Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Character of Your Protagonist

We discussed the “push” last Wednesday and that what is relevant to your protagonist pushes your story down the path you want to go. Now let’s talk about your protagonist.

This goes beyond what your protagonist looks like, his favorite food, or where he lives. This is about the character of your protagonist. Just who is your protagonist? Do you know him/her inside and out? If not, it is imperative that you do.

Have you ever read a book and the protagonist does something that doesn’t make sense? Sometimes in a weak attempt to write fully fleshed-out characters, some writers will have the protagonist do something totally uncharacteristic, thinking this makes him/her three dimensional. Some writers defend what they’ve done by saying they didn’t want their protagonist to be stereotypical. These are flawed arguments. What is the problem? There’s been a disjoint in logic. A path has not be built to show:
  • how the protagonist’s mind works
  • how the protagonist feels
  • why the protagonist acts
  • and what the protagonist says.
If you know all of these traits about your protagonist and can smoothly write them in your novel, you will have a fully-fleshed out character and you'll know exactly how your protagonist will react in any given circumstance. AND you will have built the path making your protagonist think, feel, act and say things that are relevant to him/her.The relevant push is key to achieving this.

For instance, if your character is tenderhearted, you will know that when she sees an injured dog at the side of the road, she’s going to stop. The injured dog is relevant to her and is the push that calls her to action. So, what if your character is self-absorbed? That character wouldn’t stop for the dog. The animal isn’t relevant. Easy, right? Well, not so fast. What if your tenderhearted character didn't stop? That would become confusing for your readers. If your tenderhearted character sees the dog, but does nothing. Logic is broken. Doubt will creep into your reader’s mind.  

However, if you build a path as to why your tenderhearted character sees the hurt dog but doesn't stop, such as she’s driving her injured child to the hospital and it breaks her heart not to help the animal in need, but her child comes first, well then you’re on track again. Build a path keeping in mind how your protagonist thinks, feels, acts, and what he/she will say and your writing will shine.Show the workings of your character’s mind by the actions he/she takes, by the inner thoughts rolling around in his/her mind and by the words he/she says.

So here's a question to mull over...can a tenderhearted character also be self-absorbed? And if so, how do you write this character?

Writing tip: If your protagonist’s actions are confusing clarify! If clarification is impossible, leave out the action.

Writing challenge: Always try to show your protagonist’s true self by an action he/she has to take in chapter one. The key word here is “show.” Don’t tell us the main character is loved by every one show us.

8 comments:

  1. I loved what you said about using an action in the first chapter to show their true selves. That's excellent!

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  2. I don't like reading a book where I have a certain image of the protagonist only to have it smashed half way through the book. If that happens, I feel like I've been mislead by the author and not sure about whether to finish the book or not. I like the example with the dog and the tenderhearted protagonist and her reasons for not stopping. Now that would keep me reading, it gives more depth to her character.

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  3. Thanks, Mason. I remember reading a book and all of a sudden a character did something unexpected. I was so upset I threw the book down. (It wasn't a little thing. The character killed himself, which came out of left field) The relevant path is soooo important. Thanks for stopping by. :)

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  4. Good advice - nothing worse than a character making decisions that have nothing to do with his/her character! :)

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  5. Jemi: So true! I hate it when that happens. Hey, how about those Canadian ice skating dancers? You must be proud! Thanks for stopping by.

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  6. Good post, Kathi. Characters are the heart of any story.

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  7. So true, Carol. I've read many stories soley because of the characters. That's not to say I liked them all, because there have been some villains I love to hate. ;0)

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