In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole says,
Most of the main characters I read lie flat on the page. Other problematic personalities are way too passive, or unpleasant and whiny to a degree that’s immediately unsympathetic. The best characters are those that readers either fanatically love or love to hate. They inspire passion, and that starts with your passion for your protagonist. In order for the reader to care, you have to care first, and that emotion, that empathy, that understanding is what will give life to your fictional people.
The truth is you’ll never be able to create a great story if you don’t start with a great protagonist.
I’ve written twenty novels in ten years, and when I look back on the ones that worked out the best, it was by far the ones with most engaging, dynamic, three-dimensional main characters, particularly the protagonist.
There’s a lot to think about when you start a new fiction writing project, but whether you’re about to embark on a ten-page short story or a 500-page novel, you need to remember that character is something you should spend a lot of time thinking about and planning for before you write a single word.
I would argue character is in many ways more important than the story itself. Because no matter how unique and compelling the story is, your reader simply won’t care if they’re not on board with your protagonist. As Mary Kole says, it’s important your reader fanatically love (or, sure, love to hate) your main characters. There must be passion, emotion, strong interest there. There simply can’t be apathy.
If your writing is fantastic and your storyline is gripping, then great! You’re halfway there. You’re well on your way to crafting something worth reading.
But you can’t forget about character. You can’t half-ass your protagonist. You can’t just have a vague idea of who he or she is and then start writing, hoping the character will come to life along the way.
Before you start writing, take a few days and write down everything you can about your protagonist.
I don’t outline my novels very often — as long as I know the beginning and ending, I usually have enough to get started — but I do always write detailed bios about my three or four main characters.
I start with the protagonist. Always, always, always the protagonist gets the longest, most detailed character bio. Often this is about two pages long, and I’ll write plenty about physical description, friends, family, as much history to the character I can think of, what he or she desperately wants at the beginning of the story, what is keeping him or her from getting what he or she wants, and how I see the character changing from the beginning to the end.
That’s just a start. Sometimes I’ll go even further by writing a sample scene with the character or a fake interview the character conducts to learn more. I’ll do everything I can in the days leading up to the writing of the novel so that I have that protagonist in my head and in my heart. I want to be able to close my eyes and picture the person. I want to start hearing the way they talk. I want to completely understand what it is they want. Why this person? Why this gender? Why this age? Why this place? Why third person or first person? Why, why, why?
I need to have reasons for all these before I start, because if I don’t, I might be on the path to writing a bland protagonist without much personality and without enough motivations or goals. When you find yourself in chapter five realizing your protagonist isn’t really going after anything important, you’re in trouble. Your character needs to want something, always!
Remember to avoid making your main characters a cliche. You want your characters to be original.
We’re all practically drowning in content at the moment, and there are definite positives and negatives to that. The positive is that we get to seek out constant inspiration for our own storytelling, witnessing characters on the screen and on the page we might never thought about depicting ourselves.
The negative, though, is that we might see a certain kind of person on the screen or on the page often, and then ultimately put that same character in our own stories.
You don’t want to do this. You don’t want to rip off what someone else has done before, and you don’t want to write a character that’s a cliche.
Kole mentions a few of the classic cliches in her craft book…
The brainless jock
The heartless popular girl
The insecure but brilliant loner
The angry goth
The weepy emo kid
The mathlete nerd
The burnout stoner
Geeks who love to read and write
And so on and so forth. She mentions about ten more, but you get the idea. The cliche character, especially in the middle grade or young adult novel, is often so completely obvious to the reader from page one. You don’t want your readers to roll their eyes when they stumble upon a character they’ve read a hundred times before.
You want to instead start your short story or novel with a character we have not seen often before. Write someone with their own original voice, their own original viewpoint. Write someone who deserves their own story but rarely gets to tell it.
Don’t just go with a classic cliche, even when it comes to your supporting characters. Give us something new and different, and your readers will thank you for it.
So, again, take character more seriously in your fiction writing than pretty much anything else.
Okay, sure, probably the most important thing is that your writing is stellar and engaging and propulsive. You can create the most unique and fascinating protagonist of any story in the history of the world, but if your writing is flat and awkward and full of inconsistencies and typos and bad grammar, your reader won’t want to learn more about that amazing protagonist. Because they won’t continue reading.
The writing itself needs to be strong, and yes, there should be something about the story that draws in the reader and keeps them compelled to continue. Your protagonist can be a winner in every sense, but if nothing is at stake in the actual story, the reader might eventually abandon your narrative for another, no matter how well developed your character is.
Having said all that, though, character will always be one of the most important elements of your storytelling. If you’re able to get your readers involved with your protagonist early on, you can do almost anything in your story, and the reader will follow you anywhere. Better yet? The writing part itself will become more fun for you, too.
So no excuses. Take your time. Come up with engaging, memorable, original main characters… and your chances for success in your writing life will continue to grow!
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