10 Tips for Creating a Protagonist

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10 Tips for Creating a Protagonist

Anybody Can Write a Novel 2.0

Chapter 5 “Characters” – Section 2 “Protagonists”

 Green Bat 1 by DesdemonaDeBlake

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Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion—that’s Plot.”
—Leigh Brackett

Apart from Primary and Secondary Protagonists, there are many other different protagonist characters-types that can drive a story—ranging from heroes, to villains, to antiheroes, to just normal people. Today, I'm going to discuss what universal attributes make a great protagonist that will drive your story forward, as well as how to define and craft this character in a way that gives them a great level of depth and autonomy from the writer. By creating a character with depth and intricacy of design, you will carry these attributes over into a character driven story.

Tip 1: Create a list of all the attributes and ideas you have for your Protagonist.

When a writer first begins writing a story, they generally have a few very concrete ideas for what they want their protagonist to be, to do, to think, to look like, etc... This is usually the primary thing that writers are thinking about and trying to remember when they are creating their first work, and so their brainpower is spent trying to hold onto and improve these ideas. In order to make a balanced story with many good elements, as well as to look at our blind spots when it comes to these characters, we need to clear out that space and get that processing power back for each and every element that we're working on. So begin by writing an organized and segmented list of each and every idea you have for your protagonist's appearance, background, attributes, and anything you want to happen to them throughout the course of the plot. By writing their attributes down, you trigger your brain to feel secure—so that it is not busy trying to remember all of your protagonist's attributes, and can focus on perfecting them as well as on developing other elements of the story.

Tip 2: Identify the part of yourself that the Protagonist is coming from.

I've often seen writers criticized for making protagonists that mimicked part of themselves, and have always thought that this was a very shallow and foolish criticism, in and of itself. When you write a story, every character you create is naturally going to be a part of you. The nature of writing is to empathize with our characters and to see the world through their eyes, and we cannot do that unless we share characteristics with them. That is not to say that any of your characters are, or can be, a direct copy of you, but a small piece of your past, personality, or imagination; even characters that do not embody your actual attributes, embody those that you either fear becoming, wish you were, or despise. By categorizing these pieces of yourself, learning about them, and empathizing with them, you will learn the skills that you need to create and relate to characters who are similar to you in increasingly abstract ways, until you reach a point where no reader would see anything in common at all. Figure out and write down on your paper what part of you your protagonist character is drawing its creative energy from—how you connect to this character.

Tip 3: List the differences between yourself and your Protagonist.

Just as you should not be afraid to share attributes with your protagonist, you should also allow them to have an ever-increasing amount of autonomy so that they will become authentic and living characters. To illustrate my point, lets imagine that I made a clone of you, with all your attributes and experiences. When I take that clone and put it in another world where it meets diverse new people, new ideas, new struggles, and new challenges that you the original have not, it will begin to take a life of its own and will soon become a completely separate entity from you. If it did not change into a different entity, you would suspect something strange and unnatural was happening, and that the clone had never been an authentic life in the first place, simply a puppet. So as you go on, developing your character, encourage them to begin to take on an identity and attributes that are theirs uniquely by beginning to list the psychological, behavioral, and personality differences between you and that character. This is also essential for being able to get the emotional distance from your protagonist, required to edit and refine them.

Tip 4: Figure out what type of protagonist you are creating, and find equivalents in other stories.

The last draft of my novel that I showed to my test reader was returned to me with a very specific critique of my protagonist. My test reader said that when he read through the point-of-view of my character, the most overwhelming impression he got was of how “cool” my character was, as well as how much like Batman my character was. Now, don't get me wrong, I love Batman; the character from the 1990's animated series was the character who made me fall in love with stories, and the character whose ethics I tried to model my own after for a long time. However, my character was not Batman and Bruce Wayne, but just Batman—the hero so intelligent and cool that he can take on infinitely powerful aliens and villains without powers—which meant that my character was not a good one that people could relate to and believe but only admire as one would admire a legend. At this point, I didn't want to trash my character, lose the “cool” factor, or drastically change him, but I knew he had to become interesting and relatable; so I began to create a list of other characters I knew of that were “cool” like my hero. These included characters such as Dexter, Master Chief, Constantine, the Gunslinger, and many more. I then divided this list into sub-listed categories based on which ones were relatable, which ones were interesting, and which were neither, and then listing the attributes that made them so. By making these lists, I was able to compare what attributes my character lacked without being quite so blinded to his imperfections, simply because he is my first creation as a writer.

Tip 5: Identify what your Protagonist wants more than anything, and how badly they want it.

