Writing an interesting protagonist – Struggles & Flaws

In a character driven story, almost no one wants to watch the characters effortlessly push through the plot without any kind of hurdle or obstacle to overcome. Those kind of stories often tend to be power fantasies that, while entertaining and enjoyable, are often more superficial and focused on a lot of action but very little tension. Tension is key to character driven stories as it compels the audience to feel fear for the characters and to feel either depressed when they fail or feel relief when they succeed. But for a compelling story that inspires and touches the hearts of the audience, the characters need to overcome something through great effort and challenge.

What a character struggles with, similar to motivation and their goal, can be almost anything so long as it’s meaningful to the story in some way. It can be physical, emotional, psychological, practically anything so long as there’s an obstacle to overcome. In a traditional story, there’s the structure of rising action leading to the climax of the story. The rising action is often where the protagonist and possible other characters train and struggle to overcome the inevitable problem the climax of their character arc. Every character arc has the character attempting to resolve or overcome that which challenges them most. To put it in more traditional terms, it can be character v. character, environment or themselves. There’s an endless amount of creativity that can be explored with character conflicts like this.

Slight spoilers: Skyward by Brandon Sanderson and Star Wars The Sequel Trilogy.

Spensa from Skyward is a character struggling, not just against their environment, but also their own self-doubt. For years growing up she was told her father was a coward and that has brought shame on her and her family. Society ridiculed her and actively worked against her ambitions of becoming a pilot and proving that she’s brave. But as the story progresses, Spensa’s bravery is put to the test as she’s confronted with the horrors of war. It’s constant setback and obstacle one after another thrown in her path and what makes the story compelling is that she struggles against these problems and it’s not easy for her. Her anger and hot-headed ego constantly get in her own way, presenting an internal struggle she has to battle against in addition to everyone else working against her. It makes her a fascinating and endearing character to watch grow and strive.

On the flip side you have the type of character that glides through the story without really struggling with any issues. Rey from the new Star Wars trilogy is a character that, not only fails to maintain tension throughout the story, but also actively destroys the tension. While the first movie set up potential conflicts both internal and external, it’s hard to take them seriously when Rey effortlessly pushes those obstacles aside to do what the plot needs to move forward. With each movie that came out, the tension felt less and less realistic and Rey just happens to be able to resolve everything herself. It’s not necessarily bad to have one hero fix everything, but that hero needs to have gone through some kind of internal or external training to have earned those climatic moments. Without that effort, everything comes off as just unexciting, uninteresting and, in the worst cases, seemingly random. As a result, there is no character driven story for the audience to really latch onto as there’s nothing Rey is struggling to overcome with great effort.

With the advent of character driven stories taking the forefront of storytelling, it’s dangerous to focus on a protagonist that doesn’t face adversity and work to overcome their problems. We all struggle in life, either against others in our life or our own internal struggles we face everyday. Characters struggling against obstacles gives the audience hope and something to relate to. Power fantasy characters are fun and enjoyable every now and then, but it doesn’t resonate with people as much as watching someone work to become a better version of themselves or work to make the world a better place. A character that faces difficult times is a character that can give us hope and something to aspire to.

– Raphael

P.S: Sorry for the late article, was not feeling well over the last week and decided to use the weekend to rest up and recooperate.

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