This is a guide designed to help out people who are planning on making a protagonist for their next storyarc, saga or versus match - the name is a play on the old "101" classes and of course "good" is a generic term for benevolent things and people.
This guide will go through the steps of creating a protagonist - explaining what you need to know to get the best out of your idea, remember that a protagonist will be the character your story focuses on the most, so be sure to give them the effort they deserve.
What Is A Protagonist?
A protagonist is a character or organization within a setting that sets out to do "good" in their setting - this can range from simply trying to live a peaceful life (such as most real-life humans do) to extreme acts of heroism and self-sacrifice.. the protagonist is the "good guy" in a story and tend to be either the main focus of a story or a friend of a higher-ranking protagonist (often these are known as "side-kicks" or "benefactors").
Superman, Batman, Captain America and Mario are all good examples of protagonists in popular culture - they also show that not all protagonists are the same in terms of ability, skill or purpose.. what they all share is their role as "heroes" in the story they reside.
Take note, just because a protagonist is the "good guys" doesn't mean they are always "nice" - in fact there are many heroes that engage in activities that are borderline "evil" yet avoid being an antagonist because they fight for "good, this is a phenomena known as "good is not nice" and can be found in darker heroes such as Batman, Jimmy Hopkins from Bully and the Incredible Hulk.
If a protagonist strays too far into the path of "evil" they become an "Antagonist Protagonist" (examples are CJ in GTA, Conker the Squirrel and Punisher) - these types of characters however are generally considered villains, they just happen to be the main focus of a story.
What Is "Good"?
Good is a word that has a multitude of different meanings depending on your culture, spiritual belief or upbringing and what some view as a decent way of living is seen as hateful in other societies.
However as human beings we have begun to accept some things as almost universally immoral - acts that are designed to aid others in distress, willingness to risk or even sacrifice one's own life for the sake of another and protecting the vulnerable from oppression or cruelty are all seen as acts of heroism in almost all cultures.
More importantly these acts should be done, in general, for little or no reward - a person who desires monatery gain or fame via "good deeds" tends not to be a "hero" so much as a mercenary, even the most selfish of protagonists will do "good" for little or no personal gain, usually because they feel it is the "right thing" to do.. a good example of this is (again) Jimmy Hopkins from Bully, he is normally a mercenary-type in it for money but he will also aid people if he feels it is necessary, without obvious reward (granted he is not the best example of a "selfless" hero, a truly selfless hero would be someone like Spider-Man).
This behaviour is known as altruism and arguably most acts we consider "good" stem from altruism - people who are altruistic towards others are often labelled "good" by others.
Stereotypes To AvoidStereotyping is when you generalize a certain group of people, such as when you believe all Scots wear kilts (only the Highlanders do) or that all French eat cheese and drink wine.
In fiction stereotyping occurs when people overuse certain "stock characters" - resulting in either an offensive monstrosity of a character or an unintentional comedy figure.
Stereotyping is not the same as parodying such things (which is perfectly fine) - it's when a creator does so without meaning to parody it.
The stereotypes one should avoid when dealing with protagonists are as follows:
- "Pure Good" - a character who is so morally just they seem incapable of doing wrong, this is very unrealistic and damages suspension of disbelief: even the world's most famous champions for peace and equality have struggled inner-demons and no mortal is 100 percent "good" nor are they 100 percent "bad". When a hero is seen as "Pure Good" they are often no different from the cackling villain in terms of being a two-dimensional character rather than one audiences can grow attached to.
- "Good is Nice" - although this is controversial this stereotype is linked with the "Pure Good" way of thinking, a hero does not have to be a "nice guy" to qualify as a "Good" character - many heroes do unpleasant things but are still heroes, due to the fact they seek to make a better world for others (of course if they go too far they become an anti-villain)
- "Emo" Anti-Hero - another controversial one here but a very common theme in modern media, a flawed hero who has unrealistic baggage, to the point he is a stereotype / mockery of character drama rather than someone a reader can care about: even the darkest of heroes will have moments of happiness and focusing too much on how moody they are will not win over too many fans.
