Your protagonist is important



Readers most enjoy a character they can admire. They like to believe the protagonist has some insight, some knowledge ordinary people do not understand or some power or value they don't have.

As you begin writing your novel, create an ongoing brief biography for your protagonist. It's good to know your protagonist as completely as you know your best friend. Of course, it's a gradual process. Remember, you knew your best friend a little at a time.

Here’s a small portion of my protagonist’s biography, which I put down as I wrote the first book featuring her:

Veronica Leigh Slate was born May 5, 1955, in Roanoke, Virginia to Archibald Kingston Slate and Elizabeth Leigh Slate. They lived on Day Avenue. Veronica's parents moved to Arlington, Virginia in August 1962 when she was seven years old because her father began working for the FBI, specializing in anti-terrorist work. In 1973, she had just graduated from high school in Arlington. About six weeks after Veronica's 18th birthday, her parents had insisted she go with them on their vacation trip to the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. As usual, they stayed at a grand old resort hotel called Pocono Manor Inn, a vine-covered castle that managed to be both inviting and forbidding. 

In June 1973, Veronica met LTJG Sam Treace, four years older than her. He was the most handsome man she'd ever seen. He became her first husband. 

As I wrote more books about her, I created more background. Her biography is now 50 single-spaced pages. It’s in narrative and in detail because Veronica has appeared in three published books by that time.

Probably 75% of this material did not appear in any of the books; it was for me, so I could know her better. You don't need to create a 50-page bio before you begin writing a book, but at least create a shorter one, confident you can add to it as you write the book and learn more about your protagonist.

Keep track of supporting players.

For supporting characters, you just need to keep track of what you have written about them so you don’t forget who likes Corona, and who was scared by a bear when she was three. Just remember whatever you've written about the supporting characters so you don't get it wrong in the future. You need only invent enough background for them to suit the needs of the novel.

No matter the genre, the stories we write are about people and events in their lives. Readers identify with characters because of their parallels with themselves.

Don't insult your readers’ intelligence or take away the joy of discovery. Remember, when we meet people and they become our friend, we discover their background over a period of weeks or even years. We don't learn everything about them right away. Characters are the same.

I watched a TV drama set in England where a family obtained a lifelike “synth.” The mother did not like the synth, but we didn’t know why.

However, it was not until the sixth episode [chapter] we found out why. As a she was supposed to be watching her little brother. Tragically, he ran into the street and died when a car hit him. This explained a lot about her character, but we were not told it at the beginning, only after the story had been completely started. We liked her. Now we understood why.

Although it's important for you to know about your protagonist’s past, you need only use enough background to make the character's emotional state clear to readers. Readers won’t be interested in characters who have no goals. A character becomes real through consistent acts and dialogue, which attempts to fulfill the character's goals. They also want the protagonist to be driven to reach their goals.

More important is the protagonist’s self-concept, a key to creating a fictional character who seems like a real person to your readers. Human beings have their own idea of who they are. It is their own self-concept. As a rule, people behave consistently with this self-concept. When they don't, there's conflict in their lives. Be sure you know your protagonist’s self-concept.

Protagonists can be emotional and passionate about things, which matter to them. The story centers on them; most of it will be from their point of view. Protagonists will need a problem to solve, and they do it with the help of other characters.

Create a protagonist who is likeable and realistic enough so that readers will care about them.

Your protagonist should be multifaceted and complex, who has traits readers can identify with. Protagonists should have some flaws and quirks. Make them vulnerable. This will evoke empathy in readers; thus reinforcing their connectivity.

Readers love to see the protagonist overcome weakness to become stronger. A just, moral fight endears readers because they share the same feelings. Protagonists have personal problems, just like real people. We all carry emotional baggage. Everyone has a past, a history. We carry burdens from childhood to adulthood. Protagonists do, too.

Your protagonist moves the story forward and toward an ultimately satisfactory conclusion. The protagonist will have a major objective, a goal to achieve, be it love, revenge, survival or happiness. Something should drive them. Protagonists shouldn’t be the same at the end of the story as they were at the beginning because the story affects and changes them. Readers identify with this.

When creating your protagonist, be they male, female or robot; think about these universally recognized traits for a protagonist:

They are determined even when the situation seems dire.

They care about others and follow a moral code.

They will do extraordinary things, make sacrifices and succeed against all odds.

The protagonist will do anything to protect those they love, even when it means turning weaknesses into strengths. Frequently your protagonist will change and become a better person and learn a valuable lesson through what happens to them. Above all, make your protagonist as real as possible. They are ordinary people doing something extraordinary.

To cause readers to care about the protagonist, they need to care about something. A protagonist who cares about something is worth caring about. It doesn't matter whether it is major or minor, disastrous or trivial. What matters is the protagonist cares about it. It does not matter whether the characters are aware they care as much as they do. The crucial issue is the feeling exists and is strong enough to drive them.

Pain’s cause and effect, no gore.

You increase the power of pain by showing its cause and effect, not by describing the pain in gory detail. Watching your protagonist cope with their pain can heighten your readers’ sympathy for the character who is going through the pain.

Characters who suffer pain and the ones who inflicts it are both memorable.

The character who suffers is important because readers feel sympathy for them. The one who inflicts the pain is important because of our fear and loathing of them. Physical pain is easier to use, of course, because readers don't need to be prepared for it. If our protagonist is in physical pain, readers will be sympathetic even if they have not seen the character before.

Emotional pain, readers should be prepared.

Emotional pain is difficult to portray because readers should be prepared for it. We need to show Brady happily married to Theresa before readers can feel his pain over losing her. The character feeling the pain should be familiar enough to readers that they can see the loss that causes the pain.

Readers care if your characters are in jeopardy.

Show them meeting Alex Trebek and trying to answer a ... sorry, I’m just being silly.

Jeopardy is anticipated pain. When characters are threatened with something bad, readers inevitably focus attention on them. Helpless characters who are faced with real danger will cause readers to attach more significance to the character.

A reason "women in jeopardy" books and movies are so successful is that readers care about anyone in jeopardy and especially if the victim is a woman. Jeopardy works because it magnifies the stalker and the prey. It also magnifies characters who try to aid the stalker or save the prey.

Larger than life protagonists.

Another way to make the protagonist important is making them a little bit larger than life. You don’t need to turn them into Captain America or Wonder Woman, but readers want the protagonist to be unique, in some way. If everyone in your book responds to your protagonist as if they are the most intelligent person in the room, readers will think so too.

Readers most enjoy a character they can admire. They like to believe the protagonist has some insight, some knowledge ordinary people do not understand or some power or value they don't have.

----- (From NOVEL SECRETS available in paperback and Kindle form.)






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