How To Write A Protagonist That Matters

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On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, author JJ Barnes describes how to write a Protagonist that matters to your audience, and why it matters for your story.

Written by JJ Barnes

It’s really important for your story that you write a Protagonist that matters. The Protagonist is the person you will spend the most time with, the person who’s story you’re following. When you set out to write their story, you need to ask yourself why. Why this character, why now? If you don’t have an answer to those questions, your Protagonist won’t really matter, so your story won’t really matter either.

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Why Them, Why Now?

There has to be something about your Protagonist that makes them special. Something that makes them worth your time writing them and your audiences time reading or watching them.

This doesn’t mean they have to be magical or with some super ability, it means there’s something about them that makes them interesting. This will be found in their story.

You don’t jump into the life of just anybody. Most people are just living day to day, taking their kids to school, going to work, watching TV. It’s not interesting or unusual at all. You’re joining your Protagonist because there’s a story to tell, something happening that is worth telling a story about.

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The reason you’re choosing THAT person to tell your story about is because something is happening to them in their lives at this very moment that is worth exploring.

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A Protagonist That Matters Knows They Want

If your Protagonist doesn’t want anything, your audience won’t want anything. If they’re just bumping along through the story without being driven to achieve anything, there’s no point seeing the story through to the end.

Your Protagonist needs to be motivated. They are driving the story forwards by being active, not passively riding along. Before you tell your story, work out what it is they want, why they don’t have it, and what they’re going to do to get it.

If your Protagonist wants to find love, set them on a path to try and get it. Throw obstacles in their way, conflict that keeps the story entertaining, and have them keep pushing. This tells your audience what they want, and that it matters enough to them that they’ll see this story through. If your character doesn’t care that much, your audience won’t care that much.

Why Does Their Story Matter?

The key to making sure your audience cares about the Protagonist getting what they want is making sure their motivation is clear. If you send them after a goal, which is good, but nobody can tell why they care about it, it becomes annoying.

Show your audience why the story your Protagonist will be living matters by showing why they care about their goal. A good time to do this is prior to the Inciting Incident. As your audience gets to know your Protagonist, show what is missing from their life and why it matters. If they want love, show them lonely. If they want a career change, show them bored.

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By experiencing their disappointment in their current circumstances, when you trigger the start of your story by setting them in motion to change those circumstances, your audience will be invested. They’ve seen your Protagonist in the life that isn’t right, they understand why they want to change it, and they get to watch them doing something about it.

If You Don’t Write A Protagonist That Matters, It’s Time To Switch Characters

If you realise you’re writing a Protagonist who is passively riding along with a motivated secondary character, it might be time to swap them. You don’t follow the best friend’s story, the best friend has the supporting role to the main character.

Your Protagonist needs to be the one who’s doing something interesting, or your audience will be frustrated by their time with them. If a different character is driving the story forwards, your audience will want to ride with them instead.

If you find yourself writing a story where your Protagonist is the less interesting one, it’s time to swap. Either go back in and give the story goal to your chosen Protagonist instead, and adjust it so they’re the one chasing the goal, or switch completely and ride with the other person instead. Rewrite from the perspective of the interesting character, and let your original Protagonist be the secondary character.

A Protagonist That Matters Is An Interesting Character

Your Protagonist needs to be interesting. They need to capture the attention of your audience, make them invested in their experience. When you follow a Protagonist you’re essentially living another life. You share their thoughts, their feelings, their experiences. You want what they want, you worry about what they worry about. If you’re pushed into the brain of a person who is either really boring, or really unlikeable, why stay?

Make sure your Protagonist’s interiority is somewhere your audience is going to want to be. If your Protagonist matters to your audience, their story will matter, and you’ll keep their attention.

More From JJ Barnes:

I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.

You can find links to all my work and social media on my website:

Buy my books:

Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose

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