As we are crafting and pacing our story around the plot-outline of the Primary Protagonist, an essential step is to identify what that character wants—the force that will drive the movement of the entire novel. Usually, your protagonist's goal will be a combination of things that are both internal and external [such as the desire to win and survive a war (external) in order to regain the feeling of personal peace and security (internal)]. Also, the protagonist's goal will often change and become more complex or noble throughout the course of the story (for example, the protagonist deciding, in the end, that protecting his or her fellow soldiers is more important than personal survival). As such, you need to figure out a motivation strong enough to move your protagonist forward, but which can change and evolve along with the character. This way, every time your protagonist encounters an obstacle, you can judge immediately how they react, based on whether their actions will lead them to their goal, and if they are worth the effort. Make sure that your motivations match the actions you have prepared for the story; too weak a motivation might lead the character to have no realistic options but to give up their quest, and too strong of motivations might rob your character of any amount of humor, nobility, or flexibility.

Tip 6: Decide what the flaws and weaknesses in your Protagonist might be.

Taking account of your protagonist's background, past pains, experiences, and personality, you must come up with believable flaws and weaknesses, relevant to the type of story that you are creating (if you are writing horror, your character may come off as too perfect if nothing scares them, even if they have a gambling addiction). Try to make the weaknesses and flaws line up with the character's background, as well. If your protagonist was an orphan, they may have a natural distrust of people. If they lived a calm and normal life, they may not have the strength, drive, or character to do what is necessary to achieve their goal. Also, beware of pseudo-flaws: caring so much that they are slightly overprotective, being so strong that they are somewhat emotionally distant, being so brave that they are sometimes a little irresponsible, etc... If there is no point in your novel in which you want to slap your protagonist because they are truly doing something despicable, selfish, cowardly, cruel, or stupid enough to have truly detrimental effects on themselves and others, then your character is too perfect. If your character is too perfect, they are neither relatable nor do they have enough room to grow throughout the course of the story,

Tip 7: Think about what force could best manipulate your Protagonist's flaws and weaknesses.

A story that places your protagonist in situations where their flaws and weaknesses are irrelevant (like having a character with acrophobia never encountering heights), makes their flaws irrelevant. If their flaws are not playing a part in the plot, then they might as well not even have them. If you want to have a story that really tests your hero and creates a complicated and suspenseful progression that will draw readers in, then play directly on their flaws and weaknesses, especially during plot points that are supposed to be intense. It isn't a necessity that you need to play on overbearingly, but a tool by which to adjust the intensity of the story, as well as how resourceful and strong your character must be in order to overcome the challenges before them. Try making a list of all your protagonist's flaws and weaknesses, and then see if they actually become relevant in the course of the plot.

Tip 8: Make any character growth a slow progression.

When I first started writing, I knew some of the basics of character flaws and obstacles that were meant to make them grow. So when I wrote my first few drafts, I would feature my protagonist coming up against a problem that played on his flaws (anger, fear, etc); then he would fight and overcome these flaws and come up triumphant and infinitely stronger on the other side. The problem with this is twofold. First, characters can no more realistically conquer their problems and flaws by beating a single challenge, than a person with social anxiety can conquer their fear by bravely going to a single party or than a drug addict will conquer their addiction after putting themselves through rehab. After the party, a real person will still face social anxiety just like an addict will still deal with addiction ever creeping in the back of their mind, because overcoming real problems, or just learning to live with them without succumbing, takes a great amount of time and effort. Second, when you erase the flaws in your characters, they become too powerful for the audience to be able to relate to, believe, and really feel impressed by when they overcome great challenges.

Tip 9: Create a full story-arc for each Protagonist, using the Twelve-Point Plot Outline.

In the previous article, I talked about how the difference between a supporting character and a Primary/Secondary protagonist is the presence of a full story-arc. For the Primary Protagonist, this character-arc will create the pace by which you set the entire novel. However, the Secondary Protagonists will not necessarily be tied by that structure. For example, the full character-arc for a Secondary Protagonist who dies early in the book, can be condensed to a few chapters. Also note that all your protagonists' outlines will probably start very vague and general, and then increase in specificity and concreteness as you complete more drafts. In the first draft, your plot points will likely change as you learn more about your character and the world; the important thing is just to have your character aimed in the right direction instead of meandering aimlessly toward no particular advancement of the plot.

Tip 10: Fill out a Character Attribute Sheet.

I'm not going to tell you which character attribute sheet to use, because how much character detail you want to have prepared before the story begins, is completely up to you. Large Character Sheets have the benefit of great specificity, but are often so long and tedious as to lose writers in boredom, and do not let them discover more about their character over the course of writing the story. Short ones are concise and easy to look back over, but can be rather general and unhelpful. Regardless, I recommend filling out a short one, at least, and then glancing over a longer one, just to give you new ideas for character details and to help you discover any basic or advanced points you might have forgotten to add to your protagonist's description.

