A Practical Guide to your Protagonist
Characters make the book. Of all the characters, the protagonist is the one you need to flesh out and understand completely. Your job as a writer is to bring your protagonist to life through the pages and make your readers truly care about what happens to him/her.
Think about it this way – if you care about someone would you do everything you can to find out what happens to them? Probably – yes!
However, this does not mean that the protagonist must be perfect! Remember no-one is perfect so your protagonist cannot be either. Details that define your protagonist include:
- Physical appearance
- Vehicle (or lack thereof) that he/she drives
- The words he/she uses
- His/her dreams
- His/her ambitions
- His/her fears
- His/her desires
- The past experiences that have shaped him/her into who they are today.
The most important things to know about your protagonist are: what he/she wants above everything and what stands in the way.
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What does your protagonist want?
The protagonist’s goals and aspirations drive the plot. Goals can be big or small. Do protagonists know what they want? No, like many of us, the protagonist may want several things at the same time. He/she may be unaware of what is important. His/her understanding of what matters most may change as he/she has experiences throughout the course of the novel.
What your character wants should grow from personality and life experiences. Goals are not achieved randomly!
The worthy goal:
Whatever the goal, it must be worth it for him/her to go through the obstacles to reach it. The goal can be worthy in two ways – internal and external. The goal must always be something that really matters to the protagonist and it must meet an underlying emotional need. Whatever the goal, the plot must involve the protagonist actively seeking it.
What obstacles are in the way?
Your protagonist will experience obstacles – both internal and external – that will make it challenging to reach the goal. As your protagonist deals with conflict and obstacles he/she shows your readers what he/she is made of.
No matter what the challenge, it must engage both the protagonist and the reader. They must seem real and powerful so that the reader empathises with the character’s struggles to overcome them.
Internal emotions can be obstacles for characters – fear and shyness are two examples. By overcoming internal emotions, an everyday act for one character can become a heroic one for another character. In romance novels, internal conflicts are more prominent than external conflict as these books are about relationships.
External obstacles show how the character interacts and deals with the world around him/her. They do not need to be huge like plane crashes or bio-terrorism they can be as small as a misunderstanding, as long as the obstacle keeps the character from getting what he/she wants. Be careful that you do not throw too many obstacles into your protagonist’s path. They will become the victim and you will lose your readers’ sympathy. External obstacles play a bigger role in thriller and adventure novels because the characters thrive on action rather than soul-searching.
A blend of obstacles:
Your novel needs to have a mix of both internal and external obstacles, though either will not be as prominent as the other, it is still essential in making your character well rounded.
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A breakdown of your protagonist:
Your protagonist should be complex. He/she needs strengths, weaknesses, skills and blind spots. He/she should have a unique appearance. His/her attitude should govern how he/she responds to the world around him/her. They need to have likes and dislikes too. A protagonist also needs a backstory that explains how they came to be where they are.
Your protagonist’s strengths:
Every character has certain character strengths. They can grow out of abilities and skills as well. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What does your character know how to do?
- What are their skills?
- What do they excel at?
Readers prefer it if your protagonist has flaws – after all, it’s human nature – so be sure to give your character a flaw or two. Whatever you give your character they should be able to use it to solve the problems you place in front of them.
Your protagonist’s weaknesses:
Weaknesses make your protagonist even more interesting, especially if they have to overcome a weakness in the story. Here are some examples of weaknesses:
- A physical handicap
- An emotional handicap
- An addiction
- An illness
- A lack of resources
Flaws are important in creating a protagonist. This is because a primary purpose of the plot is to force the character to change or grow, usually by recognising and overcoming an obstacle. Flaws provide a source of internal conflict. For example, Amir, in The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.
The protagonist is also known as your main character. The main plot of your novel is driven by this character and their goals. Your readers need to bond with this character emotionally because if your readers care about the character they will want to find out what happens to the character and keep turning the pages.
You should take the most time in preparing your protagonist.
