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Reading Challenge: The Protagonist—Who Are They and What Do They Want?

For the second prompt in the DIYMFA WriterIgniter Reading Challenge, we’re supposed to identify the main character. Which, isn’t as easy as you might think. In some cases, like The Great Gatsby, the narrator doesn’t always = the protagonist. Thankfully for me, The Saturday Night Ghost Club’s narrator is the main character and his name is Jake Baker, age 12.

I’ll be honest, I’ll try not to spoil anything, but it’s hard to dissect a book without laying out the details. So, you’ve been warned. Spoilers are imminent.

Part of the prompt asked us to identify what kind of protagonist Jake is. Is he ordinary or extraordinary? From the first 40 pages, I feel like I can say with confidence that Jake is what we would call, an “Ordinary Joe.” He’s a normal kid living in a small town.

What gave me that impression? He describes himself as “chubby, freckled, awkward...too gullible.” The gullibility is showcased in the fact that he believed in monsters as a boy. Notice the use of past tense.

What brand of character is Jake? Is he an Underdog, Survivor, Disruptor, or Protector? Based on the information I have so far, he appears to be an Underdog. It’s easy to relate to his struggles, many of us have been in his position of being a loner or bullied.

Now, it seems like things are going smoothly for this prompt—then I hit this question:

What does your main character want?

Do they want to change something about themselves, others, or the world?

Do they want to preserve something about themselves, others, or the world?

Honestly, this stumped me.

How did I get 40 pages in and not know what Jake Baker wants?

I sat on this question for days, looking over and rereading pages to see if I missed something. In a way, I did. I was looking for some explicit mention of Jake’s desire and I felt like it didn't exist. Something to keep in mind about this narrative, the narrator is the adult Jake recalling the story that his 12-year-old self experienced. There are major Stand By Me vibes (which I just watched for the first time last week, so good!).

I started to feel a little ridiculous struggling with this question and I began to wonder—maybe I’m over-thinking this? So I went back through the beginning pages and as I read page four, something stood out more than before:

“Imagination was my great asset. Not to mention my defense against a foe worse than the most fearsome monster: loneliness.”

Sure, he’s lonely, so what? But, maybe it’s that simple. Jake Baker doesn’t want to be lonely. He wants friends.

I’m still not sure if that’s the true want, but it’s the closest thing I could find that made sense. As I keep reading, I know more things will come into focus. The author is withholding information that his younger self didn’t have access to until later. I expect a reveal near the end, but I'll explore that in a future post.

How about you? Have you ever read a book where you struggled with what the main character was after, or in your writing, do you struggle with knowing what your character’s motivations are?

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