Updated: Mar 3, 2020
Creating a fictional character of your own is probably one of the most rewarding experiences of being a writer. A solid main can determine how much you value your own writing, as well as the impact your story could have on readers. The character's opinions, perspective, anxieties, fears, and joys become our own. We find ourselves growing attached to them in their non-existent realm in the very process of our late-night writing binges and hours of reviewing and editing. We visualize them in a way perhaps no one else can. In a sense, protagonists reflect us: what we wish we could be, what we wish we could do, where we wished we could go. They are the children born of long commute hours and mindless brainstorming, sometimes a moment's inspiration, sometimes a silhouette of a person we love - or hate.
To create a well-rounded protagonist, it is important to first resonate with our readers who just so happen to be fellow human beings. Writers need to form characters that are painstakingly human and easy to empathize and relate to, but also unique and otherworldly, almost ethereal. Striking this balance requires self-restraint and careful planning, but for the love we bear our protagonists, it is essential After all, they are the window to a world we can never cross into.
Here are 5 steps to help you achieve that balance and produce an original and straightforward protagonist of your own.
1. Avoid internalized description
Like a loving mother convinced of her children's immortal beauty, beginning writers are obsessed with giving their protagonists flawless, mainstream physical traits and dramatizing them for the world to see. Characters often have clear, fair skin, deep colored eyes and luscious hair, not to mention the figure of a Greek statue. Not only is this an abomination to the reality of human existence, but it's been done a million times over. Human beings are unique and quirky in their own ways, and their culture and background play a role in shaping who they are. Unless you're writing a specific story that revolves around the beauty of the protagonist, there really is no need to glamorize them. As in real life, looks are not essential for one to appreciate another person, and the same should be said for fiction.
Launch your protagonist on an interesting note, let your reader be the judge of how great (or attractive) they are. Describing your character in detail from the very first chapter is a common mistake, and even worse are the means used to do so. The most bothersome of these is the Mirror Description, often used in first person when the writer feels they have no other choice. While it can naturally be difficult to describe a character to a reader in first person, consider that it might (shockingly!) not be necessary. Description of oneself from the first person narrative can be highly biased and borderline cringey, and it contributes to a character’s ego at times. I've read plenty of fantastic novels without knowing the details of the protagonist's appearance.
If you insist on describing the protagonist, go for an indirect means - through parental or sibling resemblance, for instance. Photographs from the protagonist's past can work as well, giving the reader a chance to compare. If you rack your brain enough, you can come up with a simpler, less self-absorbed manner of depicting your main to your readers.
2. Stay true to your literary style
Ironically, the ultimate key to good writing is to avoid trying to impress your readers. Don’t try to use a style that isn’t yours - stick to your own sense of voice. Avoid a complex vernacular, self-righteous discourse and otherwise judgmental monologue. Don’t use metaphors excessively to promote depth, don’t use cliches for the sake of humor.
Rather, stay true to your personal style and tone, and be as straightforward and as simple as possible with your narrative and dialogue. Shape your protagonist into humility and let them yield to nature. Remember - your readers are just as human as you are.
3. Tone down the ego
Like people in real life, nobody enjoys the flawless rider on the high horse. With our undying affection for our protagonists, writers can sometimes get carried away with giving our heroes and heroines the best of the best. Trickily enough, this is rarely done directly and secretively seeps into the entire foundation of the story.
For starters, make sure your secondary characters don't merely exist to support the main. Secondary characters, even those very close to the protagonist, should have an individual persona independent of them. Most importantly, these characters should not spend the entirety of their existence blowing your protagonist out of proportion with constant admiration. Not everything the protagonist says is funny or remarkable, not everybody finds them stunningly attractive, and nobody needs a companion who coddles them night and day.
While this tactic of secondary character discussion is bad for hyping up your main, it could still work for a character in your story who has yet to appear, an antagonist, etc. This helps to warm readers up for what they'll be dealing with through the eyes of other characters, but it can be overdone when it comes to a standard protagonist. Writers need to stick to the show, don't tell principle as much as possible. Besides, it's a pretty desperate attempt at getting readers to like who you're writing about.
