Characters 101 – Essential Elements of Your Main Cast

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Plots unfold. Events take place. Readers expect things to happen in a book, but the real reason they turn the page is to learn more about someone special. That special someone is your main character(s). How can you craft characters intriguing enough to spend hundreds of pages on their adventure? Fantastic protagonists are a necessary ingredient for a great book, so it’s worth reviewing how to make them memorable. It’s time to revisit Characters 101.


The protagonist is the book’s main character and/or hero. This is who the most important events will happen to. She is the star of the show. This character needs to hold a reader’s attention because her choices and actions will drive plot as she pursues her goals and grows and changes as the story progresses. The reader goes on a journey with her, so she’s got to be worthy of the attention.

The best protagonist is one readers care about. She doesn’t—and shouldn’t—be perfect. Perfection is boring and unrealistic. However, her foibles shouldn’t be so off-putting that the reader wants to lay the book down and never go back. Nobody wants to spend time with someone awful (like, plain awful, not love-to-hate…just, hate). Remember, even though readers root for anti-heroes too, anti-heroes have something charming or intriguing about them that makes up for their bad behavior. While the best protagonists aren’t perfect, they aren’t irritating or boring either.

One of the best ways to make your readers care about your main character is to introduce her early, by name, and give specific details or example of who she is and why. Why is she sympathetic? Why is she unique? Why is the story about her and not someone else? Make sure you understand why you cast your protagonist, so  you can show off her unique qualities.


The antagonist is also known as the villain because he opposes or undermines the protagonist. This character doesn’t have to be evil, per se. In fact, they could be the objective “good guy” of the story if your hero is an anti-hero (for instance, if the hero is a criminal and the antagonist is a detective). However, this person runs in opposition to the hero, which is why he gets this categorization. Remember that the antagonist is the hero of his own story—at least in his mind. This means he has his reasons for doing what he does. Make sure those motivations are clear…even if they’re wrong.

Like the mirror image of the hero, the antagonist is not pure evil. He often has a sympathetic backstory. Usually something happened to him to make him turn bad. As a writer, you want to share that information with the readers. It helps make your story more nuanced, and it gives your reader more to chew on. Think of The Joker from Batman. He has a truly unfortunate background, as he was disfigured in a vat of chemicals. In the more recent iterations, he has mental disease. He’s sympathetic…but he’s also a psychopathic criminal.

Another important element of a great villain is that he should be a worthy adversary. This person should keep the protagonist on her toes and be a true challenge to her getting what she wants. The villain’s literary role is to challenge the protagonist and force her to grow. That won’t happen if he’s weak.

Characters make a book worthy of reading. Make sure you’ve got the essential elements down so that you are able to craft your best work.

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About Author

Mary is a young adult writer and archaeologist. By day she teaches at a local college, and by night she writes about the adventures of adolescence.

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