A story can’t really be a story unless you have a main character, or protagonist. Think about it. Our initial thoughts and ideas don’t really begin taking shape until we establish the central character. Creating a protagonist doesn’t mean you are creating superman or woman. It simply means you have one character the story centers around who’s thoughts and actions are driven by both internal and external motivations.
The most important thing to first grasp when developing the protagonist is the concept of translating the things in your mind onto the page. It’s a sense of self-awareness, that what you think you are saying may, in fact, not be what you are writing. Using tips and tools like the ‘spectrum of triumph’ can help gauge both the writer’s thoughts onto the page, and also whether the protagonist will become a hero, an anti-hero, or an average joe.
The five-tiered system ranks personality traits from weak to strong to help define a character and help determine their reactions to plot and conflict.
- Shy, lacking any confidence, cowardly, and/or lacking morals. Will encounter situations that emphasize their weaknesses throughout the story.
- A little less shy, more confident but still has questionable morals. Emphasize the weaknesses but provide ways they will redeem themselves.
- Average and ordinary with an unassuming or threatening demeanor, has core values that allow them opportunities to surprise the reader.
- Average and unassuming with stronger core values, a reoccurring ability to surprise the reader with positive actions and inner strength.
- The very essence of good/heroic. Embodies total courage, strength, moral superiority, is gifted and uses those skills to overcome villains and conflict throughout the story.
Name your character
Now that you have identified the type of protagonist that will drive your story, it is time to give them a name and bring them fully to life. While working on my first manuscript, I had crafted some of the primary traits of my protagonist, Carrie. Despite knowing that I wanted her to be innocent, kind, generous, and a bit naïve, since she would be violently attacked later and transform into a hard, vengeful anti-hero ready to take on the man who destroyed her, it wasn’t until I gave her a name that she fully came to life. Just like a child or a pet, it lays claim to them, and there is a sense of affection or regard. They become important to you—even if you create horrific experiences for them to endure.
Make a connection
I have always seen character creation, primarily my main character, like a child developing from newborn, to infant, to toddler, child, teen, and finally becoming an adult. Each of these developmental stages take place from the moment the idea flashes through our minds all the way until they reach our readers. I am so vested in my characters that I want the reader to know, love, accept, reject, and/or hate them all the same. These connections come in how we layer internal struggles, their actions, how they speak and interact with secondary characters, how they look, and the decisions they make. For me, it all comes back to being self-aware. Ask yourself who you really want to be at the center of your story, search deep for who they really are then make them reach out and grab your readers attention.