Uncategorized, Writing Advice

Tips for Developing Memorable Protagonists

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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!

 

Uncategorized, Writing Life

Why I Write

The “how” of a thing is unanimously easier to explain than the “why.” Putting to voice one’s reasons or motives for an act that may feel completely instinctual is such a challenge because it asks grand questions about who we are, how we see the world, and why we express it the way we do.

As for me, I’d always been known as a quiet sort. My grandfather, prone to tall tales, once told me that I communicated only in squeaks until I was three; I didn’t speak my first word until then, and I swiftly moved on to whole sentences as if I’d been biding my time. My mother states that his account is an exaggeration, but not much of one. It took me so long to talk that my parents thought there might be something wrong with me.

But I had a vivid imagination even from an early age. I communicated best through stories, both real and imagined. Having a hard time speaking in absolutes about things (like how I felt about a situation), I made comparisons to how other things made me feel, and I made associations quickly. I shied away from attention, with one exception: I liked knowing the answers to questions.

Again, all of this seems to hint at the “how,” as in “how this came to be,” as opposed to the “why.” The why, as per usual, is a tricky beast.

I always felt like there was something in my chest, a balloon that swelled every time I witnessed beauty: a salmon-hued Florida sunset, the smell of rain as it fell on spring-green banana leaves, a calm gray sky, a winter cardinal perched on skinny branches. That swell would get to be too much to take; I felt like I would choke on it. The only thing that abated the pressure was to try and capture it in words. I started with journals, those marble-covered composition books that I’d fill in a month or two before requesting a replacement. I’d go for long walks or stare from my window while aping whatever I’d read of Thoreau or Frost. I didn’t care that no one would ever see those lines. All that mattered was diminishing that breathless tension of the world weighing on my chest.

After a time, I turned my gaze from the beauty visible from the safety of my bedroom window to the more complex beauty of human beings. The way they tried and failed, the way they loved and hated, the heights to which they could ascend and the depths to which they could fall. My empathy for the human condition has yet to reduce: no matter how much I try to release the pressure through writing, that pressure is still there, but I accept and welcome it, now, as a fundamental aspect of who I am. I use it to keep me pushing toward that transcendental truth that I think every writer aspires to, impossible though it may be.

That’s the why of it in my case, slippery and vague and maybe even useless to anyone else but me. I write because I’ll suffocate if I don’t. Because I have to express this world as I see it, for fear that, in failing to do so, I may cease to see it at all.

Uncategorized, Writing Advice

Don’t Mistreat Your Secondary Characters

One of the worst offenses a writer can commit against their stories (and, by extension, their audiences) is to de-emphasize the characterization of their secondary characters in favor of only lending development to their main protagonists. Writers often make the mistake of taking their secondary characters for granted by glossing over their motivations, neglecting to give them multidimensional traits and qualities, or making it clear that they exist only to serve the needs of the protagonist or the plot. Here are some things to keep in mind while character-mapping or writing your secondary characters:

1. Consider the character’s goals and motivations: Here’s the thing about secondary characters: they shouldn’t behave as if they are aware that they are secondary characters. Each character is the protagonist of their own story, and as such, they have to be given the same level of consideration. If the character is helping the protagonist to achieve his ends, then what is their motivation for doing so? Self-preservation? Do they possess an honorable nature and a strict moral code of devotion and loyalty to their friends? Do they see any other benefits for themselves, such as earning riches or achieving fame and admiration?

The secondary character doesn’t have to outright state their motives, but the reader should be able to discern these motivations through previous interactions or scenes that establish who this character is. In other words, the audience should never be left to think that “because…protagonist” is the secondary character’s motivation for helping the protagonist in his or her arc. The secondary character must have his or her own reasons for any action they take. This also goes for secondary characters who act out of character just to cause unnecessary conflict in the plot: the audience will immediately pick up on the inconsistency because the character’s actions don’t fit their previously established motivations (or they have never been given any motivations beyond “because…protagonist,” which would make their sudden disruptive behavior even more illogical). In Captain America: Winter Soldier, for example, Natasha Romanoff doesn’t just help Steve Rogers because it’s convenient to the plot; she does so because of her moral code (as we saw in The Avengers, she believes very firmly in paying off her debts when she feels she owes someone for their deeds), and out of a sense of duty to Nick Fury.

2. Dimensionality: Have you ever seen that character in a book, film or television series whose sole purpose in the universe is to offer some levity in tense situations? This character is not-so-lovingly referred to as the “comic relief,” and he or she becomes problematic for the narrative when humor is the only trait and purpose he or she has been given. There are several other “types” in fiction who can be damaged by the pitfalls of one-dimensionality: “the love interest,” “the bully,” “the sidekick,” just to name a few. To reiterate, the problem with these characters is not that they fall into a type or trope, but that they are given no further development beyond that trope. You can have a love interest who also has a purpose beyond being the protagonist’s object of desire; take Lupita Nyong’o’s character, Nakia, in Black Panther, who had her own goals and interests outside of T’Challa, which allowed her to be a fully-developed character instead of a cardboard cut-out.

Part of establishing multi-dimensionality in a secondary character is, as mentioned before, giving the character their own aims and goals. Another way to establish multi-dimensionality is to give a character more than one attribute. Think of the people you know in real life: no one is ever just one thing. The funniest person you know may also have a nasty habit of jealousy and self-doubt, and they might be fiercely loyal. Or think of your own love interest: surely you have developed an emotional connection with this person because of not just one trait, but the entire amalgamation of traits, both positive and negative, which formulate who they are as human beings. The same should go for any secondary character: they should possess a realistic amount of attributes and weaknesses to fully humanize them.

3. Agency: As stated before, “because…protagonist” is not a legitimate reason for a secondary character to do anything, let alone for them to base their every decision or action on. No character’s life should revolve around the protagonist’s just because they’re the protagonist. A character who is only there to serve as the protagonist’s cheerleader, to do their bidding or to follow their every whim, is a character who lacks agency.

Your secondary characters can of course have moments of selflessness, but should also, for the most part, do something because they think it will help them to achieve their own goals, or because it fits into their morals. Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones, for example, follows her code of honor against all odds and, at times, against her best interests; because this has always been an aspect of her character, her actions and decisions make sense within the context of her moral code.

When it fits their character to do so, they should also act independently or even counter to the protagonist’s desires. If you have built a multidimensional character who possesses his or her own motivations and goals, then as long as their actions are in line with those aspects of their character, you will be giving them the agency to affect the plot and the protagonist, as opposed to simply serving the plot and the protagonist.