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The Mysterious Protagonist

Anonymous asked: “How do I create a main character? I have so many side characters and a decent plot. I like them better with a bit of mystery. I want my main to be interesting enough to not be the plain, boring, ‘chosen one’ stereotype. Help?”

Who ever said your protagonist can’t be mysterious? I’ve read novels where I don’t even get to learn the protagonist’s name or others that I go along thinking I know a lot about this character only for them to flip a switch and show I know nothing about them at all. 

Your reader doesn’t need to know everything about your main characters and also, your reader doesn’t have to be in their head. An alternative might be writing in third person, holding all characters at arm’s length. It’s a matter of playing to your strengths and knowing what you can get away with. Not every story can get away with not telling you the main characters name – in first person or third person, but there’s plenty of examples, like Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier told in first person, about a second wife haunted by her predecessor or In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell told in third person, about a man and his wife, both unnamed, and their marriage as they settle into a remote house on a quiet lake. In both instances, you know very little about these characters and their past, just where they are now and what is happening. That seems to be all that’s needed. The story itself is demanding answers to more pressing questions- the reader isn’t thinking, “oh what is their name?” The plot demands answers to other things. 

Another example I love to talk about is Natalie Waite from Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman. Now, this novel is written in a very close third person – so close that I tend to misremember it as first person, but it’s third person. The reader gets a sense of Natalie’s thoughts and learns kind of a lot about her, but suddenly, she does something unexpected or brings up something you would have thought she’d have mentioned. She hides things from the reader and reveals things later as though it were never a secret. She is meant to be surprising. She’s a character who I don’t think would lie to you, but omits a lot. It’s open-ended and leaves you with a lot of clues and few facts. 

A protagonist doesn’t need to be boring. There’s no reason that the reader should feel they know everything about them. Actually, when I’m writing, I get bored if I feel I know everything about a character (that includes the protagonist especially). I might know a lot, but with a protagonist, sometimes there’s just much more to know. You might have the plot of the novel that is a huge problem in main character’s life, but also, it might not be the only conflict he’s dealing with. 

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