The protagonists within us (or why that stupid character is actually you)

Hmm, not really a protagonist, is he? Oh, and these are not the hammer...

Yesterday I talked about the difficulties in creating a truly evil villain, so today I thought I’d look at the other side of the coin: the protagonist.  A good, strong villain is important, but I know, as a reader, I won’t make it to the villain if I don’t like the hero of the story.  It’s the writer’s job to create a realistic, unique, and somewhat likable protagonist to guide the story along.  The writer has to know and understand their protagonist frontwards and backwards and inside out, which, from a writing standpoint, can be surprisingly hard to do.  I thought I’d share one trick here for how I go about creating a realistic main character in my own work, but I’d be very interested in hearing how other people go about doing this as well.

When beginning a story, I usually take my own personality as the starting base for my main character.  I think about what I like or don’t like about myself, and then I try to exaggerate the characteristics that I think would create an interesting character.  This way, I’m beginning with a real person I know fairly well, myself, and building on that, rather than creating a whole person out of thin air.  This plan can backfire, though, as first of all it is depressing to do that much soul-searching every time you write a story, and secondly, it can open you up to some harsh comments about yourself.  For example, I wrote a short story in college about a girl who is slowly starving because she’s too lazy to hold down a regular job (sound familiar?), so she answers an ad to do some psychological tests for money.  Madness ensues, and the rest isn’t too important, but during the critique of this story, my professor said, “Heidi is obviously having some fun with a stupid character,” and everyone else in the class laughed and agreed.  Meanwhile, I’m sitting there, feeling like crap because the main character was based loosely on myself.  True, I exaggerated her, but still!

Anyways, harsh personal criticisms aside I’d argue that every character in a book, from the protagonist to the villain, to the annoying sidekick and random passing characters, are all taken from parts of the writer’s own personality.  It might not be deliberate, as mine is, but these characteristics have to come from somewhere.  And I know that sounds like I’m parroting Joseph Campbell, but if you think about it, while you (the writer) are creating and fleshing out these little figures in ink and paper, you’re using your own experiences, memories, and emotions to judge how they would react, or what they desire.  It’s really bits of you that are motivating the whole book, and that to me is what is so amazing about writing in the first place; you’ll finish a story and realize you had all this inside you the whole time, and it’s amazing and also kind of terrifying.

Published in: on May 7, 2010 at 7:39 pm  Comments (5)  
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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Sometimes we take our observations of other people and their personalities (exaggerated and twisted somewhat) to create characters. Othertimes we take parts of ourselves. Characters come from many places. I think the important part is that you end up with a realistic character. You take what you need from where-ever you can to accomplish that goal.
    Thanks for the interesting post.

    • Thanks, Cassandra. And very true–I guess I was caught up in the idea that it all comes from within that I didn’t take into account how often writers look outside themselves for their inspiration as well. I think that for the inner workings of your characters, you have to rely on your own emotions and thoughts, as well as the impressions you get of other people’s thoughts and reactions. Since you can’t know what they are thinking, it’s still filtering through you, but it’s true that what you observe in other people is another place for character inspiration. Thanks!

  2. Hi Heidi – I like your blog! As always, I enjoy readng what you write. Who’s cute guy in glove?

  3. See, I can’t write. Who’s the cute guy in the gloves?

    • Captain Hammer. He’s from the show “Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog,” which is awesome, if you ever get the chance to check it out. It’s a three part show that was originally released online–he’s actually the arch nemesis of the main character. 🙂

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