Five things I need to know more than the color of your protagonist’s eyes
I’ve been on a pet project for the last few months, reading the first chapter of nearly five hundred books to see if I can identify what works and what doesn’t.
I came up with a list of five things I absolutely need to know in the first chapter of a book. In a book done well, I don’t even realize these questions are being answered. And most books answer them poorly, or not at all.
What does your protagonist want?
“Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” — Kurt Vonnegut
A common mistake here is to make the desire vague — an angsty teenager wanting to be happy, a new student wanting to make friends and find love, or someone with a dark past wanting to make amends. I imagine the author picks these broad desires for meaning, connection or redemption as a means of tapping into the universal.
But, paradoxically, the desire has to be concrete to be relatable. If the protagonist’s desire doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of a project manager asking for SMART goals, the protagonist comes across as a milquetoast Prufrock-type. Why would you believe that the protagonist is ever going to achieve the goal they’ve set for themselves if they can’t even tell you what success looks like? Why would you join them on their journey if they can’t make a simple plan?
What keeps the protagonist from going after what they want?
Most authors seem to get that there needs to be something preventing the protagonist from just getting what they want. There are two types of damage most commonly used:
External or circumstantial damage that forces a character into agency, e.g.
- Poverty (or the threat of poverty)
- Dead or dysfunctional parents
- Disease or medical trauma
- Terrorism or assault
Internal or psychological damage that keep a character from trusting in their own agency, e.g.
- Fear or Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Addiction or substance abuse
- Depression, grief, anxiety and self-loathing
Of course the damage can be a complex combination of these things and others, but done well the protagonist has a real capacity to triumph that is impeded for real reasons.
Why, in spite of everything, must the protagonist struggle alone?
Many authors answer this question with a Chosen One narrative. Many have gifts (can use magic, can see the faerie, can be witty and charming) but only the protagonist is irreplaceable. Their place is destined in some way, and without them there is no story.
The alternatives to a Chosen One narrative are few — there are self-chosen Volunteers, the Unchosen Ones who end up stuck in the whirlpool of destiny due to a convergence of unfortunate circumstances, and they must either survive or die.
What beloved part of the protagonist’s past holds them back from their future?
Just as the protagonist’s damage is the flip-side of their desire, keeping them from full agency, the Anchor is the flip-side of their isolation. It’s the thing or person they love, that also holds them back from going after what they want wholeheartedly. Without the anchor, they’d go hurtling towards their future, leaving their old selves behind.
The Anchor can be:
- The comfort of the nest, e.g. a beloved friend or first-love, parents
- Responsibilities, e.g. dependents to support, fear of losing what little you still have
- Beliefs and attitudes towards change, e.g. religion, fear of ostracism from community
- Objects or places, especially if these are symbols of a better/happier time
Why should I, the reader, care if your protagonist gets their desire?
Last, but in some ways the most important thing I, the reader, need to know about the protagonist no later than the first chapter, is why I should care if the protagonist gets what they want.
This is where most writers choose easy answers that they believe have the most universal appeal:
- The MacGuffin: If the protagonist doesn’t get Thingie, the world will end and several people will die. According to Hitchcock, “The MacGuffin is the thing that the spies are after but the audience don’t care.”
- The Saintly Sibling: The protagonist goes dark-side so the pure, perfect, innocent sibling doesn’t have to. You have siblings, don’t you? Why don’t you love them enough? If you did, you’d understand this protagonist.
- Twu Wuv: Vicariously fulfill your romantic fantasies via the manufactured and unnecessary tension that exists between poor or secretive communicators.
There are a few answers I personally find more interesting:
- The world, after: If the protagonist succeeds (in triumphing over evil, surviving the onslaught, etc.) how is the world after? Is it a place I’d like to see (and help build)? I’d like to see the building of a utopia/dystopia rather than people simply surviving the aftermath.
- Inner peace / redemption: If the protagonist triumphs over their psychological demons (e.g. anger, addiction), is there hope for all of us?
- Connection, not codependence: If the protagonist gets their goal, can they pioneer and showcase new forms of loving relationship?
Now, these are obviously not all the things I need to know in Chapter One, and there are some great books that keep you waiting for these answers. But I promise, answering any of these questions is more critical than the color of your protagonist’s eyes.