Welcome to Writing Tip Wednesdays, where I post (you guessed it) tips on writing every other Wednesday at 5:00 PM ET. This week’s topic:
Every story has its central character the entire story revolves around- this character is your protagonist. They are the most importance character in the entire story, and likely the one you spend the most time crafting and creating before writing the actual story.
But what are the elements that make up a successful protagonist? And, of course, by “successful,” I mean one that audiences will want to read.
Do you remember playing pretend when you were little, be it with your siblings, friends, stuffed animals, or parents? Do you remember wanting to control the story? Do you remember in your amateur improve acting days on the playground wanting your character to always survive the worst? Always get back up? Always win?
Well, there’s a word for that: godmodding.
Think of it like “modifying” your character to be a “god.” They’re perfect. They’re flawless. And they always win.
Now, they may have flaws like snobbery, perfectionism, etc., but because one’s character is perfect, even their imperfections are praised and seen as positive character traits. Because that’s them: they’re perfect.
It gets particularly bad if you’re in a role playing situation, either written or acted out, or if you’re co-writing something. Because one of a few things usually happens:
1) The characters of the person you’re co-writing with always fail and are otherwise always “lesser” than yours in some way
2) They eventually get tired of always being beaten and start godmodding for themselves, leaving you two locked in a battle of “who can be the most perfectest perfect god there ever was,” until one of you finally realizes that the plot has been gone for months now and any hope of restoring order to your story is now gone because you are both so ticked off at one another for being “too perfect.”
See? “Too perfect.” It’s a bad thing. It really is.
Your main characters, if they are to be successful, must be imperfect.
They must fall, they must stumble, either literally or metaphorically. They must sometimes get too angry and say things out of turn, they must refuse to apologize, they must apologize too much, they must pretend they’re a perfectionist because they fear how imperfect they think they really are.
Flaws. Make. Characters. Human.
Even if you’re writing about ancient Norse or Greek gods, they must be imperfect because, even for all their glory and wisdom, they must be relatable. Even if the only way in which they are relatable to us is that they struggle with pride or even something so simple as the desire to sleep.*
A god is to be feared, but a god that is human-like is to be related to.
And the latter option makes for a much more interesting story.
While it is imperative for your protagonist to have a healthy host of imperfections, it is equally important for them to have strengths- things other characters can look up to them for. But you need a healthy balance- and sometimes, creating that balance between flaws and strengths is easier than you might think.
For example, perhaps a supporting character looks up to your main character for their ability to persevere—meanwhile, your main character suffers from an extreme anxiety and disbelief in their ability to handle anything because they only way they are able to do so is by crying themself to sleep every night, which makes them feel week. In this way are you able to establish both a strength of your character, the ability to persevere, while also introducing their flaws: anxiety and a lack of confidence. Perhaps even a lack of the ability to see things as they are in reality.
Your character needs to have things they excel at, because remember: they are the focus of the story. They are the hyper-interesting character of your book; the story’s about them, you know?! Use this to your advantage.
Don’t write them perfect, but certainly make them shine.
MEANINGFUL CHARACTER TRAITS
If anyone’s ever read Robert Jordan’s famous fantasy series The Wheel of Time, you likely know where I’m about to go with this. The women in this series are famous for skirt smoothing and braid tugging. There are debates as to the answer to “why,” but it is there nevertheless. You didn’t have to ask what it meant, as it was always when the characters were uncomfortable, nervous, or otherwise in a somewhat awkward situation, if one applies a broad definition to the word “awkward.” The skirt smoothing and braid tugging could be seen as the equivalent to messing with a button, looking for something in a bag, pretending to have a crick in your neck that needs stretching, or in a more modern age, looking at your phone very intently.
Body language tells a lot about a person, both in real life and in fiction. You can tell a lot about a person who chooses to give their speech with notes behind a podium versus someone who presents it in the middle of an open stage with no podium and no notes at all.
In the same way, the little things that people do are worth noticing and noting—part of the reason writers are often observant, or encouraged to be observant. These “little things” play a huge role in showing (not telling) us what a character is feeling inside versus what he is projecting outside.
