4 Ways to Discover Your Protagonist’s Identity
Often, the first thing we create for our heroes is their personality.
Personality determines whether your hero is aggressive or shy, confident or anxious, meek or flamboyant. These simple words are often the easiest way to explain what our characters are like, so it makes sense that they’re our first point of reference. However, personality alone isn’t enough; you also need to understand your protagonist’s identity.
This character identity answers a ton of questions, from why your hero behaves the way they do, to what inner challenges they’ll face. So, in this article, let me introduce you to just how important identity is—as well as a few tips for finding your protagonist’s identity!
This is an excerpt adapted from of my latest book, Write Your Hero. If you’re struggling to give your protagonist the spark they need, make sure to check it out! 🙂
What is Your Protagonist’s Identity?
- 1 What is Your Protagonist’s Identity?
- 2 Internal vs. External Identity
- 3 Will Your Protagonist’s Identity Ever Change?
- 4 4 Ways to Find Your Protagonist’s Identity
- 5 Case Study: Disney’s Mulan
- 6 The Importance of Knowing Your Hero
While you probably have at least some idea of what I mean by the word “identity,” let me provide a quick definition to ensure we’re on the same page:
A character’s identity is how they perceive themselves and their place in the world around them.
This is distinct from personality in a few ways.
A character’s personality is typically summed up in just a few words—such as kind or naïve—and is the result of their life experiences, their innate nature, and their identity itself. You see, our identities define who we are as people. From how we behave in certain groups, to how we dress, act, and speak, you can learn a lot about a character simply by unpacking their identity.
Of course, these character identities take many shapes. Your protagonist might identify with their hobbies or career. Maybe they identify as messy or trusting. Or, maybe they identify with a certain tribe, such as their nationality, hometown, family, or friends.
Ultimately, whatever your protagonist’s identity is, these identities will inform everything from how they understand their experiences to how they view other people. What is their place in their world? How do they fit into their society? How would they describe themselves to others?
Most importantly, who do they believe themselves to be, even subconsciously?
That last question is especially important, because most identities are subconscious. Few people choose their identities, or even think much about them. Instead, these identities are hidden from view, silently dictating their perception of their world and themselves.
With that said, before we can actually start unpacking your protagonist’s identity, we first need to discuss the two ways that identity could manifest; specifically, as either an internal or external identity.
Internal vs. External Identity
Internal Identity — The Self:
First up, we have your protagonist’s internal identity. This encompasses their perception of themselves and their place in their world, and is typically a product of their past experiences, beliefs, and life lessons.
For example, a hero who lost a parent early in life might subconsciously identify as independent and a loner. They would be unwilling to rely on others, because that experience taught them that the only person they could truly rely on was themselves. Not only will this influence their behavior during their story, but it’ll also play a major role in creating their inner struggle.
Of course, your hero could have multiple identities, either conscious or subconscious.
Their conscious identities will typically have to do with their hobbies or career, while their subconscious identities could be almost anything, from their status in society to their place in their friend group. Either way, internal identity is primarily concerned with character development. No matter what a character’s internal identity is, it’ll play a key role in shaping their actions, as well as the lessons they learn throughout their story.
“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” ― Patrick Rothfuss
External Identity — The World:
That brings us to external identity—and this is where identity becomes a bit more complex.
You see, beyond how your protagonist perceives themselves, they’ll also be affected by how others perceive them. This external identity informs how they’re treated, what opportunities they’re offered, and what conflicts they’ll have to face.
Your protagonist won’t always be in control of their external identity either.
While they might try to paint themselves in a specific light, sometimes other characters will force an external identity on them, whether they like it or not. This is a great way to create interesting conflicts between your characters, as well as to add extra plot-related hurdles for your protagonist to overcome.
For instance, say your protagonist strives to appear confident and in control, even when they’re terrified on the inside. This means their external identity would be that of a reliable leader, and would be the direct result of their own actions. On the other hand, your hero might be part of a group that’s discriminated against, whether for their skin tone, sexuality, or otherwise. Because of this, your hero will have their external identity forced on them, casting them in a negative light through no fault of their own.
Will Your Protagonist’s Identity Ever Change?
With that said, your protagonist’s identity—both internal and external—likely won’t be static.
As the events of your novel unfold, your protagonist will experience triumphs and failures that force them to reassess themselves, their behavior, and their place in their world. This shifting landscape will eventually push them to rethink their identities, encouraging them to change as a person and equipping them with the mindset they need to succeed in your plot.
This is one of the core principles of character development.
Starting out, your protagonist’s identity will form the foundation of their behavior, and will combine with their personality to shape their goals and desires. After all, “when you’re a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” If your hero believes they’re just a dumb brute, they’ll approach conflict with their strength first—and sure enough, others will treat them accordingly.
Fortunately, your hero won’t be stuck in this place forever. By understanding how their internal and external identities affect them, you’ll be able to challenge those identities in unique and targeted ways, thus forming the foundation of their character arc!
4 Ways to Find Your Protagonist’s Identity
Their Relationship With Others:
Now that you understand the different character identities your protagonist might have, it’s time to talk about how you can craft your own protagonist’s identity.
