A popular post from October 2008
By Josi S. Kilpack
Every book has a main character, also known as a protagonist, also known as a Hero or Heroine. Whether it's Dr. Seuss, Tolkien, or JK Rowling, every book is about somebody. That somebody carries the weight of the story on their shoulders because plot is what they are working toward, conflict is what is preventing them from getting what they want, setting is wehre they are, villians work against them; but everything in a story comes back to them. Therefore he/she/it needs to be worthy and prepared for such responsibility. There are some protagonist elements that vary from genre to genre--things like the male lead in a romance needs to be handsome and the detective in a mystery needs to be clever--but there are other things that every protagonist needs. Here are a few to keep in mind:
*Must be good. This is not to say they must be perfect or without sin, but the protagonist must, essentially, be a good person wanting good things. Their good things might include killing their enemies or something equally distasteful, but it's for a good reason.
*Must be interestng. No one wants to read about someone average. In fiction, average is boring. And yet, we all like to read about someone we can relate to. Your protagonist doesn't need to be a superhero, but she needs to be unique, she needs to bring something rather fantastic into the story. My daughter's science teacher is a heavy set woman, but she can do the splits and when the kids reach a certain goal, she preforms this for them. It's an absolutely facinating element of this woman, something you would never guess. That she can do this intriques me, that she's WILLING to do it in front of 30 seventh graders is even more amazing. It says something about her, points out things in her personality that make her someone I want to know. Look for interesting elements you can add to your character that make them intriquing and intersting.
*Must be strong. In addition to being good and interesting, the protagonist must be strong. Not necessarily physically (though that rarely hurts) but emotionally strong, able to break through the hardships thrust upon them, able to grow. In real life we all need internal strength to keep going, it's the same way in fiction, and while you can start with a weak character, you must show their potential quickly and have them end stronger than they began.
*Must have weaknesses. I'm not contradicting myself, but while your character shoudl be strong, they need to have weaknesses. This both allows the reader to identify with the character, but also allows conflict to take place. I strongly beleive that at least some elements of set backs in the story should be a result of the protagonists weaknesses. I want my readers to see that he made a poor decision, I want them to beleive that if he'd chosen differently he'd have never been in this mess. Allowing the reader to feel a little bit superior in this way lends to good reading.
*Must be consistant. You can't have your protagonist go wishy washy on you. If she's a vegitarian, she can't eat a hamburger because she's trying to kiss up to someone that has information she wants. She could pretend to eat it, but she wouldn't eat it because that would be inconsistent with who she is. If he's a chauvinist, you can't have him willingly submit to his wife while he's a tryrant to all other women in his life. You must identify your protagonists character and then make sure that everything they do fits into this. While it's fine to surprise your reader, the surprise must be a "Of course" type of surprise and not a "No way" type of surprise.
*Must have motivation. Why do they do the things they do? Because they are bored = a poor story and a weak character. Motivation is EVERYTHING, it defines your character for you once you know what motivates them to do what they will do. Once you truly know thier motives, they can be thrown into any situation and you know exactly how they will handle it. Motivation is the reason they do it, the force that pushes them, and the story, forward.
*Must grow. By the end of the story your readers should be able to look at your character and say "Wow, look at how he's grown!" The variations of growth are immense. Some characters will grow a lot, turning thier lives around, having found thier calling or their true love. Other's will simply be a little bit smarter, a little more compassionate, or a little more passionate for a cause. It doesn't have to be a complete transformation, but there needs to be marked progress. It restores our faith in ourselves, to realize that conflict equals growth.
So, think of the story your working on now. Think of your main character and ask yourself the following questions.
1--Is he/she/it essentially good?
2--What is it about my protagonist that stands out?
3--What are my character's internal strenghts?
4--What are his/her/its weaknesses that can add to the conflict?
5--Is he/she/it consistent througout the story?
6--What is my characters primary motivations?
7--Is my character stronger at the end than he/she/it was at the beginning?
Adding these elements to your character, if they aren't alredy there, will add texture, depth, and dimenstion to your story, regardless of genre or market.