Make Your Protagonist Special

My husband hosted an incubator of chicks in his classroom this past spring. Every day, the students faithfully checked on them. One epic day, they hatched!

Since the 4H gave him a mixture of eggs, most of the chicks were yellow, and a handful were black or greyish and speckled.

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Chicks chilling in a box while the brooder is cleaned.

When it came time for the students to take the chicks home, guess which ones a lot of them wanted?

That’s right. The black or greyish speckled ones. Especially the chick that my husband had named Ngogo. By the way, this word means ‘fish’ in Swahili. A chick named fish. I challenge you to write a story on that.

The reasons his students wanted those chicks were simple:

1.) The black and greyish chicks were distinctive. There were only a few, and the students could easily identify them. Their rareness made them more compelling.

2.) Ngogo had been given a unique name (from a story they were reading in literature). Not only that, he’d been set apart by the teacher, an authority figure.

How does this relate to protagonists? I’ll tell you another story. About a young teenage author who was so obsessed with making sure her main characters were NOT Mary Sues–characters overloaded with so many gifts and talents they make Sleeping Beauty look poor–that she wrote the dullest characters in existence.

That stubborn teenager was me.  And those characters were so flat, boring, and uninspiring that I can’t even remember their names. I had proven to the world that I wouldn’t write a Mary Sue. And in turn, I made characters that no reader cared about, because there was no reason to. There was absolutely nothing distinct, nothing special, nothing unique about any of them.

There are plenty of websites ready to tell you the Big Secret to making your character shine. And depending on your genre and your story and your writing style, they could be right. I’m always ready to learn more myself.

But here’s my secret:

Make your protagonist special. Make them different. Give them that weird hair color or that weird superpower or that weird, inexplicable fascination with toaster ovens. When you stick them in those impossible situations, equip them with some kind of special-ness to be able to handle that situation. Not at first, of course. Growth comes over the course of the plot. But don’t leave a protagonist with nothing to work with at the start.

Also, don’t be afraid to make your protagonist special in a negative way. Give them a fatal flaw. Preferably something that will crop up and interfere with the plot. Having a hatred of pizza won’t mean much–unless your hero is set to inherit a dynasty of pizza parlors.

If you want? Give the protagonist an odd name. Author Veronica Roth chose ordinary names for many of her characters, and yet she named her main character “Tris.” Her main squeeze’s name? “Four.”

Even Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables was “Anne with an E.” And her ‘special’–her imagination and dauntless will–was downright hazardous to her health sometimes.  But it made her memorable, and that makes for happy readers ready for the next book. I’m one of them. 😉 Anne Shirley drove me crazy sometimes, but to this day, she remains fixed in my mind as an awesome character.

For fiction? I’m currently writing Melrose Durante, a 2,000+ year old immortal healer from Blood Mercy:Thicker Than Water. He has a sarcastic wit, an unmatched intellect, a massive case of germaphobia, and a resolution to never personally harm anyone.  He’s also only about 5 feet, six inches. Or as his wife likes to say ‘short, smart, and scowly.’

In the spirit of epic protagonists, who is your favorite protagonist? If you’re a reader, share them in a comment (with a pic) along with why you think they’re awesome. If you’re a writer, share about one of your epic protagonists.

If you’re both reader and writer, share both!

4 thoughts on “Make Your Protagonist Special

  1. My husband and I just gave away some beautiful chickens we raised from chickhood! Very nice comparison; I could never remember which yellow chick was which myself.

    It’s interesting that practically everything needs balance instead of extremes. I had an anti-Sue as a teen as well. Also, in visual narrative mediums there’s a lot of emphasis on having a very distinct silhouette for each important character. It leads to different body shapes, hair styles, and clothing as well as the little stuff like their natural posture. Just food for thought.

    One of my favorite protagonists is Frodo Baggins. I love that the epic journey of Lord of the Rings is seen so often through especially his eyes, as all of the party other than the Hobbits consists of greats, yet a “nobody” with little more than courage is the central character.

    1. Excellent point about making each character distinct! A future post will focus on that – why composing a cast of characters is like a miniature golf course. 😉 All of those visual elements can be really helpful in novels as well.

      Yes! Frodo is an excellent character, with intriguing contrasts and a great arc.

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