This starts with their relationships with the people around them.
You see, your protagonist’s identity will almost always have at least some correlation with how they interact with others. Their relationships, be they positive or negative, will not only define how they see themselves, but also how others see them.
For example, a hero who is well-connected and from a powerful family will probably be treated with more respect by their peers—at least on the surface—and their external identity will be one of leadership and influence. Meanwhile, that same character’s internal identity might be that of the golden son, struggling under the expectations that come from their relationships. In the end, both of these identities will stem primarily from their relationships.
Their Place in Their World:
Next, your protagonist will also have some kind of relationship with your story’s world:
- Are they a leader, or a subject?
- Are they part of the clan, or are they an outsider?
- Do they have to hide their skills, or are those abilities revered by their society?
- Are their innate traits viewed positively or negatively?
How these questions play out in your story will obviously depend on the unique plots, themes, and conflicts you choose to write about. Still, regardless of what they are, they’ll influence your protagonist’s identity in the same way their relationships with other people do.
“Society imposes an identity on you because of the way you look. Your struggle as a self has to do with an identity being imposed on you that you know is not your identity.” — Vijay Seshadri
Their Perception of Themselves:
Meanwhile, your hero’s identity will also be shaped by how they view themselves.
This is typically the result of their backstory.
For instance, returning to our golden son example, perhaps that protagonist was told over and over that love has to be earned, and that the most important thing is supporting their family. Thus, they internalized the belief that they have to serve their family’s interests in order to be loved and worthwhile—even if those interests run counter to their own desires. They perceive themselves as less important than their family, and so they act accordingly.
To find this for your own protagonist, consider how their past experiences might affect their worldview. What major events define their backstory? How do these events still affect them during your story itself? While not all protagonists will have a tragic backstory, even seemingly benign events can leave a major impact.
Their Role in Your Plot:
Finally, not every protagonist will spring fully-formed into your mind—sometimes, you’ll start with only your plot or theme, and have to build your hero from there. In these cases, the best thing to do is consider your protagonist from your story’s perspective:
- What kind of story are you trying to tell?
- What message or lesson do you want to share?
- How will your protagonist’s internal/external identity align with those goals?
- What sort of identities would your plot challenge the most?
Ultimately, if you’re trying to write a story about the importance of true love, a character who identifies as unlovable (and eventually learns to overcome that belief) would be a powerful hero! Same goes for stories about power, greed, and any other theme you could think of.
However, there is one thing you’ll need to remember here, and that is focus.
At the end of the day, most protagonists only have one or two core identities throughout their stories, whether internal or external. While they could have other smaller identities that exist in the background, you definitely don’t want to go overboard here. Rather than trying to juggle multiple themes and identities at once, you’ll be much better off fully exploring a single key identity to its fullest.
Case Study: Disney’s Mulan
To help you see what I mean, let’s pause and look at an example—specifically, Disney’s Mulan.
If you’re not familiar with this movie, it’s about a young woman in Imperial China who joins the army to protect her aging father. Of course, this isn’t the path society expects from her. In her world, family and duty are the most important things, and her duty as a woman is to get married. However, Mulan strains against these expectations—and thus struggles with a few competing identities.
Mulan begins her story with the internal identity of the failed daughter. She knows she’s failing to live up to her family’s expectations, but she can’t change who she is. Meanwhile, her external identity is that of the silent woman. Mulan is brash and clever, but in her world women are to be seen, not heard. As her father tells her, she needs to “learn her place.”
Fortunately, these identities begin to shift as the movie kicks into gear.
After her father is drafted, Mulan sheds her external identity and takes on the identity of a soldier, disguising herself as a man and joining the army in his stead. Once there, she’s rewarded for her intelligence and quick-thinking, and as she grows more comfortable in her new external identity, her internal identity changes too. She starts to question her society’s treatment of her, and slowly realizes that she isn’t the failure she was led to believe.
Ultimately, it’s this newfound confidence that allows Mulan to save China, and eventually return to her family as a hero.
In fact, it’s this moment of return that’s perhaps the most interesting part of Mulan’s story. While she returns to her old external identity, she does so with a new layer of respect from those around her. Best of all, her internal identity has firmly changed—she no longer questions her value as a person, and instead feels at peace with her place in her world.
This is the heart of Mulan’s story. Though her personality never changes, the identities surrounding it do.
The Importance of Knowing Your Hero
In the end, I think one of the coolest parts of discovering your protagonist’s identity is what it teaches you about yourself. All of us have identities that shape who we are, and the more you learn how to understand those identities, the more you’ll see them at work in both yourself and your characters.
Fortunately, identity isn’t some nebulous thing!
Our identities are simply the products of our experiences and beliefs, as well as our place in the world around us—making identity the perfect guiding star for developing our protagonists. Of course, a lot more goes into a successful hero than just identity. You’ll also need to consider things like their character arc, inner struggle, truth, and more.
Still, if I had to pick just one starting place, identity would definitely be it. 🙂
Did you enjoy this excerpt?
Write Your Hero is available now, and will help you create not only a compelling identity for your hero, but also every other element of their character. If you’re struggling to give your protagonist the spark they need, this is a book you don’t want to miss!