- "90s" Hero - big guns, big muscles, hyper-violent and often "manly" to the extreme - if you seek to make a hero in this style you must be very careful as it is very hard to take them serious and they can even be considered offensive in today's world, they can however make interesting characters if written properly and can also make hilarious parodies (again, if written well).
- Sexy Heroines - there was a time when female characters existed mainly to be pin-ups (especially in comics) and although they may of been given more exposure with characters like Storm, Jean Grey and so forth they are still many writers who show female protagonists as being shallow, rather obvious sex symbols rather than actual, powerful female leads.. if you wish to make a female character (and are not female yourself) please remember to treat them as you would any other character and remember most women aren't that different from men (for a hilarious take on the phenomena of this stereotype see the Hawkeye Initiative website, where images of barely clothed heroines are replaced with Hawkeye, showing (in comedic means) why you'd never dream of doing that for a male lead). NOTE: this doesn't mean you can't have females dressed in revealing attire, just give them a proper reason and don't just do it because it's "sexy".
Unless you plan on creating a parody of an old-fashioned superhero your protagonist will be driven by some sort of motive - even if the motive doesn't seem to make sense to others.. without motivation nobody does anything, even waking up in the morning is determined by a motivation to do so and not simply go back to sleep..
Motivation for committing "good deeds" can be as vast as the range of actions available - some characters are altruistic by nature, whether it is due to being raised to respect others, a strong spiritual belief or simply having strong empathy towards others.
Most humans are generally "good", we seek to live our lives in peace and do not needlessly harm others - yet few humans are willing to go through the extremes a protagonist does, usually because few of us have experienced events like those a fictional "hero" has.
When thinking of a motive decide first how your character views the world around them, we all have a reason for doing good - all you have to do is imagine that reason being taken to the extreme.. for example, you may have a friend or loved one that you wish to protect.. imagine that taken to an extreme.. how far would one go to protect those one loved? if that person died or (worse) was taken away by violence, would that drive to protect extend to those who were oppressed? would you seek justice (or revenge)?
Many protagonists in fiction have superhuman powers or fighting skills beyond that of the normal human, they may fight against "evil" due to a belief that these powers must be utilized for "good" - this is a theme in Superman, Spiderman, X-Men and many other titles.. it is not uncommon for this to be labelled "with great power comes great responsiblity".
Of course the most simple of all motives (if somewhat cliched) is this: some characters do "good" without thinking.. these are the most "pure" of protagonists and will do what they believe is right simply because it is in their nature to do so.. Fluttershy from My Little Pony is a surprisingly good example of this (especially in more recent episodes).
PowerfulA powerful personality is one that shows a character to be strong of mind, body and spirit - often this personality is seen in "Caped Crusader" archetypes.
Powerful personalities can make people into natural leaders, traditional "superheroes" and disciplined soldiers.
Some examples of a powerful personality are:
- Mentor (a mentor is a protagonist who acts as a teacher to others, often they do not engage in battle but rather try to encourage peace and co-operation, mentors are often very important in the upbringing of other heroes: good examples as Splinter and Charles Xavier.)
- Warrior ()
- Messiah (a messiah is a character believed to be divinely "chosen" to save a nation, people or world - such characters tend to be powerful leaders and inspiration to many, however be wary in using such characters as they can have unfortunate implications. To avoid major controversies try to ensure your messiah is fictional and if you do borrow from real-world beliefs distance them enough from your work that you will not offend (or at least warn people if your work may have material they would object to) : also beware the Mary Sue - a Messiah does not allow you to make an "all-powerful" character, be reasonable in your goals.)
- Paragon ()
SeriousA serious personality is that of a methodical and business-like character who doesn't have time for pointless things such as play or messing around - these characters are often seen as dark and brooding, they may not always get along well with other protagonists but do have their hearts in the right place (most of the time).
