How to Write a Protagonist of Interest

RamonaGravitarPerson of interest:  a person who is believed to be possibly involved in a crime but has not been charged or arrested –

The above term has been used in law enforcement since 1937, according to Merriam-Webster. I don’t know what—or who—happened in 1937, but more recent examples of “person of interest” are Richard Jewell (innocent), Scott Peterson (not innocent), Andrew Cunanan (also not innocent), and  James Caviezel (fictional).

James Caviezel stars in Person of Interest, a TV show about a mysterious but dashing character named John Reese and, to me, an utterly incomprehensible premise. Each episode, viewers are treated to the unsettling and paranoia-inducing antics of Mr. Reese, Harold, and Harold’s creation, The Machine. (Harold always calls him Mr. Reese, instead of John, but John calls Harold “Harold.” Another conundrum. Maybe Harold is European?)

Harold is a genius with a conscience of gold. Mr. Reese is an ex soldier, CIA agent, Navy Seal, astronaut, Viking warrior, spelunker  (some of those, anyway) who stalks the streets of a large city with a number spit out by The Machine. If The Machine spits out your number, you are going to die, unless Mr. Reese gets there first. That’s all I know. Really, that’s all I need to know.

Except this: Mr. Reese wanted to die. Harold saved Mr. Reese. Harold gave Mr. Reese a mission. The show is all about that—accepting a mission because it gives your life meaning.

Mr. Reese is part hero, part psycho, part savior, part jujitsu master, and each week he fights–real fights. Fight Club type fights–to save the number-person. He also wears really nice suits. But, no matter how many people Mr. Reese saves, the viewer understands that John is one twig-snap away from a personal meltdown of nuclear proportions. John’s past was bad. Very bad. Even when he’s saving the innocent, former special agent g-man super hero kung fu fighting dude John Reese is hurtin’ inside.

There are many things I don’t understand about this show, but John Reese as a hero is not one of them. He works. He’s watchable. (And not just for the nice suits.) John Reese is interesting.

For writers, watchable = readable. This leads me to today’s subject. Is your protagonist interesting?

Below is a set of questions about the protagonist who is supposed to snare your reader’s interest, capture your reader’s heart, entertain your reader for hundreds of pages, and provide your reader with emotional satisfaction at the end of the story.

Let’s call this the James Caviezel Main Character Quiz.

Question #1: Does your protagonist have a background—painful, amusing, privileged, bizarre—that has molded him or her into a character who can carry a story?

Question #2: Does your protagonist have a clearly defined mission in the story as well as a personal stake in it?

Questions #3: Does your protagonist have special skills or qualities or characteristics that make him/her the one special agent jujitsu master to take on this mission?

Question #4: Does your protagonist act when action is required and not shy away from leading the reader into danger, love, discovery, betrayals, friendships, highs, lows, and the occasional wacky family dinner when some levity is required?

Question #5: Is your protagonist hurtin’?

A past. A mission. Special skills. Active. Heroic. These are the elements of an interesting protagonist.

A final word about our flawed hero, John Reese. No matter how many times he gets beaten, punched, stabbed, shot, or handcuffed in a van and left out on the docks in 100 degree weather, he will survive. John Reese is written with faith—faith that he will complete the mission, no matter what, no matter who has to suffer, no matter how incomprehensible that mission may be. At the end of each episode, the viewer is left with hope for John Reese. Not hope that he will survive. We know he will survive. Our hope is that, one day, Harold’s mission will lead Mr. Reese to redemption.

Have you written a protagonist who will capture your reader’s faith, and interest? Can your main character pass the James Caviezel Main Character Quiz?


10 thoughts on “How to Write a Protagonist of Interest

  1. I love this post, since I adore John. I get annoyed when that babe shows up, but other than that, I love the show. Shaw is a nice addition. I know some people don’t like her, but she seems like a perfect counterpart to Reece. Root is the one I don’t understand, but she still holds my interest. Great list of protagonist questions!


  2. An excellent overview of what a protagonist should be! 🙂
    By accident rather than by design, I appear to have created characters that fit the bill well.
    Now what we need is a great antagonist worksheet 😉


  3. As usual, I’m running behind on blogs. I copy-pasted the list to double check, but it looks like my protagonist fits! I’m so pleased to think I did it right before I read this.


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