Your character meets someone who challenges him. The person they meet is larger in physical stature. They have riches and influence and basically everything. But your character needs to prove that he is not intimidated by this. He needs to prove it so badly that he does one small thing to prove it:
He raises his chin.
What does this show me?
That he’s afraid and has low confidence in the situation he’s in. The person who has nothing to prove does not need to raise his chin—his stature is so well known that his chin stays level. He does not act larger—he simply is larger. Even in his mannerisms.
Don’t believe me? Think about a court room. Who stands when the judge walks in? Everyone who is not the judge. Everyone who does not have power.
When you choose character traits for your characters, like raising their chin when threatened, shifting in their seat, raising an eyebrow, or twirling their hair, be mindful to understand the implications of the mannerism you chose; sometimes it’s not enough to say “this feels like them,” because remember: your character who chooses to stand to appear intimidating is often less confidence than the character who chooses to sit in the presence of a threat.
For remember: a real king sits on his throne.
This may seem like a simple thing, but again- it’s the little things that make a difference.
Your character, as said above, can’t well be liked if they are only perfect—neither can they be well liked if they are only flawed. You need a balance.
This is the “human” aspect of them. The “likeability” factor often comes as a result of combining flaws, strengths, and traits. Choosing each of these intentionally will likely result in a character your audiences want to see. And not only see, but one they will want to get to know, and one they will want to see succeed.
Much of this plays into the underdog theory—create an underdog character and watch them rise to the top. It’s satisfying. And we’re all guilty of loving it. Someone unexpected succeeding? It’s a recipe for success.
Frodo Baggins, for example—a short hobbit used to living in an idealic countryside where he eats seedcakes and lives with his rich uncle who hosts an elaborate joint birthday party somehow succeeds in defeating the greatest evil to ever touch the realm of Middle-Earth?? Amazing!
And then there are characters like Loki in the Avengers. He’s a god, not a main character, but audiences love him. Why?
Underdog. A god who should be perfect who suffers as an adoptive son living in the shadow of his older brother. He thinks his adoptive father loves Thor more. He thinks his father is racist against him.
But his mother loves him. Thor loves him. Realistically, even Odin loves him, but Loki refuses to see it. Which makes him tragic. Which makes him interesting. And, if he just stopped believing the lies he tells himself, we might see him succeed. We see him as likable because of his intelligence, wit, power, etc., and yet we see him also as wounded and weak.
Who makes him the underdog? Himself. And we like contradictions.
Underdogs are a formulaic, though no less powerful, way to create a likable character. It is your job as a writer, however, to turn the formula into something uniquely you and uniquely your character.
So the way to make your protagonist likeable?
They don’t have to be an underdog—but being an underdog helps. They don’t have to be saintly, but neither do they have to be a demon. Make them interesting. Give them something endearing and that something that most, if not arguably all, people can relate to.
Not everyone will like your main character for the exact same reasons, but you want to give all readers one reason to like them—and perhaps better yet, one way to relate to them.
Universality, while unpopular in academia at large right now, is not completely dead. Universality, when defined as the common space among humans even among apparent difference, can be a beautiful, powerful, moving thing.
Not everyone will like your main character—but the aim is to at least make one thing about them likable or relatable.
But what if your main character is not a likable person? What if their not supposed to be, especially in the beginning of the story? What if the main character is supposed to start out as a brat, but end up as a matured, changed person?
Wonderful. But how can you make a brat likable?
There are a few ways:
- Remember to make something about them likable. Maybe they snuff at food when it’s in front of them, but only because they are secretly a vegetarian and don’t want to eat the meat at the royal feasts, and know that it will come across as weak, so that, at least part of their brattiness is affected, rather than honest. Sure, have them bratty and snobby in other ways in earnest, but perhaps have them have to affect the snobbery to hide their kind heart. This will hopefully make your reader curious enough to continue reading a character that is supposed to get under their skin.
- Your supporting cast.
Your supporting characters are absolutely integral to the success of your book. They are absolutely integral to the success of your protagonist.
How? Let’s take a look.
If your main character is the snobby brat mentioned above, then introduce the lowly, sometimes comic-relief servant, squire, cousin, uncle, you-name-it, etc. It is this person’s job to provide the lightness and levity often needed for an audience when dealing with such an unlikable character for an extended length of time.
