Unconventional Protagonists: Breathing Life into Unique Characters
Have you ever wondered what truly makes a story stick in your head? Is it the twisty, turny, timey-wimey plot? The vivid descriptions of familiar or fantastic places? The dialogue that sparks like fireworks? While all these elements are important, there's one character that stands at the very heart of a story – the protagonist.
In the vast world literature, protagonists are the centres of story, inviting us to step into their shoes as they embark on amazing journeys. They are the heroes, the anti-heroes, and sometimes, they completely defy conventions.
As writers, it's a given that we need to understand the pivotal role of protagonists as we shape our stories, because it's through them that we explore themes, emotions, and the intricacies of the human experience. But what happens if we break the mould and challenge the familiar archetypes, and venture into uncharted territory?
Protagonists are more than just characters—it's through them that readers experience a story. They draw forth our empathy and gain our admiration (or even frustration). They might be adventurers, quiet observers, or complex anti-heroes, but protagonists are the linchpin of literature.
But not every protagonist needs to fit neatly into boxes of heroism or villainy, bravery or cowardice. Some defy stereotypes, adding depth, freshness, and surprise to the narrative. These are the unconventional protagonists—the unexpected characters that breathe new life into stories.
While conventional protagonists have their place and importance, they sometimes reinforce stereotypes meaning their stories seem familiar. Too familiar.
Why Break the Mould?
Unconventional protagonists hold a mirror to our preconceived notions, and they resonate with readers because they reflect the complexities of—gasp!—real life.
These characters can shatter stereotypes and inspire empathy, show us that heroism isn't limited to physical strength, that imperfection is beautiful, and that courage can emerge from vulnerability. In a world that still boxes us all into categories, unconventional protagonists remind us that people are multifaceted.
The magic of unconventional protagonists lies in their ability to evoke genuine emotions and foster connections with readers—and that's they key to any protagonist. When we encounter characters who don't fit the conventional hero's mould, we see aspects of ourselves, and it's this relatability that deepens our engagement with the story, inviting us to invest emotionally.
We may find our own perspectives challenged and expanded, our assumptions questioned, embrace diversity, and appreciate the richness of the human experience. They remind us that anyone can break free from stereotypes and be a protagonist in their own story.
Exploring Unconventional Traits
Imagine a protagonist who doesn't possess heroic bravery. Instead, they're plagued by self-doubt, anxiety, or they're grappling with their own fears. These unconventional traits don't diminish their heroic qualities but rather humanise them.
Unconventional traits can also mean unconventional strengths. Perhaps your protagonist has a peculiar talent, like deciphering ancient runes or an encyclopaedic knowledge of drain covers. These traits can take the story in unexpected directions, adding to the character's depth and authenticity.
Examples of Well-Known Characters
Arthur Dent from Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is not a fearless space explorer. He's ordinary and somewhat befuddled. His ordinariness, complete with a passion for dressing gowns, adds a delightful twist to a sci-fi hero. We navigate the absurdity of the cosmos through Arthur's eyes—and his relatability draws us deeper into the story.
Consider Sherlock Holmes, who, despite his remarkable deductive skills, is a socially aloof, eccentric character. His unconventional traits, like his obsession with violin-playing and odd experiments, make him memorable and add to his enigmatic allure.
These examples of redefined heroes invite readers to connect with characters on a human level, showing them that vulnerability can coexist with courage, and that eccentricity can coexist with genius.
Mark Haddon's Christopher Boone from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is an unconventional protagonist due to his neurodivergence. His unique traits—his passion for maths and his aversion to physical contact—are presented with authenticity. Readers can see the world through his eyes, fostering a deep connection with his character.
The key to crafting these characters is to delve into their psychology. Understand their motivations, fears, and desires, asking yourself how these unconventional traits stem from their background or experiences. When traits are rooted in a character's authenticity, they become a powerful tool for storytelling.
Unconventional Professions and Backgrounds
A protagonist's profession and background can offer a unique lens through which readers experience their narratives. In my novel, Behind the Seams, I threw Kit, a Savile Row tailor, into a fashion design reality TV show (think Project Runway or Next in Fashion). His unconventional approach to making clothes—he prefers hand stitching to using a sewing machine—challenged those around him, and I've lost count of the people who rediscovered the joy of hand sewing because they fell in love him. Just as well, considering Behind the Seams is a romance!
