteller.

See ya next week!

— Dave