Writing 3-D Protagonists

Nanner Split/Hester Douglas

Do you have work that has languished in a drawer or been rejected?  I have at least three novels that are sitting around. Instead of immediately self-publishing or throwing the pages into the fire, it could be time to take a second look at the protagonist.

Writing Tip for Today: Here are some ways to examine and deepen your main character:

Know the Back Story

Every lifelike character begins by understanding where the character has been. Knowing and understanding your protagonist’s history or back story will help you shape her/him in the story.

For instance, a bitter or hurt protagonist might come across as mean or unfeeling if no back story is presented. Readers will likely sympathize or follow a character whose bad moods are fueled by some disaster in their past.

But don’t give your character’s life story in back story on the page! Instead, learn to weave in small snippets of back story as they directly relate to the scene at hand. Let the very brief beat or sentence of back story nestle right next to the action/dialogue that shows it. We all must beware interfering with the forward movement of the story—remember not to let your mashed potatoes grow cold!

Check the Voice

While you’re providing a reason for your protagonist’s actions/dialogue, check the voice of that character. Does the protagonist read as if he/she is arrogant, unfeeling or bitter? Although you can justify some negativity, most protagonists become unlikable or hard to follow the more that bad ‘tude comes out in action and dialogue.

Even if your protagonist is simply a bit underdeveloped (aka shallow or surface), readers’ will likely conclude that the protagonist doesn’t care. Why should readers care if the character doesn’t? Delve into the stakes of the story—are they high enough? Does your protagonist have a clear goal that is desperately and passionately desired?

As you review your character’s voice or how he/she comes across, beware going too far. The result will likely be melodramatic and still unbelievable. Let your character’s wants and needs contrast greatly with the obstacles. A protagonist’s voice will be more compelling with high stakes, worthy goals and difficult obstacles to overcome.

A protagonist is more compelling with high stakes, worthy goals and difficult obstacles.

Up the Emotional Stakes

As usual, I find the best way to deepen my protagonist is to make sure the emotional stakes are high. The emotional stakes of a story hinge upon a character who is dogged in the pursuit of the goal but driven by a deep emotional need.

The best protagonists are often at cross purposes with their own emotions. They tend, at first anyway, to do the opposite of what might be the best decision. Protagonists who don’t really understand their own deep emotions will self-sabotage as the story gets going but will end up learning or growing by the end.

This same protagonist—who flubs things up at first but eventually learns and grows—appeals to readers. Deep emotional needs such as the quest for love, belonging or acceptance are universal. Readers can see themselves in this type of protagonist. A protagonist who reflects the human condition (sometimes called an everyman character) and tries to attain one of these universal needs will appeal to more readers. Do a Protagonist Checkup on your story and see how that character changes for the deeper.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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