What about a locksmith who specialises in antique locks or an urban historian who used to be a graffiti artist? I met one of those urban historians on a hop-on, hop-off tour of New York, and he was fascinating. Unconventional professions can help you explore lesser-known subcultures, trades, and passions—and readers love reading about other people's jobs. I have no idea why, but they do.
That locksmith might uncover a hidden secret in a lock they pick, and that graffiti artist might be able to communicate is a visual language indecipherable to most.
An unconventional profession can enable you, the writer, to explore themes of identity, the clash between tradition and modernity, or the pursuit of passion over convention. That locksmith's story? Privacy and security. That graffiti artist? Power of art as a means of protest.
Characters from Different Genres and Time Periods
In historical fiction, a Renaissance painter might buck tradition to create groundbreaking art or a young Chinese woman might defy gender norms to become a fearsome warrior (Hi, Mulan!). These characters challenge the constraints of their eras, breathing life into historical settings.
Then there's that space-faring botanist dude in The Martian who relied on his skills to survive on Mars by chowing down on the potatoes he grew. Potatoes, people. On. Mars.
Unique professions and backgrounds sometimes serve as mirrors to our own aspirations, passions, and desires, encouraging us to question the norm and chart our own paths.
The Power and Significance of Diversity
In storytelling, diversity is not just a buzzword; it's a tool that can challenge stereotypes, enriching the variety of characters we encounter. Unconventional protagonists embrace diversity in all its forms, whether it's cultural background, sexuality, or race.
Human experience is a vibrant spectrum, reflecting the world we live in, where individuals come from diverse backgrounds, possess unique identities, and navigate their own lives. Writing about protagonists from different walks of life fosters inclusivity and broadens representation.
By their very existence, diverse protagonists shatter stereotypes, defying preconceived notions and challenging beliefs about what a protagonist should be. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch's unwavering commitment to justice and equality in the racially charged American South challenged the stereotypes of the time. It continues to inspire readers today.
Characters with disabilities, like Auggie Pullman in Wonder, have broken stereotypes, offering, in Auggie's case, a poignant portrayal of a young boy with craniofacial differences.
Diversity doesn't just tick a box; it gives readers insights into different worlds and the perspectives within. In Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, light is shed on the lives of Chinese-American women and their complex relationships and explores themes of identity and cultural heritage.
Alice Walker's The Color Purple introduces us to African-American Celie, who navigates issues of race, gender, and sexuality in the American South. Her story serves as an insight into the broader struggles faced by marginalised communities.
Embrace Diversity in Character Creation
As writers, I think we have a responsibility to create diverse protagonists. Embracing diversity doesn't mean tokenism; it means crafting authentic characters who reflect the richness of human existence. It needs research, empathy, respect, and accuracy.
Consider how background, identity, or culture can influence a character's worldview, motivations, and conflicts. If you need to, invite sensitivity readers from the communities you're representing to provide feedback and ensure authenticity. (I once did this for a writer, and it helped her immensely.) In doing so, you can contribute to a more inclusive storytelling landscape.
Diversity shouldn't be an afterthought. It should be an essential ingredient that adds nuance, authenticity, and depth.
Crafting Your Own Unconventional Protagonist
Creating unconventional protagonists opens doors to limitless possibilities, but it does require careful consideration, attention to detail, and a commitment to really crafting characters that are unconventional and deeply engaging. Here are some practical tips:
1. Start with Depth and Complexity
Like all well-rounded characters, unconventional protagonists should possess depth and complexity. Dive into their backgrounds, motivations, fears, and desires. Consider their past experiences and their influence on your character's actions. The more you understand them, the better you can portray them.
2. Explore Those Unconventional Traits
Think beyond the ordinary. For example, your protagonist might be a thrill-seeking filing clerk who moonlights as a rock climber or an introverted accountant with a fascination for extreme ironing. (It's a thing. Google it!) Unconventional traits can range from quirks and habits just as much as it can from an unconventional profession or background.
