Creating a protagonist comes with all sorts of frustration and confusion. As the author of our characters, we often feel that we know exactly who they are without having to explicitly state the facts. We seem to think that every quirk and nuance of our character simply eminates from the page without any effort. #TruthBomb – Err, not so much!
So, I’ve trawled the web for character profiles, tips and videos to find out what makes a character tick. I’ve finally narrowed down the essential questions to ask your protagonist. (Whether they answer them is another matter.) So, let’s assume you know all the obvious stuff like; gender, age, background, appearance, family, etc. Now, let’s delve a bit deeper and get personal…
1. What’s your worst nightmare?
The important thing about all these questions is that you don’t overlook them. Even if you don’t necessarily use this information in the your story, it doesn’t mean that it’s not relevant. As the author, you should know this stuff. Knowing the worst nightmare of your protagonist reveals a lot about your character and your genre.
For example, young Bruce Wayne’s worst nightmare would probably be losing his parents. This does actually happen in Batman and we can learn a lot about the character from this. His worst nightmare has already happened and he had to deal with this at a young age. So, we can assume that Wayne probably has a ‘got nothing to lose’ attitude, he probably had to learn to be independent and mature from a young age and he probably has some feelings of revenge and injustice. Voila! That’s decent amount of the character’s personality traits and feelings about the world, right there.
On the otherhand, Bridgett Jones’ worst nightmare is probably becoming a spinster. This has not happened at the beginning of the book but it is something that frequently threatens to happen throughout the story. So, knowing this, we can assume that Bridgett is probably somewhat obsessed with finding love, she places a lot of importance on social status/marital status and her story is probably a bit more lighthearted than Bruce Wayne’s… Again, half of Bridgett’s most scarring, memorable and revealing moments in the books revolve around love and social embarrassment. And, we know all this just from her hypothetical ‘worst nightmare’.
So, ask your character, what is the worst thing that could possibly happen to them? Has it already happened? If so, how has it affected them? If not, is it going to happen in your story?
2. What’s your worst quality?
We know that characters must have likeable (or at least entertaining) qualities for the reader to route for them. However, what about those realistic, irritating, terrible qualities? Well, those are just as important! If you want your character to develop throughout your story, then obviously, they can’t be squeaky clean and perfect. A flaw can also push the plot forward in that ‘Oh no, please don’t make that mistake again! Ahh, they did it… I’ve got to read on now’ way. They must have a flaw!
Think of every book, TV programme or film you’ve ever watched, the protagonist has a flaw. For example, in the literary classic, Little Women, Jo is blunt and outspoken which often gets her family into arguments and trouble. Now, look at Family Guy – which is arguably fairly different from Little Women – Peter Griffin’s ridiculous spontaneity and impulsiveness also gets pretty much everyone into trouble. Bet you never thought you’d hear those two characters in the same paragraph!? *Gives self pat on the back*
The point is, your character must have enough wrong with them, so that you can spend the narrative trying to make things right with them. Whether they fail or succeed is up to you!
3. What do you really want?
It can be emotional or physical, realistic or unrealistic, important or unimportant – it doesn’t matter. The point is, your character is striving for something throughout your narrative. Otherwise, we’re just watching them wander about aimlessly…
4. What’s stopping you?
I’ve written a lot of stories where the thing that is stopping my character is… my character. Their self doubt, their worries, their demons, whatever. As you can see, these are all psychological obstacles. Now, of course, these are an important element of a story that a character needs to overcome. However, consider these two scenarios:
Scenario A: Bradley can’t get to his daughter’s wedding because he’s scared his daughter won’t want him to be there.
Scenario B: Bradley can’t get to his daughter’s wedding because his car is missing.
Now, imagine the scene unfolding for scenario A. We’d basically be reading about a guy who is having a mental battle with himself about whether he should get in the car or not. He can go to different places and do different things to illustrate his problem, but we know that the car is just there. Not too exciting, right?
Now, in scenario B, the character can have all the same reservations about whether his daughter will want to see him. However, there is the added problem that he physically cannot go. Now, he has a physical obstacle which he must overcome as well as the mental one which he will overcome while trying find his car. Watching this scenario unfold is a lot more exciting than reading about a guy locking and unlocking his car for 100 pages…
The point is, reading about a character battle with a physical problem is much more exciting than watching them battle with themselves. Give your character a real obstacle that stops them from getting what they want. Obviously, there’s exceptions to the rule (I’m thinking of Adaptation) but if you’re going to break the rules, you better have a good idea about how!
5. What’s your quirk?
This one is helpful if your character doesn’t necessarily say everything they mean. It’s also useful if your character has something to hide. In fact, it’s generally helpful to remind your reader what your character is like throughout the narrative without spelling it out every time.
For example, if your character is vain, their quirk can be flipping out a pocket mirror once in a while. This can speak volumes about them without expressing it word for word. It can tell the reader whether the character is interested in the person they are tasking to, how they feel, whether they understand, etc. Their quirk can be a habit, a twitch or a catchphrase, anything that shows their attitude rather than tells the reader about their attitude. It may sound a little staged at first, but you can make a quirk as subtle as you like. Do they blink a lot when they’re uncomfortable? Do they fiddle with things when they’re annoyed? Do they grind their teeth when they’re angry?
For me, this is particularly relevant because I’m writing for children, so sections of dialogue or description can be punctuated by my protagonists ‘quirk’. However, this shouldn’t be overlooked in adult literature, it can be very effective!