How to introduce your story’s protagonist

Among the many musts of a story’s opening page is introducing the protagonist. This “greeting” should provide just enough information that the reader feels the protagonist is interesting to follow. Since you have only a few lines to do this in, what to leave in and leave out presents a challenge.

Generally, the reader must know a couple of basics about the protagonist – the character’s name and gender. A name helps readers identify and set in their minds who is the protagonist to be followed. The gender delivers a variety of cultural information that readers carry with them through the story; indeed, needing to know the gender of a person may be instinctive for the various evolutionary benefits such knowledge provides.

The name is easy enough to slip in; simply make sure it’s the subject of a sentence that shows the protagonist doing something. Usually the name infers a gender, but if it doesn’t – as is the case with names that both genders use (such as “Pat”) or science fiction/fantasy/historical names that aren’t common in our times (Is “Acacius” a male or a female name?), simply use a pronoun referring to your protagonist.

Much more difficult but just as vital is ensuring that you include clear evidence that the protagonist is someone the reader can like and preferably identify with. The primary way to make main characters sympathetic is by presenting them on the bad end of a situation with which the reader can identify with. For example, the protagonist has plans for the evening, but a parent or boss forces her to give them up for some chore or overtime. Or the main character is mocked for being a dreamer. Or he is told help won’t be coming soon, requiring him to make due with what he has. All readers have been in situations just like or very similar to these. Except for those with cold hearts, readers will emotionally relate to the protagonist’s dilemma.

You also must provide the character’s goal. Your protagonist needs to have some need, desire or wish that becomes his goal in the story. This desire ought to arise from the way the character is made sympathetic to readers – it might be the freedom to make his own choices…or to be accepted…or to survive. The goal need not be directly stated; in fact it’s better if it’s inferred through the character’s physical gestures and actions. The character in the last paragraph’s examples who learned no emergency help is coming anytime soon might sigh in resignation and then immediately set about gathering the essentials needed to live, such as taking stock of his supplies, searching for what he’s low on (food), and constructing a temporary shelter to get through the night.

One other piece of info that’s useful to include is an unusual physical trait that suggests a personality trait or a backstory: the birthmark that a beautiful woman believes makes her ugly; the eyepatch on a man who is extremely angry; the missing finger on a man who eschews violence. Each of these raise interest in the character and help establish his or her uniqueness.

There’s also a lot not to tell about the protagonist in the opening lines. Presuming it’s irrelevant to the story’s plot, leave out:
 Lengthy descriptions of the character’s appearance – Most readers don’t care if the character has curly blonde hair and blue eyes. Often such descriptions don’t add anything to characters other than show how the author envisioned them as writing the story.
 Background information about his past life – Only the most vital of facts and experiences need to be inferred or weaved into dialogue later in the story. Most backstory is unimportant to the development of the character or the story that has to be told.
• Extensive musing in which the character is all alone – Sometimes called a Robinson Crusoe opening, such openings place a character in a car, on an airplane, waking up, jogging, gazing in a mirror, etc. They are cliché.
• Mary Sue character-type traits – A Mary Sue is a character who’s too perfect to be true, like being the object of every other characters’ affection or someone who never makes a mistake. This idealized person comes off as phony and usually only works as a starting point for a comedy.
• Flashbacks – Avoid introducing a protagonist by showing him in the middle of a flashback. This actually undercuts the point of the literary technique, which is to provide key information that helps readers understand the character’s decisions at that point in the story.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.