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Deconstructing the Protagonist

By Martha Alderson, M.A.

Writing a first draft all the way through to the end gives you knowledge about the climax of the story. The climax is the point of highest drama in your story, the crowning moment when the thematic significance or deeper meaning becomes clear to the reader. Just as it looks as if all is permanently lost for the protagonist, at the climax she delivers the gift. The climax generally hits a chapter or scene before the final page.

The climax determines many of the earlier decisions you need to make in your novel, memoir, and screenplay. The action the protagonist takes at the climax reveals what traits, beliefs, and skills are necessary for her to prevail. Thus, she is missing those skills at the beginning of the story and will need relearn or rediscover them throughout the middle. Some talents she will be learning for the first time, but the true abilities necessary for her success at the climax are usually rediscovered after having been lost or buried due to her backstory. 

This is a backward approach to developing a character, deconstructing the end character to determine who she is at the beginning.

Most writers engage in a forward approach to developing a character.

You fill in a flaw, a strength, and five other character traits on the Character Emotional Development Plotline portion of the Character Plot Profile (*See below).

Either you begin writing first and the character reveals these traits to you, or you decide upon the character traits first and then construct a character using those traits. 

However, there are some writers who write from the climax back to the beginning.

In order for the character to transform, her traits also transform. If the protagonist needs to tell the truth in order to achieve her goal and face her greatest fear, in the beginning she is the antithesis of honest. Throughout the middle, the reader learns all the subtle ways the protagonist lies to others and mostly to herself. Pretending to like something because someone in authority likes it, saying only partly of what she believes, evading a question rather than telling the truth, shaping her words to fit what she knows is acceptable, smiling when someone intends to be funny, agreeing when she has not even thought over the matter trip her up more and more often and cause her to react more and more emotionally.

By writing backward from the climax, a writer discovers along the way the real journey her character is on. Writing backward sounds counterintuitive, but it can be revolutionary.

When you have written the climax once, then you are able to perform a task analysis of each step the protagonist must accomplish to reach her goal at the end. You are also able to determine the character’s emotional reaction to each of these challenges.

The moment the protagonist leaves the middle of the story after the crisis and ensuing threshold, she enters the end when she takes the first step toward the completion of her final goal. Full ownership of her newly discovered consciousness gained from having suffered the crisis takes the entire final quarter of the page or scene or word count. The protagonist needs practice incorporating into her being the depth and breadth of learning and connectedness. She has not yet mastered her transformation. The protagonist more and more painfully realizes each time her actions and/or speech do not align with her new understanding of herself and the world around her. During the final quarter of the story, she may require one step forward, two steps back, and three forward on her way to the climax.

Divide the page or scene or word count of your entire story. Compare the beginning quarter of your story and the end quarter of your story. How do they tie together? Do both the dramatic action plot and character emotional development plot coalesce at the end for more punch and impact? How does the character change from the beginning to the end? Does the beginning foreshadow the final clash at the climax?

At the climax at the end, often the protagonist’s greatest antagonist challenges her again. Unlike earlier encounters, however, this time, rather than be aggressive, the protagonist is assertive. Now she is able to turn the opposing energy into something helpful. Because of all the antagonists she has confronted in the story and learned from along the way, at the climax the character is able to show us yet another way to live life in triumph.

For many protagonists, especially those in character-driven stories, the character’s backstory represents the loss of the imperfect imprint of her original self. In other words, something happens to the character that causes the protagonist to begin to doubt herself and to fear the world around her.
Because of all the dramatic action that takes place in the front story, by the climax the protagonist has uncovered and rediscovered her true authority over her own life. In realigning herself to her inner purpose, for the first time since the backstory robbed her of herself, she meets herself as she truly is meant to be. She may fear what she faces at the climax, however, she no longer runs away from her fears. She confronts them head on.

In action-driven stories, the greatest antagonist typically is represented as a universal external fear, such as a seemingly undefeatable villain or a force intent on destroying the world. At the climax, the protagonist confronts and defeats the greater antagonist for the good of the whole.

Internal, character-driven stories end more reflectively. Now, the protagonist stops making decisions based on what she “should do” according to an old belief system, society, or family and recreating situations that keep her stuck. She is no longer obedient and dependent, expecting and receiving punishments and rewards. She refuses to adhere to what she ought to do, how she should behave, and the expectations of other people. Instead, she follows her intuition, listens to herself, and opens herself to guidance.

She is determined to make a stand in her life and live her truth.

Because that happens, the antagonists in her life intensify their resistance to her change and growth. The emotion of the story rises ever higher.

As she learns who respects her feelings, she makes better choices about how to spend her time and who to spend it with.

This shift in the protagonist threatens family members, coworkers, and friends. Her piece of the puzzle has changed; now the entire picture shifts and demands a readjustment of the total scheme. Unsettled, perplexed, irritable, anxious, and afraid of change for themselves, the people around her refuse to accept her change. Their refusal turns up the heat. Because that happens, the character has to stretch. Because she stretches, she makes mistakes and sometimes fails again.

The more mistakes the protagonist makes listening to her own heart and expressing her true emotions, the more she learns. Only now in the final quarter of the story, she does not attach energy or emotion to her problems. Rather than reacting and creating more difficulty, she detaches. No longer dragging around a sack full of old issues, she is free and often finds herself almost floating.

Her earlier goal or outer purpose expands into something much larger now that she is empowered by consciousness. No longer desperate, her feelings of isolation, competition, and separation vanish. With a new sense of insight and appreciation of the greater mystery, she understands every act has consequences in the world at large. Her decision-making process becomes more certain and takes less time. She relies less on gathering and analyzing data and more on intuition and instinct.

By understanding who the protagonist ultimately becomes at the climax at the end, you are able to deconstruct the protagonist and determine who she is as she begins the story and thus, better control when and where to offer deepening information about her throughout to the end.

*Character Plot Profile

Fill out the following profile for your protagonist and all major characters.

Character’s name:

Dramatic Action Plotline

  1. Overall story goal:
  2. What stands in her/his way?
  3. What does s/he stand to lose?

Character Emotional Development Plotline

  1. Flaw(s):
  2. Strength(s):
  3. Hate(s):
  4. Love(s):
  5. Fear(s):
  6. Dream(s):
  7. Secret(s): 

Portions of this article are excerpted from The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master

Meet the Author: Martha Alderson, M.A.

Martha Alderson, aka the Plot Whisperer, is the author of the Plot Whisperer series of plot books for writers: The Plot Whisperer Book of Prompts: Easy Exercises to Get You Writing, The Plot Whisperer Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises to Help You Create Compelling Stories – a companion workbook to The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. She has also written Blockbuster Plots Pure & Simple (Illusion Press) and several ebooks on plot. As an international plot consultant for writers, Martha’s clients include best-selling authors, New York editors, and Hollywood movie directors. She teaches plot workshops to novelists, mem...