As Justin Attas points out in this post, the main character of your book is key to both the story itself and to our readers' enjoyment. An interesting hero will keep readers turning pages and bring them back to your books again and again.
It’s the centerpiece of your story. The cornerstone around which your entire world revolves. The source of all reader satisfaction and dismay, and it might not be what you think.
Worldbuilding, romance, a good antagonist, and epic battles are all important to telling a good story, but at the end of the day, people want to read books about people. That’s why a strong protagonist is an absolute must for all-powerful stories.
Now, strong is a word here used to describe the realism and depth of the protagonist, not their physical or emotional strength. Some of the best characters ever written actually start out lacking in one of these areas, and it’s that growth that makes their story so engaging.
So how can we give protagonists realistic flaws, and give them depth? There are many recipes to use, or pick apart and make your own. We’ll go over three activities here that could get anyone’s creative juices flowing, to ‘build' your protagonist one piece at a time.
The key to never forget is that a protagonist needs to be a person (metaphorically speaking, if you’re writing fantasy, scifi, or supernatural). This means that, when readers think of your protagonist, they should not think of just one or two characteristics, but a complete person, with their own thoughts, feelings, and values.
Here are three activities to help you make sure you don’t end up with a flat, cookie-cutter character, but with a strong protagonist to drive your story.
Activity One: Build a Protagonist Profile
A great way to get your protagonist off to a strong start is to build them a profile of interests, values, flaws, and abilities. Build a list of traits for your character using the list below, and you’ll have a solid foundation to start with.
Choose one interest
Give your protagonist something to love! It can really be anything, as long as it aligns with his or her core values, i.e., a deeply religious protagonist probably wouldn’t have an interest in artistic vandalism.
It is advisable to make it something that fits into your story. For instance, you can make your protagonist seem more human by giving them a love of playing piano, but it won’t do much for readers if he or she never comes across a piano in the story.
Choose two core values
Core values are (seemingly) unshakable beliefs your protagonist holds, at least at the beginning of the story. One of the most powerful storytelling devices is challenging those beliefs, but we’ll get to that later.
For now, pick two things your character believes in, that matter to him or her more than anything. Examples of these values include: religion, spirituality, family, revenge, justice, community service, advancement in a business, and so on.
Choose one character flaw
Make something wrong with them! It doesn’t necessarily need to have anything to do with morals either. A flaw is just an aspect of a character’s personality that creates challenges for them in the plot, and as such should have something to do with the conflict.
An example of an effective character flaw would be giving your protagonist the need to handle problems alone in a situation where others’ skill sets are needed. Your protagonist’s growth towards accepting help as they fail to conquer obstacles on their own makes for an interesting journey.
An ineffective character flaw would be to make your protagonist bad at math in an adventure story where the conflict revolves around a quest. It wouldn’t necessarily lead to failure, or challenges. Your character might never fail or experience adversity, which would make for a very boring story.
Choose one unique ability (if scifi, fantasy, or supernatural)
If you’re writing in the above genres, a protagonist profile is a great place to decide what your protagonist’s special ability will be. It’s wise to make this something that gives them an edge, but doesn’t make them invincible. Remember, lack of failure or adversity leads to a dull story.
Another great way to temper the balance of a protagonist’s supernatural advantages is to give this amazing power a price. Can your protagonist breathe fire? Maybe this damages his or her throat a little each time. Not only does this limit the protagonist from overusing their power to be invincible (and boring), it creates some interesting conflict points. The protagonist may be forced to decide between his or her own health or power.
Activity Two: Put Your Protagonist Through a Minor Conflict
Now that you’ve built a basic personality for your protagonist, you can get to know them better by putting them through a minor conflict, using their Protagonist Profile as a guideline.
Here is a simple minor conflict that is feasible in virtually any fictional universe: your protagonist is walking down a dark alleyway, and a figure blocks the opening. Based on your Protagonist Profile (interests, values, flaws, abilities), how do they deal with this situation?
If your protagonist is a peaceful soul who only cares about charity work and church, he or she isn’t going to pick a fight. If your character is insanely intelligent and values logic above all else, maybe he or she will be able to bargain.
Remember your protagonist’s flaw, though. If he or she has a fear of the dark, this encounter will likely strike your protagonist with mind-clouding fear.
Write out how your protagonist would deal with this dark alleyway encounter!
Activity Three: How Will Your Protagonist Change?
As you’ve seen above, a hallmark of any great story is that the protagonist changes. A character who doesn’t grow is predictable, flat, and dull. If this is your protagonist, the whole story will suffer, and become insufferable.
Choose one change to your Protagonist Profile
This change is something that should be sprinkled throughout the story, through many minor conflicts like the alleyway experiment above. As the story goes on, your protagonist should question one of their core values, or perhaps gain a new one. They might act in a way that defies their flaw.
Your protagonist can grow, or devolve. There are endless possible paths he or she can take, but the key is to make sure your protagonist is not the exact same person at the end of your story that they were at the start.
This is just one method of piecing together the aspects of a strong protagonist. If you build them a Profile, then put them through a minor conflict, and make sure they change, you’ll have a great place to start.
Remember, the plot revolves around your protagonist’s conflict- make sure they aren’t defined by one trait. Make sure they are a strong character, and the story should follow suit.
How do you breathe life into your protagonists? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Justin Attas is a professional ghostwriter. He has written twelve novels across genres including: western, science fiction, supernatural, mystery, and crime thriller. Justin is also the author of the science fiction novel, Strand: the Silver Radio. He has a background in education, which he uses to create articles and videos to help other writers along on their journeys. As someone who had a crooked journey to writing himself, Justin aims to use his experience and skills to encourage anyone with the soul of a writer to grab a pen and start writing.
Justin’s Youtube Channel is an ever-growing resource for writers, including this video of interactive activities to create a protagonist.