A strong protagonist: keep it simple, then oppose that


Lisbeth Salander: smart and socially inept (and Gothic).
The rest is filler.

A lot of writing gurus will tell you a character for a fictional work cannot be one dimensional. They will tell you a good protagonist is a complex, evolving creature. It is my humble opinion that this is utter BS. I say: keep it simple.

Here is my argument: the most monumental protagonists in the history of writing or screenwriting can be summed up in two personality traits, three max. All the rest is part of situation, plot, setting or filler. A few examples:

Lisbeth Salander: socially inept, smart, Gothic (okay Gothic is not really a personality trait, but it is too important for the ‘face’ of this character not to mention it).

Anna Karenina: beautiful, passionate.

Jack Sparrow: Extremely opportunistic.

Mister Darcy: proud, honest (and mostly rich, really)

Those are the traits that make these characters stand out. That is why you will always remember them.

Then, almost always, those personality traits are challenged. Usually by making them do or say something that’s completely the opposite of their normal behavior. That’s what gives them a semblance of humanity, and of complexity.

Lisbeth Salander falls in love, Anna Karenina is stuck in a passionless marriage, Jack Sparrow does something nice, mister Darcy falls in love with a woman that is considered beneath him.

And just to be complete: I do think growth in a character is necessary. Usually this growth is simply achieved by the opposing force I explained in the paragraphs above.

I wonder what you all think of this theory. Feel free to oppose! (Agreeing is also permitted.)

10 thoughts on “A strong protagonist: keep it simple, then oppose that

  1. Absolutely agree! The so-called “layering” is total rubbish. As you rightly say, the plot and circumstances shape the character as much as anything else…

  2. I haven’t read all the books you reference. A few thoughts, though:
    You cite some movie as well as book characters, yes? (Jack Sparrow?)
    I have to disagree that Mr. Darcy is one-dimensional. I could go on and on about that – he’s not as developed as Elizabeth, and his initial appearances are pretty spare, that is true – and yet we do get attached. I also think there are different kinds of stories, and they call for different types of people in them. Thanks again for your own comments to me.

    • Actually, I recently reread Pride and Prejudice, and I was very disappointed to realize that mister Darcy does little more than being madly in love with Elisabeth. But I definitely got attached to him, but I think his charm lays more in the romantic idea of true love (with a rich man) than in his personality. It’s of course very possible that I just missed out on something. Can you explain a bit why you find him complex or multi-layered?
      And yeah, I mixed up prose and screenwriting. I think my analysis works for both.

      • Oh, don’t get me started! Darcy, Austen explicitly says, “is clever,” and I think many of his remarks – though usually brief – are loaded, but often in ways that are so contemporary – for HIS time – that his layers of meaning don’t quite translate.
        But it’s true, his behavior is more inferred than spelled out – because we are meant to make the same mistakes that Elizabeth makes, at least the first time we read it. So when he’s all stiff and weird meeting Wickham, he comes off as a class-conscious jerk; but when you realize that he’s just stopped Wickham eloping with his sister, and THEN meets him talking to a woman he’s just realized he finds attractive, you can imagine Darcy is suffering all kinds of sensations, not one of which he feels he should or could share with anyone.
        I love Darcy, but even loving him, I think he’s an uptight man, with a conscientious nature but a kind of rigid style. If there weren’t also a touch of humor about him he would never have appreciated Elizabeth, but as he confesses at the end, he’s really not used to being so relaxed with anyone, he’s been firmly taught never to be like that. But he yearns for those lively, gentle, happy people – that’s why he loves Bingley and yet gets both protective and controlling of him.
        Sorry, I do run on. You might be interested in the following?:

      • I agree with everything you just said, but to get back to my earlier point, it’s all part of the plot, the time and the situation really, not his bare personality.
        But I do hear you. Don’t get me started on Darcy, he ruined my love life untill I was 25 or so. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Teen Writing Tip – Finding Your Protagonist | TeenGirlsthatWrite

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