Sometimes when your main character has no moral compass, it is the job of the supporting cast to provide it.
Let me clarify: this does not mean preaching through the supporting cast. Neither does this mean that they are a substitution for an (eventually) likeable protagonist.
When your main character has no moral compass, it is the job of the supporting cast to be the compass, and not the solution. It means being the arrow that points them to the right place.
For instance, if your main character was angry all the time and his best friend just laughed it off, but then one time it’s too much for the main character to take and he slugs his best friend across the jaw and sees his best friend cry for the first time, while he might not change in that moment, maybe that moment is the catalyst for change.
All characters in all stories must change. In some way. In some books it is obvious: bad guy turns good or good guy turns bad. In some, it is more ambiguous. Think of, perhaps, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. By the end of the book, she suffers extreme PTSD that was not present in the extremities that it is by the end of the series. You feel for her. It is realistic, solid, palpable, possible change.
And this is what we call the character arc.
I remember the term “arc” scaring me. It unnerved me because of how professional and “writerly” it sounds.
Just picture it: “Ah, yes, I’m working on my character arc right after another busy day at the writing conference, and then I’m finally off to keep my schedule for a busy day of sipping tea and staring out the window.”
The last bit I can definitely get on board with—after all, it’s a habit in which I think all writers should indulge. But, goodness! “Character arc?!? It scared me so badly I didn’t know what to do. And I thought I could get away with never learning what it really was.
But it turns out—I was scared for nothing.
What is character arc?
It’s character change.
It is the transformative journey your character takes throughout the story. Not the outer, overt transformative, necessarily, but more of the inner journey.
For example, if you have our bratty character think being snobby and bratty is not a problem in the beginning of the story, but realizes through the external (outer) journey of the need to slay a dragon that “Hey, being selfish, snobby, and bratty is not such a good thing after all,” this is his arc, from snobby to humble. His change from this to that.
Arc = Change
Character Arc = Character Change
Not that complicated, right?
Just remember- outer plot is important. But the inner journey, the character transformation, is equally, though often arguably even more, important. People read for the outcome of the characters they fall in love with.
What does this mean?
It means that people will remember stories like The Lord of the Rings not for the character’s success in saving the world, exactly, but for the symbolic meaning behind that saving: that even a gardener can become so much more than he thought he’d ever be.
Or, to put it in Galadriel’s words: “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”
WANTS AND DESIRES
Lastly, you need to be sure of your character’s wants.
Think of this like the thesis statement in a research paper. You want to narrow it down, and narrow it down, and narrow it down EVEN more, until it is so tiny, and so specific to that character, that if there were a board game of “which character wants what,” you should be able to tell me the name of every main character whose want I read.
Frodo’s main want is not to destroy the Ring, for example—it’s to go back to the Shire.
Remember how we talked about character arc/change? Well here’s how it usually goes:
The main character usually believes something about himself that is not true (I’m not good enough, I’m not a real hero, etc.)
Then the main character’s friends or wizards tell him he is so much more.
He doesn’t believe them even though they are living in reality—because, in reality, he is believing lies that hold him back from the thing he wants most.
A main aspect of a well-written protagonist is the lie that he believes. This is often essential to his arc. He must believe something and then eventually accept reality in order to get the thing he wants most…or fail to see reality and fail his quest completely and remain unchanged, which results in a completely different, and often depressing, ending.
Like, for instance, the bad guy who allllmost has a change of heart, but then at the last second doesn’t? It leaves you thinking, “Oh man, if only he had known that So-and-So was telling the truth! He’s not really a bad guy at all. If he had only listened!” It’s very compelling and usually used for villains, not to say you couldn’t use this latter half for other character types, as well.
Your main protagonist, however, is also caught up in lies—the difference usually being that he snaps out of it, and that snap, that moment of change, leaves him changed forever, and usually for the better.
These were 7 ways to write an imperfect protagonist perfectly. And if you’re having difficulty believing you’re a writer who is capable of incorporating all of them, don’t worry—this is just a part of your character arc.
Alyssa Grace Moore