Weekly Recommended Reading: The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud (To look at a work that features two very diverse but artfully crafted types of protagonist. The particular thing to note is the great level of how flawed and unheroic both characters are. Neither acts in the interest of anyone but themselves, and neither are they simply dark and romanticized heroes. Their flaws make them genuinely despicable, as well as believable, and even likable at times. Remember, there is nothing wrong with brave and altruistic characters, but it is important to understand the incredible effect of giving your characters real flaws.)

Write-a-Novel Exercise 5.2

Go through and follow the instructions for Tips 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7, in this tutorial, for each Primary and Secondary Protagonist. Write down the details that you come up with for your characters, and then paste them beneath the Plot Premise of each protagonist. I advise making these notes as concise as possible, for ease of later reference.

In a separate document, write down the Twelve-Point Plot Outline for each Secondary Protagonist that you have not already created an outline for.

Click here to submit your exercise.


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Logandeathblade1's avatar
What if your main character is viewed as a villain,  act like a villain, but are truly the hero?
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Villain and hero, at least to my understanding, are just moral judgments. When you're looking at a story in terms of plot, the focus is simply on which character is pushing towards a goal. 
Koimonsters-khaos's avatar
What about a villain protagonist? Biggest issue with me is creating a conflict and writing the plot based around themBunny Emoji-83 (Suspicion) [V5] 
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
That can totally be done. You just have to give them a cool goal to accomplish, besides just being dastardly :)
Duperghoul's avatar
I have this idea for this character that starts off as an antagonist but midway becomes good. What would he label as
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Labels are all fairly relative, and you could do it a number of ways ... but it simply sounds to me like an antagonist who becomes a protagonist. 
Herculeska's avatar
If my story involves two characters trying to help the flaws of each other in their own way, with others affecting it in less significant ways, does that make them both an antagonist and protagonist at the same time? And do you think that has any potential?

Also I tought of pitting them up against a third side who's only an antagonist. Would that make them both protagonists against one antagonist?

I don't know if I can pull it off, but I tought I may as well ask if it would even make sense to try

But great tips as always :D
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
No, it would not make them antagonists but co-protagonists ... unless their goals were contradictory throughout the entire story but they were friends anyways. 

But though they wouldn't be antagonists, the idea can certainly lead to a good story :) I recommend either making their goals contradictory if you want to try your idea or creating actual antagonists for them. 
Kinkifun's avatar
Very informative. Thanks!
Duperghoul's avatar
Once in my lifetime, I want to try a silent protagonist, were she only has her thoughts. It's a challenge, yes, but what 4 years of fanfiction writing taught me, is that is better t try new things.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
I believe Stephen King did this with a deaf character in The Stand.
WilliamV1's avatar
I've been reading your posts and I find them all very helpful.

I'd love to hear what advice you have for developing relationships between characters.
For example two characters meet for the first time at the beginning, and at first they don't like each other. But as the story progresses they begin to fall in love and by the end they're deeply in love. They get married and have kids, and live happily ever after.

What advice would you have for creating and developing these kinds of relationships between characters, so that their not what people call "Cheesy".
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Well, in the somewhat distant future I will be doing an article on the topic (after I get past my scheduled series of books which will allow people to finish the first draft of a novel of any genre). But, in the meantime, I do advise to make relationships (I'm assuming you mean romantic ones) subtle, difficult, and slow, if you want that to be a key component to your novel. The pursuit of love can be looked on as an antagonistic force in and of itself. So if you want it to be complex and multidimensional, I advise you creating ups and down, high points, adventures, mistakes, and disasters, using the same 12 point plot outline that you would use for any other time of plot. As far as not making it cheesy, I would advise two things. First, find romances that you like in fiction and see what qualities made you like them. Second, try not to over-romanticize things. Keep a spirit of realism and maybe even a touch of cynicism in one of the characters. 

Hope that helps!
FantasiaInk's avatar
Bartimaeus!!! \(^o^)/ Favorite character ever!!! ❤
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Haha, he's pretty awesome
dogman0's avatar
I just want to thank you for posting these, they have been very informative, and helpful.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
No problem :) Thanks for reading!
LightheartedLoki's avatar
Wow! Fantastic advice. My friend and I are writing a series together, this should help a lot for developing our characters! Thanks for making this.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
I'm very glad to have done so :)
alphardime's avatar
 Llama Emoji-23 (Shyness) [V1]
Searching about how to write fiction on the internet, I found two kinds of tip: the ones who tried to taught me obvious things that anyone with a organization sense would manage to do, and the exaggeratedly complex ones which seems to be helpfuk but at the end you won't learn anything that you actually gonna use.
Well, your list is not part of any of those kind of tips. Even though there was things that you pointed out that I have been doing intuitively yet, you made me completely aware that I should focus on some specific subjects. Thank you!
Sorry for my flawed English (not my first language... not at all. :c )
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Thank you very much for your very kind comment :) I'm always glad to find out that my tutorials help people in practical and measurable ways ... which has always been what I strive for. 
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