character selection

Guess who makes a poor protagonist…

Are you allergic to cats? Babies? Do you like stories about ’em anyway?  Then you oughtta know that during a recent webinar, organized by the wonderful organization Washington Nonprofits, I asked the participants to name a protagonist in their stories. Someone started writing about a cool one-eyed cat. I blurted out that animals don’t make great protagonists and kept going. If I had more time to elaborate, I would’ve said…

The protagonist and beneficiary are sometimes, but not always, one and the same.  
Let’s say your organization treats drug addiction. You can tell the story of Arthur and his addiction. If Arthur calls your clinic, he’s being the protagonist in his own story. He’s making decisions and driving action. And now, by working with you, he’s also the beneficiary of your services.
Now what if Arthur didn’t call you but his Aunt Georgia called on his behalf? Now Georgia is the one driving the action, setting Arthur on a new track. In this second scenario Arthur is still the beneficiary but now Georgia is the protagonist. (And now you are improving two lives at once!)

Kids, nature, and animals don’t make great protagonists.
Guess who doesn’t declare goals and make action plans?  Trees.
Now let’s say you work in environmental stewardship. A forest might be the beneficiary of your work but you’re not going to get a call from a ponderosa pine saying, “Listen, I heard rumblings about illegal dumping where I live. You gotta get out here!” But a neighbor might. A biologist might. An arborist might. Some other human adult might.

Same with animals. Like that one-eyed cat (wearing an eyepatch and a top hat, obviously). We can root for the cat’s well being but somebody else is going to step up and connect that cat to animal rescue and maybe even catnip. Kitty is the beneficiary, not the protagonist.
Kids are a mixed bag. If a child is very young, she is the beneficiary in the story while an adult (e.g., teacher, pediatrician, parent, etc.) is the protagonist. If the child is older, she can advocate for herself. Go case by case. Look at who was involved when your organization entered the story to get a sense of who is driving action. Then spend the bulk of your story on what happened after you showed up.

So ask yourself if the one you’re writing about is the beneficiary, the protagonist, or both. 
And now…please prove me wrong! Share an example where a kid, nature, or an animal was the protagonist, making decisions to shape his/her/its destiny. And if you know a baby who makes phone calls, I NEED TO KNOW.

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