What Does a Character Have to Do to Be a Protagonist Around Here?

Hoping to find representation for my Gannah series, I met with an agent at a writers’ conference a couple years ago.

The agent listened to my spiel about The Story in the Stars. Then, with an expression that made me wonder if her breakfast disagreed with her, informed me women don’t read science fiction; and since my protagonist was female, it wouldn’t appeal to the target market.

My first thought was that this was a ridiculous statement. She didn’t want to represent me for some reason she didn’t feel at liberty to share, and this was the first excuse that came to mind.

But, hey, she’s the professional, and I’m just a nobody. We should listen to people who know more than we, right? So I gave the idea some thought. Should Dr. Pik be the protagonist instead? Hmmm…. It was true, my crit partners and beta-readers seemed to like him better than Dassa. But make him the protagonist?

I asked her if the protagonist should be introduced first. That is, Stars opens with a chapter about Dassa. We don’t meet Pik until chapter 2. So if I were to rework the book to make Pik the protag, should I introduce him first?

The agent considered the question and answered something to the effect that there’s really no rule on that, but it might not be a bad idea.

I thanked her for her time and went to lunch thinking about what she’d said. After further consideration (and polling of a number of women to ask if they liked to read sci-fi), I decided my first thought was correct. That agent simply didn’t want to represent me, but wasn’t comfortable giving the real reason(s). I suppose that’s her prerogative.

Fast-forward to 2011.  The Story in the Stars is now available in print and ebook form — for both male and female readers. Both seem to enjoy it.

In July, my character Dassa was interviewed on Naomi Musch’s blog.

Not to be outdone, Dr. Pik scored an interview with blogger Laurie Jenkins.

I found it interesting that Pik agreed with the aforementioned agent. Not that women don’t read his genre (even fictional characters know better than that), but that he should have been the protagonist.

I figured that was just his vanity speaking. But then, when Elaine Stock offered to host a blog debate between Dassa and Pik on the subject, the doctor made a good argument.

I can’t find any hard-and-fast criteria for determining who your protagonist should be. But here are a few guidelines, widely accepted by writers, editors, and publishers:

  •  The protagonist is the character who drives the story. If you can remove him without undermining the plot, he’s not the protagonist.
  • The protagonist should be interesting enough that the reader will want to hang with him throughout the whole book. He doesn’t need to be likeable, exactly. He just needs to be compelling.
  • By the end of the book, the protagonist should have experienced change and/or growth of some kind.
  • How much does each character have to win or lose by the events unfolding in the story? The one with the most at stake should be the protagonist.

Got it? Good. Now, class, for your assignment:

1. Read the debate and weigh the evidence.  Make your decision as to whose argument carried the day.

2. Leave a comment on Elaine’s blog telling us who you believe should be the protagonist of The Story in the Stars: Dassa or Pik. Elaine will announce the results on her blog next week.

3. If you’d like a free print copy of the book, mention this in the comment on Elaine’s blog. She’ll announce the winner next week.

4. If you don’t win the drawing, buy the book yourself (or ask your local library to order a copy; if you live in Dover, New Philadelphia, Sugarcreek, or Bedford, Ohio, your local library already has it). Read it. Love it. Tingle with anticipation for the release of Book #2 in the Gateway to Gannah series, Words in the Wind, later this year.

5. If you haven’t already done so, subscribe to my blog.

6. Accept my thanks for doing the above!

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6 thoughts on “What Does a Character Have to Do to Be a Protagonist Around Here?

  1. Thanks, Melanie,
    The whole thing was Pik’s idea, really. If he hadn’t brought it up during Laurie’s interview, I never would have given it another thought. Sometimes it pays to listen to our characters!

  2. First, Yvonne, thanks so much for the mention of my blog, Everyone’s Story, on your site. You’ve done an excellent job–and so creative too!–prompting your characters to lash it out with each other. I hope your viewers will hop on over and cast their votes, as well as leave a comment to chance winning your book.

    And two, although I do not know which agent you met with, I’m wondering if it’s the same one who told me that white-supramacists absolutely cannot live in the Northeast. Hmm. It’s very well documented that sadly, people who engage in hate crimes live all over the world. I have to tell you though, you made me laugh aloud about the agent’s professional advice.

  3. Thanks, Elaine, I laughed at your agent tale too. I wonder if it WAS the same person!

    Dassa and Pik argue about everything. It’s like a sport for them. A public debate was just the natural course for things to take. It was fun.

  4. Great job, Yvonne, having your two leads battle it out in public. None of the modest Gannahan wife in Dassa this time. Now I’m not sure how to vote. Can you break the rule and have two protagonists? How about Pik and Dassa against the rest of the galaxy?

  5. Some say 2 protags is permissible; some you can only have 1. Personally, I’m voting for Dassa because the book’s already in print so it’s too late to change it.

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