Today, let’s discuss one of the most important elements in story telling: what makes a protagonist engaging?
The protagonist is the central character of the story, the leading role. A protagonist can take many shapes , from a knight in shining armour to a troubled anti-hero. As the story’s focus, a protagonist engaging the audience on a personal level is critical for the story’s success. An engaging protagonist will make the audience invested in them, in their story, and in their victories.
So how do you create a protagonist people want to follow? Let’s go back to the origin of dramatic storytelling, Ancient Greece, and one of the biggest minds of history, Aristotle.
In his treatise called Rhetoric, Aristotle theorised that all methods of persuasion followed three principles:
- Pathos, which is the appeal to emotions and the empathy of an audience;
- Logos, the appeal to logic through a rational argument;
- Ethos, the goodwill that someone generates through his personal values, status, or mastery of a subject.
Using these tricks, past and present politicians craft a public image in which an audience believe in, creating a following. Making an engaging protagonist is no different.
Let us first look at Ethos. Ethos is the trust in what a character is doing or the values they espouse. It is generated by previous actions or reputation. A good way to create a protagonist with Ethos is to give them specific values and a unique backstory behind them.
An iconic example is Batman’s refusal to use guns and drive to eradicate crime after a gunman murdered his parents ; because his actions have an understandable root and stay consistent with it, we as an audience believe in him.
Another example of a protagonist with strong Ethos is Jean Valjean from Victor Hugo’s epic, Les Miserables. Victimized by an oppressive judicial system, Valjean falls into crime; only to be forgiven by a Bishop and given a second chance. That moment convinces Valjean to move beyond crime and redeem himself, while showing generosity to everyone he meets.
So, to create a protagonist with Ethos, try to define the core values and ambitions of a character. Once you’ve done so, link them to events in the character’s past. Thus you will create a cause-and-effect link.
For Pathos, a perfect example is Harry Potter. Meant for an audience of young children wishing for adventure and fantastical escape from daily life, Harry Potter himself was a seemingly average child. Suffering from his adopted family’s abuse and thus gaining sympathy, he found his way into a magical world where everything is possible.
Even when Harry entered the magical world, he experienced events and feelings his audience could relate to. Most children struggle with a mean, adult authority figure like Snape or a bully like Malfoy once in their life. On the other side of the emotional spectrum, the wise Dumbledore is the authority figure every child wish they had; while Hagrid is an adult who can understand a child’s perspective. Harry Potter was so successful because he was his own audience.
The best way to create pathos is to write what you know. I don’t suggest to make the protagonist a stand-in for yourself; but that you create a protagonist that you can connect with.
Write a character you can see a little bit of yourself in, or someone you know.
And finally, we have the Logos. A protagonist with Logos is one who stays consistent with the story’s internal logic and rules. If you make a world where it is clearly established everyone can fly, then having your protagonist fly about will not raise questions from the audience.
Making a character with Logos means crafting a protagonist grounded in their world, both in personality and skills. This can be done by giving your protagonist a job or duty integral to the setting’s function as a whole, thus making him or her an element of your world.
An example of a character with strong Logos is Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist. Edward is an alchemist in a universe where transformation of matter is possible but respects scientific principles; such as conservation of mass. Over the course of the story, Edward manages to push these laws to the extreme without ever breaking them. Logos also affects his characterisation, as his journey started when he tried to break a cardinal rule of Alchemy by reviving the dead, with tragic consequences. This results in him becoming cocky and having a belligerent attitude to cover up his self-loathing. This event shows both how ironclad Logos is to the setting and how it can strengthen a character.
So, to create Logos, first define the internal rules of the world you have created; then ensure that the protagonist respects them; finally, when you have established your story’s setting, try to make the protagonist fit within it.
When Ethos, Pathos and Logos connect positively, you have a multi-layered character that the audience can believe in. But they can also fall out of balance. An author may feel tempted to over-empathise with the protagonist. Such as making the entire setting revolve around them and their beliefs, breaking the story’s rules for their sake; in effect sacrificing Logos for Ethos and Pathos.
Or a character acts inconsistent with previous behaviour in order to remain “badass”, easily outsmarting a more cunning villain. That would be a breach of Ethos for the sake of Pathos. Logos meanwhile goes wrong when a setting removes a character’s agency, turning them into tools to push the plot forward.
In the end, engaging protagonists make us see the world as they do. A protagonist that doesn’t engage us is a character we do not connect with. We cannot grasp their motivations, we cannot put ourselves in their shoes, and we don’t understand their role within their own world. If you want to see if you have an engaging protagonist, ask yourself these three questions :
1) Are my protagonist’s values and goals clearly motivated by past personal events?
2) Have I felt the same as my protagonist when facing certain events?
3) Does my protagonist respect the rules of their world, and is an integral part of it?
If you’ve got a yes for those three questions, then congrats. You most likely have an engaging protagonist.
Article co-written by Maxime J. Durand and Daniel Zogbi. If you enjoyed that article, check out our one on the antagonist.