Monday, July 6, 2009

Creating the Main Character

Okay, we’ve talked about God and villains. Now, let’s turn our attention to the main character – or protagonist.

What makes a good hero/heroine? They need to be someone the reader can sympathize or care about right away. How can you create interest right away? My friend, Joyce Magnin, says to put your hero up a tree and throw rocks at him.

What kind of characteristics should a protagonist have? A hidden magic ability? A gift already known? Luke Skywalker had the force. Wil Ohmsford from The Elfstones of Shannara had enough elven blood to bring the Elfstones to life. Frodo only had his hobbit sense. My heroine, Akeela, has something I call spirit-sight; she can see auras around living things.

My mentor has a list of questions she uses when beginning a new story. It has helped me develop and know my characters better. When you know your characters well, they become real. And when they become real to you, they’ll be real to the reader. When they are real to the reader, the reader will care about them. That keeps pages turning.

Your main character had needs. In the beginning of the story, what is the obvious need? Something the reader can identify right away. When you establish this, you create sympathy and the reader will want to see what happens next. You’ve hooked them. This is true no matter what genre you write.

But there also needs to be a hidden need, which the protagonist will realize by the end of the book. The reader should not know this right away.

To recap: how do we create a hero/heroine the reader will care about from the very beginning who is interesting, real and not stereotyped?


  1. From my limited experience and from what I have read, you need to start with this question: Is there something about your character than needs to change by the end of the book, or is the character going to be tempted to change and needs to stay stedfast until the end of the book.

    In the first case you have to have a 'flaw' that the character needs to change. The sooner the reader sees that flaw, without having it shoved in their face, the sooner the reader will connect. Perhaps they have the same flaw, or know someone how does. The flaw could be stubbornness, pride, low self esteem, a bully their afraid of, or any of the other countless things we can think of. Often it will be something the character is not even aware of.

    In the second case, the sooner the reader sees the character having doubts about weather they should remain stead fast, the sooner the reader will start cheering for the character. This could be something as simple as getting in trouble after telling the truth, or as complicated as not believing that killing is wrong and not being willing to join the army despite the public pressure, loss of friend a and a job. It doesn't really mater if the reader even agrees with the character, as long as they can see the characters real struggle with staying steadfast.

    It is this struggle over a flaw, or this struggle not to let others change him or her, that the reader will grab on to.

    So Pam, like your Joyce said, put the character up in a tree and start throwing rocks at him. But, first answer the question, is you character up in that tree because they climbed there or because someone chased him or her there.

  2. I am going to play Devil's Advocate here, and say that putting a character in a difficult situation doesn't cause readers to feel sympathy. I personally resent being expected to care about someone just because they are in danger; some authors seem to rely on this alone.

    For example, if a character is up in a tree having rocks thrown at him, he might actually deserve stoning! For all I know, the person throwing the rocks is the one I should sympathize with.

    I think a protagonist has to have some kind of dilemma or struggle with which the readers can identify, as D.C., said. But (s)he should also have likeable traits, things we will enjoy experiencing for the next few hundred pages - a sense of humor, a love of good food, kindness, whatever it happens to be.

  3. P.S. the previous comments were directed at opening scenes and the idea that immediate action/danger will draw a reader in and make them feel sympathy for the hero(ine.) I beg to differ. It has to be done in tandem with establishing the characters.

  4. Doug, I like your last question. :) Thought provoking! And would make an interesting beginning to a story.

    Christine, I am totally with you. I've learned our characters need to make the reader care about them enough to keep reading. That can look like many things, in my mind. Do we always need to start with a problem? I don't know. I'm one who will stay with a book, even if the beginning is slow, because I want to give the story a chance. I rarely put a book away without finishing it.

    I like to tell beginning writers to think about what the story requires and do that. Maybe the hero doesn't have a problem right away. But I've also been to enough workshops and conferences to say that an editor or agent MUST be hooked. And what does that? Usually something that needs to be overcome.

    So, how can we create interest if there isn't a problem? Let's talk!!

  5. Good post, the best stories are the ones where I feel like I have met the character and care about what happens to him or her. I just finished reading two fiction books (different genre than fantasy) and the author did that masterfully!

    P.S. Will miss you at conference this year, we'll be away, I'm so disappointed and am booking our yearly vacation a week earlier next year!

  6. A couple different books I've been reading saw that there are four different kinds of stories, and depending on the type of story the main character has to be either more or less developed and the story starts in a different place - so not always with the main character in a dilemma.

    The four types are:

    Milieu - where the story is about just being in a different place - Gulliver's Travels. We have to care about Gulliver, but the story is not really about him and his only problem is getting back.

    Idea - where the story is about a problem or question. In this kind of story the problem needs to be introduced early in the book - This sets the readers expiations.

    Character - The story is about a person who is trying to change, The story starts when the character reaches the point that they have overcome their resistance to change and start the process of change. Here is where we really have to have a well developed character and the reader needs to care about the character.

    Event - Something in the world is wrong and things need to change to bring it back into balance. The story starts where the main character is beginning to fix things.

    So if I can follow my own logic:

    Milieu - It's not about throwing rocks

    Idea - Might start with rock throwing

    Character - The character starts to change something about themselves, which might result in rock throwing

    Event - Rocks have been flying for some time and the character is trying to stop them.

    Of course I can think of lots of examples that don't follow what I just said, and as the book say, all stories have some of all four parts in them, it is just which is the focus determines where the story starts and how important the main character is.

    Alright every one,not it's your turn. Start throwing rocks at me :)

  7. No rock throwing here, Doug! Your break down is excellent.

    All the conferences and workshops and books tell me to give the main character something to overcome and put that in in the beginning to create a hook. But I have to wonder about fantasy. It's a whole other animal. I think we have more liberty to create the setting and introduce the main character in their normal life - IF that's what the story requires.

    The most important thing is to create a living character and work on the craft of writing. We need fresh ideas and unique ways of telling them. It's not easy, but I think it's worth the time and effort.

  8. I have to disagree, Pam. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of advice I'm reading on various agent and editing websites is that you have to start with action no matter what you are writing, and weave in the details of the setting over time. This is very difficult for fantasy writers, but we are told to get past our world-building and focus on story-building (i.e. tension building).

    Personally, I don't think there's anything wrong with "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit..." but apparently The Hobbit wouldn't get published today with that opening.

  9. Yes, I'm sure The Hobbit wouldn't get published today with that opening line. Still, consider Harry Potter. The opening to the first novel doesn't have a lick of action or tension at all. And look how much people love it.

    I know we have to write for edtiors ... yet Joe Reader could care less, as long as they are interested in the story.

    So, what are we to do? Write for the editor, I guess. And that's a shame, since there are times when the story requires a much different beginning.

  10. Even though people love (and rightly so) the lack-of-tension beginnings, we, as fantasy writers, must begin with something interesting. NOT neccesarily exiciting- interesting. Herein is the difference, friends. The beginning to the Hobbit is interesting because a reader might not know what a hobbit is or why he is living in a hole. We continue to read Tolkien's work because we fall in love with it.
    So what am I saying? As an author, I began my fantasy book with "He had been there, he had seen it with his very own eyes." (btw. the title is The Keepers of Elenath if anyone is interested) This beginning is not exciting, it is interesting. And herein lies the difference.