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Monday, December 20, 2021

Character States: Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, Martyr

As the protagonist goes through the journey of the story, she goes through four states of being. I've heard these called "orphan," "wanderer," "warrior," and "martyr." While I've talked about them elsewhere, I've never done a post specifically on them, so thought it was about time I do that. 

Unfortunately, I'm not sure where this concept originates. Someone once told me it's from The Hero's Journey, but I've read Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces and Vogler's The Writer's Journey books, and while you can argue The Hero's Journey embodies these, they didn't explain the protagonist's role in this exact way. Someone else told me it may have come from the book, The Hero Within by Carol S. Pearson, but that book was first published in 2013, and I've definitely heard this concept before that. Larry Brooks includes these exact states of being in his book Story Engineering, but I know they predate that volume, at least in some form.

In any case, this approach is another tool to look at the protagonist's role in the journey, and early on in my own writing journey, I found them very helpful. They might be helpful to you too.

Each state of being can be literal, but more often they are figurative. Let's dig in.

Orphan (Beginning)

At the beginning of the story, the protagonist is often in an "orphan" state, literally or figuratively. 


There are plenty of protagonists who lack both parents--Harry Potter, the Baudelaire orphans, Peter Parker, Frodo, Cinderella, Elsa and Anna . . . the list goes on. I've heard many people voice wonderment at just how many protagonists are orphans. 

There are a few reasons for this:

1) If you are writing children's or YA literature, it's an easy way to get the adults out of the way so that the kids are the ones solving problems. (In modern times, however, there has been a push to find and use other workarounds or to involve adults more.)

2) It's sympathetic. We sympathize with characters who have lost parents. 

3) It's mythic. It's archetypal. At some point in our lives, in some sense, we all feel a bit like an orphan--we must learn to go on our own adventures and meet our own challenges without our parents. Mama and Dada won't always be there when the going gets tough. 

Perhaps just as common is a protagonist who is a "half-orphan" so to speak--lacking one parent. Most Disney princesses lack a mother. In many modern stories, the protagonist may lack a father. 

Sometimes the parents are alive, but the protagonist is separated from them in some way--by war, working abroad, or boarding school. 

But that veers into the figurative realm. . . .


A figurative orphan is somehow separated from parents, family, loved ones, or society. Basically, they are somehow set apart from other characters. They are usually lacking in a meaningful relationship or need to turn a dysfunctional relationship into something healthy. 

Here are some examples:

- Emotionally isolated from a parent

- So career-focused they don't have meaningful relationships

- A father who doesn't connect with his son

- A genius who can't relate to the ordinary people around her 

- A celebrity who feels alone because no one can see past his brand to see the real him

- A student who has no friends at school

- A backpacker who is away from all her loved ones

In some cases, the protagonist may just be seen as "different" from those around them, and unable to live a fulfilling (or authentic) life. 

Another way to look at this that might be more encompassing, is to recognize that the beginning of the story is the time to individualize your protagonist. Show the audience how she is characteristically unique from those (or the world) around her. What makes her, her?

Wanderer (Middle, Part 1)

After the setup of the story, something enters the protagonist's world that disrupts the established normal--this may be an opportunity or it may be a problem (or both). The protagonist must make a decision on how to move forward and address the disruption.

At this point, the protagonist is like a wanderer. A wanderer doesn't know exactly what she is doing or where she is going. She's going in some direction, because she is in motion, but she's largely responding and reacting.

She has entered a new situation, and isn't quite sure how things work. In many stories, this is where the protagonist will learn new "rules" about the "new world," and/or will learn new skills. So in Pixar's Soul, Joe learns the layout of the Great Before and how it works. In Harry Potter, Harry begins learning about the Wizarding World and how it works. In Legally Blonde, Elle begins learning about how her new law school works.

As a wanderer, the protagonist often accumulates sidekicks, mentors, friends, partners, and anyone else that is going to help her on her journey. If these characters were already introduced or foreshadowed in the setup, we'll now get to know their "true identities" (figurative or literal) and "magical abilities" (figurative or literal). In Soul, Joe meets 22, Moonwind, Jerry, Jerry, Jerry, Jerry, and Terry 😉.  Harry meets Ron and Hermione. And Elle runs into a couple of people who end up being part of her journey.

Warrior (Middle, Part 2)

About halfway through the story, the protagonist either learns something significant or gains something significant, which leads to him becoming more proactive than before. This is the midpoint, and he becomes more like a warrior, ready to go on the attack. According to Larry Brooks, he may literally fight back, hatch a plan, enlist assistance, demonstrate courage, or show initiative.

He may not always be successful (after all, the story isn't over), but he is brave and intentional. 

Usually, the protagonist will use whatever it is he learned from being a wanderer, as a warrior. 

In Mulan, after Mulan wanders around and learns how to be a soldier, she proves herself. The soldiers learn they are needed in battle. In this situation, Mulan literally becomes a warrior as she goes to fight the Huns. 

In Interstellar, Cooper learns that Plan A was just a sham, and that the real plan isn't to save people on Earth. He becomes more determined to do whatever it takes to return to Earth and/or save those living there.

Martyr (End)

The middle usually has its own climax, with an "all is lost" moment, which is what it sounds like. It feels as if everything has been lost. The protagonist fought as a warrior, but still hit a major setback. Often this is external, but sometimes it's only internal. 

There is typically something that the protagonist needs to sacrifice (usually the protagonist's "want"), in order to succeed (in getting the "need"). At this point, the protagonist becomes a martyr. 

The protagonist becomes willing to give up her "life" to succeed in beating the antagonist. 

In many stories, the protagonist may need to be willing to literally give up her life. She may even die and come back to life. Or she may simply be in danger of dying in order to beat the antagonist. 

In other stories, the protagonist may need to be willing to figuratively give up his life--or perhaps better said, his lifestyle. He may need to stop obsessing over his career. He may need to officially throw off his cowardly tendencies. He may need to stop pretending to be something he is not.

Often only as a martyr, does the protagonist succeed. 

Now, if you aren't writing a positive character arc, and are instead writing a negative one, the variation to this is that the protagonist never learned or was willing to fully transform into the martyr. He refused to give up what he wanted. He's unwilling to sacrifice his old life and become someone better. Because of this, he falls into self-damnation. He might be a fierce warrior, but that's the end of his progression.

Closing Thoughts

Hopefully, if you've been following me for a while, you'll know that I pretty much never say one tool is right for everyone and every story. But I will say this approach will probably be useful for most writers and most stories. This is simply a breakdown of the protagonist's role in relation to story structure and plot. Because of this, nearly any protagonist will fit into these states of beings--whether they are a poor, homeless orphan, or as rich and influential as a millionaire.


  1. Hi September, thank you very much for this post. It was exactly what I was searching for as I am trying to better understand my character through her character archetype.

    1. Must have missed responding to this, but so glad it was helpful!

  2. The Hero Within by Carol S Pearson was first published in 1986, not 2013.

    1. OOOOOHHHHH! When I looked it up, it said 2013--must have been a later edition. Thank you so much for telling me (and us)! Then maybe it is the original source . . .


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