Choosing a protagonist for your story – no matter what genre you’re writing – is so important. The protagonist is the one who drives the story forward, they’re the reason the story is happening, the reason your readers are still turning the pages.
My mystery novel is written in third-person limited and I had chosen the wrong character to follow causing me to have to do a huge rewrite. But guess what? The novel is so much better now. It really does make a difference.
How do you choose who should be your protagonist?
There are so many reasons to choose a protagonist. The character who has the most interesting backstory, the character who’s affected by the plot the most, and also, whichever character is begging to have their story told. (If a character is trying to write the story, let them. It’s just easier that way and you’ll avoid some temper tantrums from them and yourself.)
When it comes to writing a mystery though, there are some things to consider.
- Which character is the most affected by the crime committed?
- Which character has to solve the crime for whatever very good reason?
- How the crime change the character’s life?
What role can your protagonist play in a mystery novel?
Your protagonist can do one of two things:
- Solve the crime
- Aid in solving the crime
When I say your protagonist can solve the crime, I mean you can have your protagonist be a number of sleuths.
- Police Officer
- Private Investigator
And a number of others. I’ve never seen it done before, but I think it’d be cool to have the protagonist be a coroner. My point is, it can be someone who is in the criminal justice or law enforcement field.
But it doesn’t have to be either.
Your protagonist can also aid the main crime solver but be the protagonist:
- An assistant
- A friend
- The accused
There are a number of ways it could play out.
How I chose my protagonist
I have two main characters in my story. George, the P.I., and Lilah, his “assistant.” However, she wasn’t always his assistant. She comes waltzing in to hire him to solve a crime. Lilah’s not one to sit back and watch though. She aids him, much to George’s protests. The crime is personal to her and George needs the money. They both have motive and it becomes personal for the both of them.
I originally chose my protagonist to be George because I thought since he was the P.I. he had to be the focus. The very first draft I wrote, he was dumb. Lilah ended up figuring everything out and she was braver than he was too.
With the help of my critique group, they made me realize Lilah was trying to get her own voice heard. I rewrote it all with Lilah as the focus and it made a huge difference.
George’s personality changed for the better and so did Lilah’s for that matter.
Give your protagonist a reason to shine
Long story short…
- Let their voice be heard if they want it to be – sometimes you don’t choose the protagonist. They tell you.
- Give them a motive to solve the crime presented to them.
- Don’t worry about their title – detective or assistant – as long as they’re important to the story and have stakes, they’ll make a good protagonist.
- Make them likable and believable – I didn’t mention this because it’s obvious for any novel in any genre, but I felt I should say it anyway.
Choosing the right protagonist is important, but if it don’t get it right the first time, don’t worry. Your characters will yell at you and tell you how to fix it.