This is the topic I was going to write on last week, but here it is now — the first of two parts on writing characters.
These are the good guys, the main characters of your story — for that reason, they are generally more developed than most other characters. But it still takes some work to write a compelling protagonist. It comes down to a bunch of questions that you have to ask about your character.
Let’s take the example of the “nobody-to-hero” story; it’s a great one for asking these questions.
Why is this character going on their quest? Is saving their town enough of a reason? Are they avenging their family? Or is there some other reason? Why do they continue? Look at The Lord of the Rings — Frodo’s journey was to the Council of Elrond. He didn’t know that, and he didn’t have to continue after that point — so why did he? What inspired him to continue to Mordor? Anything that the protagonist does needs to have more reasoning behind it than just that they are the protagonist. Good guys are never just good guys for the sake of it. The reasoning doesn’t have to be perfect all the time, and you can hand-wave once in a while and say, that’s just the way it is. But if you develop a world where the characters have reasons behind what they do, we’ll be more forgiving as readers.
Also, along with why the protagonist is doing their good thing, you also have to ask, what are their flaws? For an example of how this is done poorly (not in fantasy), we’ll look at Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The main character in the book has no real flaws. The author offers him one part way through the book, saying that the protagonist is claustrophobic, but it is dealt with almost immediately, so that it isn’t an issue. While claustrophobia is a problem, it’s not a true character flaw, and the story needed to have more character development for and more issues with the main character than that. Another example of what not to do is in Divergent. The main characters flaws of the protagonist are generally that she’s small and clumsy. Those don’t have anything to do with her character, and they can hardly even be seen as flaws. So when you are writing a story, ask yourself, what are my character’s personality flaws?
If you have a character who has issues, and who has a reason for going on their quest, then you’ll start to have a story with real depth. But it can’t stop there. If Frodo had been the only character with depth in The Lord of the Rings, it would have been a really poor trilogy. But every character in the Fellowship goes through their own story and growth. Sam was loyal to a fault to Frodo. Pippin and Merry went from fun-loving Hobbits to making serious decisions and going into battle. As you write, think about your side character’s motivations and arcs as well.
Now, there is an issue that often arises with this. It is very possible and fairly easy to get too far into the weeds. These side characters, while important and in need of depth, are not the main character unless it is truly an ensemble cast of characters. There aren’t that many stories like that, and even in the world of comic books and comic book movies, we mainly see The Avengers as an example of this style. While that is an ensemble cast of characters, it tends to focus in on different characters at different points in time. In Age of Ultron, there was a very strong focus on the rift developing between Captain America and Tony Stark, but Hawkeye was there to bring them all back together. So even if you go with an ensemble of characters, stay fairly focused. Don’t get lost in the weeds making everyone have a massive amount of story. If they have a reason for doing the things they do, that is enough backstory.
And one last piece of advice — don’t be afraid to kill off your good characters. Too often in shows and books, you know early on who is going to die and who isn’t. If it’s a side character who is friends with the main protagonist but you don’t write them as a believable character, we know that they are going to die early on, and the character has lost credibility. Every character, no matter who they are, needs to be a credible character in the world you’ve created. And depending on your world, sometimes you have to show that the world is dangerous. You don’t need to take it to George R. R. Martin levels where you are killing off every character, but making the reader worry about the characters can add depth and realism to your story.
So now that you’ve started telling the story and have an idea for your plot, sit down and think about the reasoning behind your main character’s actions, and why they would jump into the story you are going to tell. What is the important piece of backstory that is going to develop your protagonist into something more than a cardboard cutout?
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