More Fun With Protagonists

The flawed protagonist

So the other day I went all Joseph Campbell on the idea of the protagonist, and all characters in a story, as a part of the inner workings of the author of said story.  And while I still believe that, I realized I kinda went off the topic I originally wanted to discuss, which is how to create a realistic, fully fleshed main character.  So I’m just going to pick it up where I left off here…

As I mentioned, my trick is to use parts of my own personality for the base, but if I did that for all my main characters and didn’t do anything else, they would be super lame.  Let’s face it, I’m not that exciting of a person.  So, I take pieces and tinker with them a little, and then add traits until I have a character I can understand, but who is no longer really like me. Some of the traits I add or embellish intentionally–for instance, I gave the main character in my current WIP a short temper because in my own life, I generally try to avoid confrontation, but in a story, the more confrontation you have, the more drama you can put into a situation.  My character doesn’t like to back down, and will actually say all the snarky things that I normally just think at people, which makes her a very fun character to write about, and creates all sorts of interesting situations that carry the story along.

There are a lot of traits that will slip into a character’s personality unintentionally as well.  I know when I write, sometimes something just seems like it would be funny, or interesting, so I add it.  Again, for my WIP (which is sadly all I think about lately), my main character is a little bit immature, and a little bit of a cry baby, which she tries to cover up by being a tomboy.  I didn’t start off trying to create someone like that, but it just felt right with the story, and I think you should always trust your first instinct when creating a character.  I know someone whose main character has a strange fascination with teeth–she didn’t originally intend for this bizarre little trait in her first draft, but it just sort of developed and she went with it.  Which leads me to my next point.

People are weird.  Everyone you know is weird–trust me on this.  Everyone has their own strange little habits, or beliefs, or mannerisms, so it’s important that your characters, and particularly your protagonist, have their own crazy little tics and OCD moments.  These are the little details that will make your character feel like a real person to your readers.  And not just a real person, but someone they can relate to and cheer on.

In addition to the occasional strange habit, your characters have to have some sort of flaw.  And I’m not talking about freckles, or a terrible tennis serve, or anything silly like that–I mean a real, jarring, unpleasant flaw.  Like, they secretly hate their best friend, or they have an addiction to pain killers, or they can be extremely selfish.  The list is endless.  The worst thing you can do is create a character who is too perfect–every time I read about someone like that, I just want the villain to win because the idea of a perfect person winning is just too depressing.  And maybe that’s my cynicism talking, but generally I think a character with some sort of flaw who is able to overcome said flaw and triumph and grow at the end of the book is a character I can believe in.  These are the characters who will live in the reader’s mind outside of the pages of the story.

That’s about it.  If anyone has any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them.  I think a lot of writing is intuitive, so it’s hard to really make a set of rules, but I’m sure people have their own tricks that help them set the foundation for their characters before inspiration kicks in and enables them to flesh these characters out.

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Published in: on May 9, 2010 at 11:12 pm  Comments (5)  
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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I have the opposite problem– I can only relate to characters who are completely perfect. But I guess that’s the burden of perfection 😉

    And speaking of flawed protagonists, you better catch Iron Man 2 while it’s still in theaters!

    • The burden of perfection, huh? Must be rough…

  2. Excellent post. I agree with what you say about the leader character having to have a flaw; no one likes some one who is too perfect. I always find the anti-hero more appealing in stories because they are far more interesting.

    • One extreme example I read of the anti-hero was Peter David’s “Sir Apropos of Nothing.” If you like flawed characters and fantasy, it’s a pretty interesting read. And he is a long way from perfect. 🙂

  3. I find that it is the flaws that make a character memorable. They need some quirks that can drive you mad but at the same time make you love the protagonist even more.
    Thanks for sharing this post and good luck with you WIP.


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