Character Creation: 3 Tips for Crafting a Protagonist

Character Creation: 3 Tips for Crafting a Protagonist

We told you how to create an awful antagonist in three simple steps – now it’s time to focus on the protagonist.

It doesn’t matter how long or short you intend your story to be, a work of fiction is only as strong as its main character, or protagonist.

Think about it: If you don’t give a damn about the person at the center of your story, why should anyone else? If your protagonist is weak, people will stop reading instantly.

The best element of a protagonist is, although they’re designed for you to root for them, they don’t necessarily have to be heroic, muscle-bound or even particularly moral. Patrick Bateman was an American Psycho, in a literal sense, and Treasure Island’s Long Silver was truly lamentable. Oh, and what about Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver? Okay, that was a movie, but you get the point.

If you’re sitting at your computer, staring at a blank screen and waiting for that eureka moment to arrive, these tips on creating the perfect protagonist for your story will help.

1. Think about where your protagonist will fit on the ‘spectrum of triumph’

“What’s that buzzword?” I hear you ask.

Well, the ‘spectrum of triumph’ as I like to call it, is a way of finding out where your character sits regarding heroism.

It’s a one to five tiered rating system and although it’s not original, it’s a brilliant way to gauge whether your protagonist is going to be a hero, an antihero or somewhere in between.

Of course, the plot and outcome of your story will determine much of how your character will react to his or her surroundings. But, just because he or she may ultimately end up taking down two gargantuan, leather clad villains to save a friend at the end of your story, that doesn’t mean they have to be a super confident extrovert with guns of steel.

Your character could just as easily be a skinny moral blank who is scared of poodles. It’s up to you, but perhaps this simple key will help:

1. Wimpy, feeble, dulcet, cowardly or morally questionable. Will display a host of recurring weaknesses.

2. Slightly wimpy, feeble, dulcet, cowardly or morally questionable. Will display a recurring weakness, but with some redeemable inner strength.

3. Quite ordinary and unassuming by nature but with decent core morals, but an ability to surprise at times.

4. Fairly ordinary and unassuming by nature but with decent core morals, plus an obvious ability to surprise, plus and a recurring strength.

5. The very embodiment of good. Brash, courageous and morally superior, with a host of skills and talents that come in handy throughout the course of the story.

character creation2. Breathe life into your protagonist by giving him a name

We know your main character isn’t a cardboard cutout, which is why the ‘spectrum of triumph’ should be used solely as a starting block.

Now that you know where your protagonist stands on the spectrum, you will be able to give him, her or indeed, it, a name and bring them to life — just like Jepetto did with Pinocchio, or Frankenstein did with his Monster.

Naming your protagonist will provide additional direction and the shot of inspiration you need to reach that all-important breakthrough.

Before you settle on a name, remember your decision will form the foundation of your character, so choose carefully.

Sit somewhere comfortable, notepad in hand and open your mind up to the past. Think of a person or two, real or fictional (I find real is more effective as the memories are tangible) whose personality loosely matches where your character sits on the ‘spectrum of triumph’. Examine their character traits and write down any adjectives that fit, arranging them methodically as you go.

Next, pick some of the most striking words you’ve written down and jot out the first three names — as plain or a wacky as you like — that come to mind. And finally, choose your name.

For example, if you’ve written down the words ‘weedy’ and ‘chipper’, and you’re writing a novel based in the countryside, you might settle on ‘Chip Weedling’, or something similar.

Congratulations. By now, you’ll have the name and general demeanor of your protagonist, now it’s time to chisel them into shape.

3. Let your ideas ferment, create your character’s persona and let your imagination run wild

Before you continue with your quest to create the world’s most beloved protagonist, you should take a break and let your brain process all of your efforts.

Walking away from your project is an essential part of the ideation process, and it will allow all of those loose ideas in your mind filter themselves, leaving the best ones free to hit you square in the cranium and take things up a notch.

So take a walk, go for a beer with a friend, enjoy a swim, watch Netflix, or anything else that will distract you from the task at hand — and all of a sudden, that eureka moment will strike.

Then, you’ll need to stop what you’re doing and rush back to your workstation in an epic fashion.

Now you have a clearer understanding of your character, you’ll be able to add another dimension to their being by creating a persona profile. This quick guide will help:

  • Age
  • Economic or social background
  • Likes and dislikes
  • Signature item of clothing
  • Main source of good
  • Biggest quirk
  • Core reason for existence
  • Main weakness
  • Main strength
  • Most important aspiration
  • Most memorable physical feature

With a newfound fire in your belly, work your way through this character persona checklist. Before you know it, your story’s fully-fledged, living, breathing, all singing, all dancing protagonist will be ready to skip their merry, or miserable way into your story and make people love them, love to hate them or love to laugh at them.

How do you create your story’s protagonist? Let us know in the comments below.

Filed Under: Craft
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14 comments

  • Bryan Fagan says:

    A few years ago I wrote a first draft with some pretty solid secondary characters. My problem was the protagonist. He had nothing going for him.

    My writer’s group agreed with me and a short time later I put it away. Now it’s back and I am beginning to understand who he is. In a nutshell I wrote him wrong. He gave me his dull side.

    Thanks for writing this. It helped a lot.

  • Loretta says:

    Hi there! This is helpful, and my problem is that my characters are flat and unimaginative. Another problem that sounds the death knell on my pieces are my settings).
    I rarely have different and interesting locales for my characters to cavort in. These pointers will help! Thanks!

  • Jo Clutton says:

    Hi!

    Thanks for this. My protagonist, Jeannie Delaney is a devastating cowgirl who’s the fastest gun in the west and also bisexual. The main premise of the story is her struggle for acceptance. The Novel is Alias Jeannie Delaney. It’s in five parts and it’s her life story, beginning just after the American Civil War and ends in 1910.

    I’m subscribed to umpteen zillions of writing blogs and I really must pay more attention to what you’re all suggesting!

    Jo UK

    http://www.jo-b-creative.blogspot.co.uk

  • Jenn Forster says:

    I really liked my protagonist already – but she just took on a new, more vibrant dimension. Thank you!

  • Before writing any character, I think it’s necessary to think of the ‘Character Arc’ which your character will go through from start to end and the Characteristic Moment.
    Your Protagonist will evolve into a different person till the story reaches the climax which is important.
    This will happen through the “Characteristic Moment” that will bring a change in the personality of your protagonist.

  • These suggestions validate what I already do so thank you! Usually, a name will pop into my mind and then it’s fleshed out from there. I keep a notebook for this. It contains maps of the town I’ve created, diagrams of rooms for blocking scenes, and pages devoted to each character. This way I can refer back for details I may have forgotten, or add new ones that develop.

  • Judy Rofe says:

    Thank You Dan, you guided my along my writing road and confirmed that I don’t need to make my protagonist into some kind of “Symbol of Perfection”.

    In fact, he’s got plenty of physical disabilities to keep the bullies amused for hours. And yet, he’s a mentally strong, very likeable fella who develops with the story.

    Many thanks for a well written article.

  • John Wells says:

    An additional aide in character development, whether protagonist, antagonist, wayfarer strangers, etc. can be found on the website ENNEAGRAM, which gives nine character types and their definitions. A Google search will turn up the website, and it can be a wealth of information. Of course any character can have attributes that combine several of the definitions. Lotsa luck to us all.