Secondly, bear in mind that not everything in the fictional world you have created has to revolve around the character and fit their judgments, needs, fears.. This gives off a warped and distorted reality of the story's foundation. A good example would be a common trope - bad guy guns down a hundred people and spares the protagonist for x-y-z reasons. The protagonist grows to forgive, befriend, and appreciate him for the gesture, disregarding the sheer fact that he committed a massacre before their eyes. Simply because the protagonist was spared, their judgment of the gun man's behavior becomes warped and centered around their own interests.
4. Set a balance between traits
Nobody likes a Mary Sue. With their perfect demeanor and charisma, they're inherently expected to drive the characters around them to do good and fight evil, for no real reason except that they are the greatest good there will ever be.
All characters need a decent blend of both the good and the bad, but protagonists are particularly in need of it to help readers appreciate them. Traits like complete selflessness (especially in female characters) where the protagonist is depicted as a welcome doormat for friends and foes are both unrealistic and unattractive. Kindness is an important trait but being completely passive in the face of evil comes off as bland and boring, not to mention unhealthy. Don't overdo your character with endearing and overtly positive traits - one cannot be beautiful, brave, perfect, virginal and naïve all at once.
On the other hand, you can't dump every terrible trait there is over the head of your protagonist either. Selfishness happens to be a common one - since we human beings tend to live inside our own heads 100% of the time, that reality is reflected in our literature too. But it doesn't have to be that way - writers have the power to provide an objective framework for readers to draw a conclusion from.
Cynicism is another misused trait, often combined with the former. If you give your bookish, introverted and devastatingly handsome protagonist an internal monologue that stretches on for four pages about how everybody sucks, and they'd rather be dead or on another planet to escape the stupidity of the human race...your protagonist is instantly and irreversibly hate-able. If your character happens to be a cynic, let the reader's see that for themselves via showing over telling - throw situations of all sorts at them, let the protagonist reveal their cynical character through conflict and hardship.
Lastly, the protagonist should have a somewhat forgivable record. While conflict is important, they shouldn't be consistently capable of something that other characters would find unforgivable, let alone the readers. Keyword: consistently. Characters that readers would find difficult to grapple with would be inherently misogynistic or racist, characters who have cheated on their partners shamelessly, or committed a crime and are unable to admit to their guilt throughout the entirety of the story. While a massive flaw can sometimes be the driving force behind your character's arc, unforgivable deeds need intricate planning and effort from the writer to ensure the character rises from the ashes and changes their ways and doesn't simply carry on being a terrible person nobody wants to read about.
5. Stay real and take it slow
Sometimes, writing a character that is TOO human can produce a bland, single-dimensional personage. While balancing traits, throw in some aspects of your character that are unique or individual to them. This could be a talent, a physical attribute, or a radical opinion. Introduce them to your readers immediately, and portray these traits and abilities through events, conflict and dialogue that occurs as they interact with the world around them.
That said, your character should have some backstory to support them, for both their personality and physical skills. You can't expect them to suddenly know how to do everything, from winning a card game to cooking a 5-star meal in less than a few sentences. Stay realistic and true to the humanity of your character; it's alright to leave them hanging sometimes. Dribble a little backstory into your narrative, let the protagonist reveal themselves and make their motivations and drives plain to the reader. If the character's father was a gourmet chef, a 5-star meal would make better sense here. If the character spends all her weeknights playing poker with her friends, winning every consecutive card game doesn't seem as suspicious.
With deliberate planning and a solid character sketch, you can create a memorable character that will be the face of your story and a reflection of you as a writer. Throw your protagonist against pain and discomfort but let them rise out of it with baby steps. Give them a character arc that can shake the core of the story. Pour your heart and soul into them and pave the way for them to reach the end, leaving your readers with an unforgettable close.
About the Author: Freelance journalist, yoga junkie, and writer at heart. Working on some novels of her own while pursuing a degree in physical therapy. Few things in life can't be fixed with a cup of coffee and prayer. You can find her on Instagram at @nil___o.