3. Balance Unconventional with Relatability
While your character might be unconventional, you have to strike a balance so that readers can still relate to them. You want to enhance the character's authenticity rather than alienate readers. Consider how they might resonate with universal human experiences or emotions in the context of your story.
4. Showcase Vulnerability
Vulnerability has always been a powerful tool for character development, and unconventional protagonists can have vulnerabilities that make them relatable and endearing. Whether it's a fear, an insecurity, or a past failure, vulnerability humanises characters, allowing readers to connect on a deeper level.
5. Plot and Motivation Alignment
As with all characters, your protagonist's traits still have to align with the plot and their motivations. They should influence the narrative, drive the story in unexpected directions, or presenting unique challenges. A protagonist with a passion for vintage ironing boards might discover a hidden time-travel device in a thrift shop, sparking quite the adventure in laundry.
6. Seek Feedback and Research
Don't hesitate to seek feedback from beta readers, writing groups, or sensitivity readers, especially when portraying traits tied to specific cultures, identities, or experiences. Research is essential to ensure authenticity and, above all, avoid perpetuating stereotypes.
7. Evolve Throughout the Story
All characters should evolve and grow throughout the narrative, so don't forget that unconventional protagonists have to undergo transformational arcs, too, and ones that challenge their traits or lead to self-discovery. These arcs add depth and resonance to the story.
8. Subvert Expectations
Subvert a reader's expectations when creating your protagonist. Use their unconventional traits to surprise and engage. Readers love characters who defy stereotypes and offer fresh perspectives.
9. Maintain Consistency
While it's super-important to balance relatability, consistency is equally vital. Make sure that your character's traits remain consistent throughout the story. Sudden, unexplained changes can disrupt the reader's immersion—and, to be fair, that's true of any character.
10. Connect with Readers Emotionally
A successful unconventional protagonist still has to connect with readers on an emotional level. Whether it's through shared vulnerabilities, relatable challenges, or unexpected triumphs, aim to evoke genuine empathy and engagement.
Examples of Unconventional Protagonists
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: Holden Caulfield, the teenage protagonist, is a symbol of adolescent angst and rebellion, showcasing the complexities of youth.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman: Eleanor Oliphant's unconventional personality and her journey of self-discovery really resonated with me as she navigated the challenges of social connection and mental health.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis: Patrick Bateman is a deeply unconventional anti-hero, a Wall Street banker with a dark and violent double life. This character challenges—and I mean really challenges—moral compasses and societal norms.
Room by Emma Donoghue: Jack, a five-year-old boy, is the unconventional narrator and protagonist. His limited perspective offers a unique lens through which readers experience the story.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon: Christopher Boone, a teenager with autism, provides an unconventional perspective as he investigates a mystery. His voice challenges stereotypes and invites empathy.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman: Richard Mayhew, an ordinary man who falls into the hidden world of London Below, challenges conventions by embracing the fantastical and the unknown.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair are unconventional protagonists embroiled in a magical competition. Their unique abilities shape the enchanting world of the circus.
Reading about unconventional protagonists invites us to appreciate the beauty of diverse narratives and the richness of characters who boldly break free from stereotypes. They are the trailblazers, the rule-breakers, the voices that won't be silenced. You'll find inspiration, connection, and a renewed passion for the limitless possibilities of storytelling.
Protagonists have always been the central stars of story, but it's unconventional protagonists who are catalysts for change. They can be diverse in every sense of the word, coming from different backgrounds, possessing unique identities, and navigating their journeys in ways that challenge stereotypes and broaden our horizons.
Storytelling doesn't have to be bound by conventions; it's a canvas, and it's down to us to paint characters as diverse as the world itself. Push the boundaries, and you'll discover limitless storytelling potential, creating characters who resonate with authenticity, inspire empathy, and spark conversations.
Over to You
It's time to take action. I want you to create your own unconventional protagonist with a unique trait, background, or profession—or all three! Try the boundaries of a character's development even if you don't end up using them.
If you're struggling with character backstory, check out my online course, Emotional Echoes: The Art of Character Backstory. You'll learn how to establish a character's past, create their motivations, how to get it all on the page, and much, much more.