Why is your main character leading the story?

Hey YA Bookcasers!

This may sound like a silly question, but it’s one writers don’t often sit down to think about. We tend to have our main character come to us and that’s that. It’s their story. Which is fair enough. But what I want to know is why is that particular character deserving of being your protagonist?

If you take a good, long objective look at your story, can you tell me why your MC deserves the leading role? Other than it’s just who you want to write about. I know, I know, “but Fiona, this is who my MC is.”
However, sometimes that’s just not enough to cut it. I believe a protagonist must have one of two qualities (or both) to be the lead in your novel:
1) They have the most at stake.
2) They must be uniquely qualified to do the job.

Okay, so they seem pretty obvious. But let’s delve into it a little further. Stakes: Why are their stakes more important than anyone else’s? Is it their parents that will die if they don’t succeed? Or will it be their husband who’ll walk out the door? Stakes don’t have to be life or death, but they do need to be important enough to the character in order for them to count. Why are these stakes so important to your character? What will they gain if they succeed and what will this mean to them? Why is this the most important thing in their lives? What do they feel will happen to them if they don’t succeed?

Uniquely qualified: Now, I’m not talking about having a character who has a super special talent in something. What I’m saying is why is this character the one who we have to follow? Say there’s a group of people and they all have the same general goal (for example, let’s take Harry in Harry Potter). Why is Harry the one we feel compelled to follow as the MC? Because he has an additional personal goal (avenge his parents). It’s nothing about him being the “chosen one” (though there’s a lovely twist JK puts in about that, too), or him being a better wizard than everybody else (there are plenty of better wizards than him). However, he’s uniquely qualified due to his very personal goal. We want to follow not only the over-arcing goal about defeating Voldemort, but we want to see Harry avenge his parents.

Caveat: there is a sticky trap of “the chosen one” where the protagonist can actually get less involved in the plot while they wait around for their “chance” to do what they need to do. They can fall into the background, where the side characters guide them & protect them, and the secondary characters can actually steal the stage. Watch out for this!

Okay, so that’s the most basic terms of why your MC needs to have that extra special “something” in order to be deserving of the lead role. It’s not about being super talented or the chosen one. It’s about having the most to lose on a very personal level, and being uniquely qualified to solve that goal. Sure, someone else might be able to achieve the external goal (defeat the bad guy), but what the MC has is an additional goal (for example, avenge their parents), which is the one the reader becomes super invested in. And that’s the key: the reader’s invested in the personal goal, not just the over-arcing plot goal.

I hope this helps, and as always, this is just my own subjective advice.
Happy writing and reading!


Fiona xox

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