Kelly Mortimer

Kelly Mortimer of Mortimer Literary Agency represents clients in both the ABA and the CBA.
She’s the founder and current president of the Christian Media Association (CMA), dedicated to helping all Christian and Jewish writers. She made the Top 5 of the 2008 Publisher’s Marketplace Top 100 Dealmakers - Romance Category, and she won the American Christian Fiction Writers “Agent of the Year” award in 2008. In addition to this column, Kelly writes the “Ask an Agent” column for the Romance Writers United newsletter.

I’m Pro-tagonist

. . . I had no choice. Con-tagonist isn’t a word. Okay, so neither is the word in the title (at least not the way I spelled it), but y’all should get the drift.

Protagonist: the main character (the central or primary personal figure) of a literary, theatrical, cinematic, or musical narrative around whom the events of the narrative’s plot revolve, and with whom the audience is intended to share the most empathy. (Stuffy Wikipedia writer who doesn’t mind usin’ passive sentence structure.)

I disagree with this definition. (Scandalous!) Actually, I only disagree with the last word. The protagonist in one of my medievals (I can’t empathize, as I wasn’t there—no wisecracks from the peanut gallery—I have indoor plumbing . . . the real kind), Edlynne, has big feet, is nearsighted, clumsy, and gorgeous. (Gorgeous isn’t a problem, but how can I empathize with a gal who has huge feet? Okay, never mind. Sigh.) Still, the correct word is sympathize, IMO.

So, does a writer gotta get one? (A protagonist, not a podiatrist. Well, do ya?) I think it’s safe to say it’s obvious a writer needs a protagonist, according to the definition. How can ya write a manuscript without a main character? (Although I could say the same thing for the word plot, and I’ve read many a manuscript without one. Sorry.) If you already know ya need a protagonist, such knowledge kinda makes my column superfluous. (Or super-fluous.) But, I made a commitment to churn it out, so I’ll try not to bore ya. (I said I’d try . . .)

What can I say about a protagonist y’all don’t already know? Well, in ancient Greek drama, those theater people decided that the first actor to spit out dialogue was the protagonist. (No, I wasn’t there either, but with my mouth, I’d have snagged the spot every time, female or not.) But this method, in a different form, holds true today. Although not necessarily with dialogue, usually the first person mentioned in a story is the protagonist. (I said usually.) There’s a trick some nasty (the bad “nasty,”) authors use just to confuse poor, unsuspecting readers. To what am I referring? Beware of the false protagonist.

Ah, yes. I used this device (Guess that makes me nasty. . . . I can live with it) in one of my Romantic Suspense manuscripts. (Did I ever mention I was a writer before I became an agent?) A false protagonist is a red herring meant to ensnare unwary readers, thus leading them on a dark path of deception. (Scandalous!) The writer tries to deceive the reader as to who the protagonist in the story really is. How? By starting the manuscript in said character’s point of view, then lessening that character’s role as the story unfolds.

How can I lessen thee? Let me count the ways:
1. Put the character in a secondary role.
2. Make the character the protagonist of a subplot.
3. Kill that puppy. (Not literally. Y’all know I’m a dog person. No, not literally.)
4. Kick the character out of the story in a way other than death.
5. Pull the old switcheroo: turn the false protagonist into the antagonist.
6. Or by some other means I didn’t mention because I’ve never heard of it.

I’ll mention this, even though y’all are savvy writers and already know it: Give your protagonist a flaw or two. Nobody’s perfect. (Nope, not even me. I lack humbleness . . .) A protagonist needs a good balance of perfection and flaws. Make the character too strong, and there’s no room on the ole character arc for him or her to grow. If ya make the character too weak, the reader might not believe it when the character morphs into Hercules, or Xena: Warrior Princess. (Yes, I know physical strength isn’t the benchmark for character change, but wouldn’t ya rather have a gal with some meat on her bones, or Kate Moss?—Mayhap that’s a poor example. How about a hunk with a six-pack, rather than Pee Wee Herman?)

To wrap things up, ya Gotta Get a protagonist, and if you’re feelin’ especially nasty or bend toward deception (no comment), a false protagonist as well.

Until next month, miss me.

Christian Media Association