The protagonist’s appearance:
How the protagonist appears to the world determines how others will respond to him/her. Does your protagonist’s appearance camouflage their real self? It’s entirely up to you. You can choose to make the outer appearance a model or to be at odds with the inner persona.
When putting together your main character, consider the following:
- Age (and whether the character looks that age)
- Body structure
- Most endearing feature/quality
- Hair colour (natural or not)
- What he/she wears to work
- What he/she wears to sleep
- Trademarks gestures and mannerisms
Finally, you need to consider whether the protagonist’s appearance hides or shows who they really are. Consider Miss Marple by Agatha Christie.
The protagonist’s attitude:
Think back to the characters you have enjoyed most – what did they have in common?
Before you even start to write, think of the kind of attitude you want your character to have. Imagine how he/she would behave in certain situations. Think about the following:
- What would make your protagonist laugh?
- What would make your protagonist cry?
- What would make your protagonist argue?
- What would make your protagonist tremble?
- What would make your protagonist smile?
Understanding your character’s emotional being and how it is reflected in the way they interact with the world will help you prepare to release the character in the difficult situations you’re going to place before them.
Your protagonists likes and dislikes:
Part of your protagonist’s personality is displayed by what she likes and dislikes. The likes and dislikes give further insight into the persona of the character. The dislikes could stem from a past experience or a fear or even a secret he/she is trying to hide. The details of your protagonist’s likes and dislikes may enhance the plot or they may not. But they give your character more depth and provide a new window into their personality.
Your protagonist backstory:
No matter the character’s skills, abilities, likes and dislikes, her attitude towards the world, once you start writing your novel, the protagonist becomes what he/she does and the moves he/she makes are due to their past experiences and they should make sense.
A character’s backstory is the experiences and circumstances that took place in the character’s life before the novel’s time frame. Characters are what they do. It’s up to the author to describe a backstory that explains the behaviour and makes it into a consistent, coherent whole.
Create a backstory and save it. Keep it in mind as you write your novel and every time your protagonist does something that surprises you, refer back to the backstory and add in something in the past that explains the behaviour. Keep in mind your character is human and we do things because we react to them!
As the author, you need to know your character’s backstory in order to make him/her believable in the present.
Pitfall: character clichés:
A clichéd character is one the readers have seen before, many times. Literature if full of clichés and they have been copied so much since the first time they were used that they are now a cliché. They are potentially lethal to your protagonist’s success.
Some of literature’s character clichés include:
- The alcoholic cop
- The sleazy attorney
- The clueless blonde
- The absent-minded professor
- The handsome but corrupt politician
- The psychiatrist who is sleeping with his patients
- The prostitute with the heart of gold.
Clichés pose the problem of being predictable. No reader wants to read a book where the characters do exactly what is expected of them. Smart writers twist familiar clichés into something different and fresh that the reader does not expect. For example, the protagonist Michael Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly is a familiar cliché but twisted in a new way to make a satisfyingly complex protagonist.
Naming the protagonist:
A good name that rolls off the tongue and is easy to remember is a writer’s dream. The enduring protagonist names from fiction include:
- Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind)
- Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird)
- Bella Swan (Twilight)
Their names are unique, easy to remember and catchy but most of all – they reveal something essential about the characters themselves.
Whatever your time period, choose a name that fits in. sometimes the name is already in mind as you create the protagonist, other times they come into their own as you fill the pages. Do not worry too much about the name in the beginning; it will come of its own accord. Also the good thing about Word processing applications – they come with a find/replace feature!
Writing a character sketch:
Ah yes, my favourite thing to do! This is where we put all the above parts into action! Click here to get your workbook for FREE!
A character sketch is a useful way to put all your ideas and insights into the characters presence and personality down before you start writing the novel.
A character sketch does not need to ‘flow’ it is not a story but rather a place to ‘dump’ all your ideas down and you can always add to it as you write the story. The key is to have the basics down first before you begin writing the manuscript.
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