3 Types of Protagonists That Can Sustain a Story –Which Type Do You Have?

If you read my previous blog post on how to create your cast of characters, then you're ready to concentrate more about what type of protagonist you’re dealing with.

It’s important to decide early on if our protagonist is going to change or not throughout our story because that will determine how we create characterizations. We often hear about character arcs and how important they are to map out.

A character arc is the mental status of a character as he unfolds in the story. It’s when he begins with a particular mindset, and through a series of events, changes that mindset by the end. This arc usually peaks at the climax of the plot, and the resolution shows the character as a changed person.

However, you might be surprised that there are many successful stories in which characters don't change. But we'll get to that in a minute. 

If we know what type of protagonist we're building, the kind that changes or the kind that doesn't, then we can plan for what type of story we want to tell. Will this story stand alone? Will it become a series? Will the emphasis be more on character or more on plot?

All of these answers become clearer once we know what protagonist we're dealing with.

The Classic Character Change

If your protagonist is going to have a life-changing realization near the end of your story, then you're going to have a classic character arc. This is when your protagonist starts out with a certain outlook, and by the end he changes that outlook and solves the conflict of the story (inner conflict or outer conflict).

The simplest way to figure out your character arc is to ask yourself: What is my protagonist willing to do in the end that he wasn't willing to do in the beginning? What triggers this change? Why does he decide he needs to change his outlook?

The big change usually has a sense of "I've been a damn fool" as the truth about himself hits him like a truck. Then he gathers his wits and newfound strength and prepares to overcome the conflict—the one thing that's interfering with his survival and happiness.

The Gradual Character Change

The gradual change is unusual in that it's not contained in one book, but can stretch over the course of many books. 

If you've ever read the In Death series by JD Robb (aka Nora Roberts), you might notice that her protagonist Eve Dallas doesn't always have a defining character arc in each book. The arc pertains more to the plot. (Correct me if I’m wrong; it’s been a while since I read them. *smile*)

Eve Dallas does grow throughout the series in little ways, from learning to trust a man to depending on him in ways that make this self-sufficient, independent woman uncomfortable. In other words, she grows into herself little by little while solving many murder cases.

This character change is a little bit different than a classic change for a couple of reasons.

First, the timing of the changes aren't limited to a 3-Act structure, but nudged along over many books when small conflicts arise.

Second, all you have are good writing techniques to pull it off. You're less dependent on structure and more dependent on honing emotional cues, the action-reaction-longer reaction-decision formula. And logic.

The character changes should still make sense within the story (triggered by events), but the arc may apply more to the plot. This type of character change seems to work best in a series format.

Practically Perfect in Every Way

This “non character arc” is interesting in that the arc is pronounced in either the plot or results in the character’s demise.

How can you have a story without a protagonist changing? Is that possible?

Sure it is, and those stories are all around us. This is when a character remains the same and the people around him change, the big realization/arc happens in the plot, or the character dies from events because he’s unwilling to change. 

I think of Mary Poppins, a main character who never changes, but there's still an intriguing story between the children and their parents. She’s the type of character in which others change around her.

Or if you've read the Amelia Peabody novels by Elizabeth Peters, you might notice that Amelia is always a daring, brilliant woman who prides herself on logical deductions and an imaginative mind to solve mysteries.

Readers don’t want Mary Poppins or Amelia Peabody to change. They’re fun characters. They can survive any situation because of who they are, and sometimes end up changing the people around them. This type of character can sustain a standalone novel or a series.

The other side of this coin is the character who meets his own destruction because he can’t change. Or the story ends with the character left dissatisfied. For some authors, this is their message and what they want readers to take away from the story.

Decisions, Decisions.

At this point, maybe you're leaning toward one over the others. And that's the idea. Know what's out there and then decide what works for you and your story.

Your characterizations (traits, habits, personality, past experiences, present outlook, etc.) will be directed by the type of protagonist you're writing.

If you're writing toward a classic character arc, then every scene works toward that goal. You set up the protagonist's inner conflict and little by little reveal information to create an emotional progression toward change.

If you're writing a character who doesn't change, then every scene works toward showing how awesome your character already is while working to solve an outer conflict.

Happy plotting!

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