For SF&F Writers. Building Believable Worlds Part 2: The Protagonist(s)


So you’ve got a great idea for your speculative fiction story. You’ve envisioned a fantastic future or a mythical realm, and presumably given some thoughts to it’s inhabitants and the problem they’ll need to solve in order to drive the plot forward. Good start. Now, what character’s point of view is this story going to be told from. A hero? An anti-hero? A hapless bystander? Perhaps a whole slew of morally ambiguous viewpoint characters of diverse ages and backgrounds a la Game of Thrones? If you’re writing short fiction I’d advise against the last one, but it never hurts to try.

In my time as a First Reader at Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, I’ve had some time to think about what makes the ideal protagonist. You could always go the more traditional route of an adventure story. Have them be a noble champion of the oppressed who slays dragons, defeats invading aliens, cracks jokes, is admired by all, and inevitably romances the attractive girl/guy secondary character by the end of the story despite being otherwise occupied performing all that other heroic schlock. If you want to be boring. Sorry, uncomplicated stories of good vs. evil in which everyone’s character is clearly defined with obvious linear progressions have their place, but I’ve found far too many of them in the slush pile lately.

So lets break it down. To me, a good protagonist is, above all, sympathetic and relatable. Love them or love to hate them, you should at least be able to understand the tangled web of their origins, motivations, and desires. The thing at the core of their being which drives them to act as the central figure in this drama that you the writer have crafted needs to be at least as compelling to the reader as the minutia of the plot itself. Being either willingly or reluctantly tasked with saving their respect world in some form or fashion is one of the more frequent and grandiose devices used to drive plot and character forward in speculative fiction, and for good reason. It takes a truly jaded bastard to not appreciate a well crafted story of a hero overcoming adversity for the good of all. It’s something we can all aspire to on a certain level. But having the hero cast the One Ring into the fiery mountain to stop the Daleks from organizing another Hunger Games is an old ploy, uncomplicated and predictable.

The stories I find myself most drawn to these days are the ones with ambiguous endings. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel the reader needs some kind of climactic act of resolution to make the whole thing worth while,Β  but lets leave some things to the imagination. Give me a protagonist that has complicated relationships with secondary characters, who questions their own actions and encounters unforeseen and morally challenging obstacles, and who maybe isn’t sure at the end of it all if they’ve done exactly the right thing even though they may have achieved what they set out to do. Give me a character who lives and acts in a dynamic world that doesn’t stand still and static, conforming to their expectations and those of the reader. Better still, surprise me by offering me something completely unexpected. It may be harder to write, but it’ll get you published, and it’ll do a better job of earning you the respect of your peers than that latest installment of Sir Galahad Versus the Evil Space Lizards you’ve been shopping around. Trust me, I read it.



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