Long after reading a book or watching a film, the aspect of the story you most likely remember in great detail are its characters. Even when the finer points of the plot or the sequence of events become muddled, the reader or audience can tell you about who the protagonist and antagonist were (if either one is worth talking about, that is).
Bear in mind, a memorable protagonist is not memorable solely because of how powerful or flawless he or she is. In 2003, the American Film Institute listed its top 100 villains and heroes in cinematic history. The top 10 heroes included Atticus Finch, Clarice Starling, Ellen Ripley, Indiana Jones and Rocky Balboa. Superman, on the other hand, placed 26th on the list. The #1 hero, Atticus Finch, was a lawyer who never threw a single punch and rarely even raised his voice, but whose strength and respectability rested in his empathy, pursuit of justice and human decency. This didn’t mean that he was without flaws: when determining what was to be done about Boo Radley, Atticus, stressed from nearly losing his son, defaults to considering the legality instead of the morality of the situation. Sheriff Tate is the one to determine what is the right course of action, but this lapse didn’t make Atticus Finch any less a hero: it made him human.
In order to create characters who stick in your readers’ mind for years to come, you have to walk a tightrope between relatable and unique, admirable and flawed, all while avoiding the tropes, clichés and pitfalls that make a protagonist utterly forgettable. Here are some dos and don’ts that can help to guide you as you map and write your protagonist.
- DO draft a character map while you’re in the research and outlining phase of your novel (sometime after you’ve gotten your genius plot concept and before you’ve started committing the story to the page). This can be a list, a brainstorming session or a paragraph that describes the character. I recommend determining the protagonist’s appearance, childhood, positive attributes, flaws, talents and city of origin in this character map, and remember: every aspect of the protagonist’s childhood that you choose to explore should have natural effects on who they are now, and who they are should have an effect on how they handle the situations that occur in your plot.
- DON’T overdo the physical descriptions when characters are first introduced, especially in first person narrative (as this comes across as unnatural, stilted, fawning or vain; if you intend to make the protagonist come across as vain, however, then have at it!). Let the reader know the protagonist’s build, hair type and one or two facial features. I also would recommend that you not detail the characters’ clothing at all times; only do this when it is pertinent to the plot or to illuminating an aspect of the character’s personality. Lastly, avoid using the “looking into a mirror” cliché to describe appearance. This has been done so much that it almost universally elicits an eye-roll.
- DO construct flaws that are natural inversions of attributes. If a protagonist is determined and independent, for example, he or she may not be very good at asking for help or allowing people to see him or her in a vulnerable state. Or if a protagonist is proud of his or her intellect and strives to learn, they may come across as arrogant or condescending to others. These aren’t just random quirks or empty flaws tacked on to the character for the sake of making a superficially nuanced persona; they’re mirrored versions of a trait that already exists.
- DON’T try to make your protagonist perfect—not to the reader, and not to the other characters. A “perfect protagonist” (often called a Mary Sue) loses all potential for being considered human or relatable. Their conflicts feel disingenuous (because if they’re so perfect, then how can anything or anyone ever threaten their success?); their relationships consist of vapid cheerleaders, swooning love interests or petty haters; and they often lack self-awareness, compelling traits and an actual arc. Giving your characters flaws and adversity helps you to build a meaningful arc as they learn how to recognize and accept their own shortcomings, and work to overcome them in order to achieve their goals.
- DO pay close attention to maintaining a consistent voice for each character—especially for your narrator—to include diction, dialect, speech patterns and speech rhythm. Lapses in this are often the results of “author inserts,” or instances where the author’s own voice slips into the narrative and the narrator’s voice takes a back-seat. This can be confusing for the reader as they try to determine if it was an intentional change in the narrator’s voice, or if the narrator simply isn’t as fully realized as they had previously thought. A great example of an author who knows how to write compelling and unique characters, and knows how to navigate their interactions in ways that make sense for who they are and how they speak, is Maggie Stiefvater; check out her Raven Cycle series to see what I mean.
- DON’T overload your reader with details or information about your character’s backstory right off the bat. If your first chapter includes your protagonist’s entire life story, then you have unfortunately wasted time that should have been dedicated to world-building, and you have stalled the build-up of the plot and the central conflict. The best course of action is to pick out a few life events that have had the greatest impact on your protagonist, hint at them early on and slowly start to divulge them later on in the story. This technique of teasing and dropping breadcrumbs can build suspense and intrigue about who your protagonist is and what has made them that way.
Hopefully these tips help you as you start building your protagonist from head to toe!