How to Start Building a Great Protagonist by Peter Bacho

Budding authors have something to gain from this Academic Earth video, written and narrated by award-winning author, Peter Bacho. He offers his insights in how to look beyond oneself for a good protagonist.

About the Video

Noted Filipino-American author, Peter Bacho, is best known for his novel, Cebu, for which he won the American Book Award. He is lauded for his explorations of neocolonialism and Filipino-American identity. Referring to himself as an, "old Filipino writer," Bacho teaches in the Liberal Studies Program at The Evergreen State College, Tacoma, and is a lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Program at the University of Washington, Tacoma.

Cebu (novel, 1991 – American Book Award)
Dark Blue Suit (short stories, 1997 – Washington Governor's Writers Award)
Boxing in Black and White (nonfiction, 1999)
Nelson's Run (novel, 2002)
Entrys (novel, 2005)
Leaving Yesler (young adult novel, 2010)

In this video, Bacho presents his musings on how to look outside oneself in order to write a great protagonist.


A few years back, I was flying down to UCLA to teach a three-day fiction writers workshop.

The late novelist and fiction teacher John Gardner once compared courses in literature “to a mildly good cocktail party, picking up the good bits of food or conversation” and “going home when it comes to seem the reasonable thing to do.” However, for those aspiring to be artists – and that’s what most fiction writers aspire to be – the challenges they face are daunting. “Art, at those moments when it feels most like art – when we feel most alive, most alert, most triumphant – is less like a cocktail party than a pool full of sharks.”

An hour outside of Burbank, and I was starting to get worried. Not over the landing, although I don’t like landings much, but what to teach that would really grab my students’ attention.

Then I suddenly figured it out.

Was it random inspiration or the two shots of Jack I always take before the plane lands? Or maybe on my way to the bathroom I had caught a glimpse of Brad or Leonardo gracing the cover of one of those gossip rags.

Whatever the reason, I stopped thinking about the writing workshop and began to think of big stars and their big paydays and why I was spending years laboring over manuscripts, even award winners, that would generate royalties measurable in peanuts – not cashews, pecans, and certainly not dollars.

But at the end of my envy-riddled and life-misspent imaginings, I had my workshop focus.

I understood that Leonardo got the money because he’s the one who drew people into the theaters. In a similar way, the protagonist is the star of the novel. The more interesting – the more fully developed – the protagonist is, the more likely the reader is to continue turning pages

As the plane began its descent, I had a suspicion that many writers had modeled their main characters after themselves. And if that was true, then their biases would limit the range of their protagonists, resulting in characters who were determined, honest, vigilant, loyal, and eventually successful – possessors of the whole spectrum of Girl Scout traits.

There are two problems with this. The first is that it tends to favor a forward-moving, one dimensional plot – the heroine’s quest set in Santa Monica. Let’s say our protagonist’s dastardly husband has just left her for a younger woman after she had worked hard to put him through law school. She has two children and a pile of bills. At first, she’s despondent and is drinking too much. But then, because of the love she has for her children and the respect she has for herself, she snaps out of it, finds a better job, and puts herself through business school (or whatever). She can’t fail because the writer can’t see her character or herself fail.

The second problem is that one-dimensional characters tend to be boring, and multi-dimensional characters tend to be more interesting if, for no other reason, than they are less predictable. Let’s use our Santa Monica heroine quest character. Let’s say that along the way to graduating from business school, she’s picked up some bad habits – like sleeping with married men, including a few of her professors.

Messy, eh? But it opens up more plotting options – including the possibility that the protagonist may fail – that might prove more interesting than the first storyline.

By the time the plane was on the tarmac, I’d figured out both schedule and approach. When the workshop begins tomorrow (Friday), I will have my students tell me something about their protagonists. I will then have them psychologically become their protagonists, using their protagonists’ own words to describe who they are. To do this effectively, they have to know everything about their character – how she looks, what she believes, how she speaks.

On Saturday, their assignment will be to become the antagonist. In the scenario, the antagonist responds to what the protagonist has said about herself. Of course, to make this part of the exercise successful, students have to now psychologically become the antagonist and to respond to the truth or lack of truth in the protagonist’s monologue.

On Sunday, they will become the referee, a third party who knows both parties well and is able to discern the real truth about the protagonist.

If the exercise is done honestly – if writers psychologically become the three different characters – the chance is good that at the end of the process, the protagonist will be more complex and, hopefully, better than the one originally imagined.

It certainly worked that way in the workshop. On Sunday, tired students reported that they had lost sleep as they struggled with this new understanding of who their protagonists were. As to the exercise itself, I have no idea if other fiction teachers use this technique or have used this technique before I did.

All I knew as I deplaned was that I had a plan to fill three workshop days.

That Friday, as the members of the workshop gathered around a long table, I began the proceedings by asking one of my students, a slender Filipino woman in her mid-thirties, to describe her protagonist.

“She’s 35,” she began. “A Filipina, slight build…”




Share Video