Some common subtypes of this personality are:
- The Vigilante ()
- The Anti-Hero ()
- The Necessary Evil ()
- The Veteran ()
FeralA feral personality is one in which animalistic traits or instinct overtake what most cultures have come to see as civilized human behavior - it is a common mistake to think a feral character is "stupid" however, often they retain incredible intelligence but become more predatory in nature.. sometimes the awakening of the "animal within" actually makes a character more intelligent than their more "civilized" counterparts.
Although more associated with antagonists heroic characters can also have this personality, as can be expected most that do will follow the "good is not nice" line of thought..
Common subtypes associated with a feral personality are:
- The Wild Man ()
- The Bestial ()
- The Berserker ()
FlirtyA "Flirty" personality is one that strives to bring charm and attraction to everything one does - the trait is often associated with female protagonists and has controversy, so use sparingly.
Protagonists in this role can be classed into the following subtypes:
- The Amazon (a strong and independent female who is by no means dependent on flirting to get what she desires - capable of taking on others without the need to exploit her feminine charms she may still resort to it from time to time.. a slightly more respectable version of "The Tease")
- The Tease (unlike the Amazon, the Tease is a more traditional flirt who uses her feminine charm to either get what she desires or to weaken opponents - in the modern era many women dislike this as they see it as demeaning, this is not to say some females won't use these tactics however.. again, use as you see fit for the character you have in mind)
- The Casanova (a male hero who often flirts with female characters, this is a very common trait in early portrayals of James Bond and although it is a valid archetype beware - in the modern era it can make your protagonist seem like a womanizer or sexist, unless you are skilled at writing it effectively (or parody it) )
ComicalA comical personality is that of a character who plays tricks on their enemies or simply exists in a less serious environment from the "dark" and "broody" characters found in the Serious personality - they are often viewed as "odd", "quirky" and sometimes even "reckless" by others but fight for what they believe is right.
The more common subtypes of a comical personality are:
- The Trickster (a trickster is a hero who takes the vengeance of a vigilante and parodies it - instead of harming their enemies they tend to humiliate them, quick to act most tricksters are of a chaotic or neutral good alignment and prefer to outwit rather than outfight an opponent.)
- 'The 'Oddball (some protagonists live in their own world, they may be insane or simply eccentric but they are usually good-natured (or at least mean well) and thus are not antagonistic: examples of Oddbals would be Pinkie Pie, Squirrel Girl and (depending on the writer) tamer versions of Deadpool)
- The Free Spirit (some protagonists live by their own rules and don't really care what others may think - they can be troublesome but are not normally malicious, varying between chaotic good and chaotic neutral these heroes champion the individual and are usually unpredictable but lovable, in their own way)
Protagonists have numerous origins ranging from the absurd to the sublime.
Origin helps build a character so its important to think on how you want your antagonist to be when creating an origin:
- Comical - if you want a comical protagonist the origin should be light-hearted and focus more on silly and/or amusing topics rather than overly-depressing or malicious things.. stereotyping (within reason) is also acceptable in comedic origins since if used for parody.. for example you could be a madcap agent of chaotic "good" (such as The Mask) or a hero with extremely absurd and comedy-based origins (such as Earthworm Jim and the Tick).
- Tragic - if you want a tragic protagonist the origin should show a troubled past, this doesn't mean their entire life is a walking depression - even tragic characters have moments of happiness.. you may be an outcast who defends a world that hates you (like X-Men and (traditional) Spider-Man), an unwilling monster (such as Hulk) or a vigilante who saves the world, yet must also hide from it (like Batman).
- Traditional - if you want a traditional protagonist the origin shouldn't be entirely "2-dimensional" - you may want to be the traditional "defender of truth, justice and the American way" but even then you should have a convincing reason why you would have such a belief.. you could of been raised to uphold certain beliefs (such as Superman) or underwent a personal tragedy that made you want to make a different to the world (such as Spiderman and Batman) or you could be driven by extreme altruism (love for one's fellow man) (such as many legendary accounts of Robin Hood).