1. sometimes, the narrator is not the protagonist
This rule tends to apply more to 3rd person narrative, since you can have an “omniscient” narrator. But this can work with 1st person too, especially if this an interview or memoir in the novel. Yes, it can be confusing but it works best if you want objective, rather than subjective, perspective.
2. who does the action follow?
Who pushed the doomsday button? Whose flashback is this? Whose side are we hearing? Even though we can have a chapter about another character, it tends to link back to our protagonist.
3. what do they believe in?
Whether it’s justice or aliens, your character must have faith in something. What if new evidence was found to prove that fairies are real? It can be a real cannon ball for the action to jumpstart.
4. Let me just find your profile…
Carefully reveal as much as you can about a character: their name, age, job, ethnicity, marital status etc. Storybook is excellent for doing this, and it helps you create an identity for your character. You are like a fictional biographer, so make it that way!
5. are they a hero, villain or medium?
Are they a paragon of virtue? Are they a hell-raising devil? Or are they somewhere in between? Ideally,they should be somewhere in between, because nobody’s perfect. Or, to be more precise; “good” and “evil” are flexible, and people often have reasons for why they are who they are. Your protagonist isn’t Popeye; “I yam what I yam”.
6. what makes them good/good at something?
Why do we want to like – or at least listen to – this character? What makes them break away from the mold? Everyone has a status quo, and it must be challenged. This can be morally good or good as in incredibly skilled.
7. neutral protagonists need not apply
And by neutral, I mean boring. Lemony Snicket’s Jerome Squalor is the epitome of this; he always says “I don’t like to argue…” which means ” I have no thoughts or opinions”. And even when he comes back for the orphans, he disappoints! The entire series has no closure AT ALL, and this is horrible for the audience.
8. who does the audience identify with?
I get that certain members of the audience will empathize with a particular character. But we are often encouraged to identify with one more than others, because they are three-dimensional and complex.
9. the human collage
No, I don’t mean Frankenstein’s monster – or at least not in a literal, body-parts-from-everywhere way. Basing a character off one fictional or real person can be very limiting. Fictional characters are often a mixture of several people, like the ingredients in a recipe. Just like real people, we can be “like” many things and people. This doesn’t mean that a character isn’t an individual, however — sometimes this mix can be more broad, like “primitive” or “future”.
10. who do they meet?
Although it’s interesting to know who the character already has in their life, it is even more interesting to find out who is new. Nobody has a fixed number of people they encounter, so there must be a new guy. Plus, it indicates who or what has changed, because everything is constantly changing, one bit at a time.
11. do they age?
no, not literally (unless you’re writing about vampires or ghosts). Does the character stay the same age throughout the novel? This naturally excludes backstories, since they occurred before the story began, but whether your character goes from child to OAP is up to you. Flashback narratives are exempt because all the action is over, but flashforwards are not because of my point on backstories.
12. Do not let them die
If your protagonist dies, they are a false protagonist. And when I say “Die” I exclude ghosts. This is especially a killer if your narrative is in 1st person.
13. they are not your puppet
Or, to be more clear, you should not merely voice your opinions in this story. Step outside your comfort zone; have a black, gay or male character if you are any of these. It may be true that you cannot live another life, but it’s only fiction and you’re allowed to speculate. That’s why it’s imaginary :p
14. be a literary atheist
the omniscient author/narrator does not control the characters. Whilst this may sound odd to you as a writer, your character has free will. Unless you want to represent deities/ antagonists as manipulative, mind-controlling forces, you must allow them to be spontaneous.
15. who has inspired your protagonist?
reading and writing go together like gin and tonic. And, whether you know it or not, someone — yourself, Batman, your sister or Saint Nicholas — has been in your mind whilst you gave birth to this character. Did you think to yourself “yeah, i think Huckleberry Finn is great, but I think I could write him better”? What would you change about a character?
16. don’t just communicate with dialogue
description helps, as do epigraphs and thoughts. there are two types of communication; exterior dialogue and interior monologue. Anything that is not in speech marks is usually a thought belonging to the character, or the narrator if they aren’t the same person.
17. beware Everyman
It’s impossible to have one person represent all of humanity. Even Jesus, who is supposed the messiah in the Bible. My point is, not only are the same everyman stories told over and over, but everyman is more of a spirit rather than an actual person. Like the spirit of christmas.
18. “Average Joe” is not really average Joe
Otherwise, we’d have everyman. Something about Joe – be it his cock eye or schizophrenia – is interesting. Whilst these examples may not be the focus of the plot, he still has something going for him. If we were all average, we’d be 100% clones.
19. avoid The Chosen One/ Ultimate Chaos
The Chosen One is too perfect and Ultimate Chaos is too flawed. They’re unrealistic and these characters are created if you have blinkers on. And as for destiny, it’s something the characters decide. Chance can only go so far; getting a character into trouble is good, but how this is resolved shouldn’t be down to luck or chance.
20. think about your audience
Give the people what they want. They probably want drama, conflict, intimate scenes and a few taboo subjects. And your protagonist is at the centre of the story, so everything should revolve around them.
21. tragic flaws
a character doesn’t have to get better at the end. Sometimes, it can all go downhill with one major mistake. You don’t need to make nearly everyone dead like in a Greek tragedy, but the audience can learn from their mistake. In many ways, the audience is the protagonist. After all, who is reading your book?
Whilst an anti-hero doesn’t have to the protagonist, they often are. Broadly speaking, this can mean qualities which aren’t ideal, such as selfishness, rebellion and egoism rather than being evil. Even being hideous or plain can make a character an anti-hero, because leading good characters were seen as beautiful.
23. redeeming qualities
For the audience, if no-one else. Why do we cope with this character? Or how do they save themselves, if they do at all? You must get them to accomplish something, even if it’s being a failure.
24. why me?
Why choose this particular person? Why Jane Eyre and not Mr Rochester? It may be that one is better than the other, but Jane could be more relatable to more people than Mr Rochester. But all the same, YOU decide!
25. false protagonists
So we get the Evil Queen plotting against Snow White, but all the action is about what happens to Snow. This is one possible route. Another is when Bernard Marx gets tossed onto the island in Brave New World and John the Savage becomes the protagonist. John is the protagonist because he shows change and individualism, unlike Bernard who never changes.
26. everyone hates deus ex machina
If your main wo/man won’t resolve the conflict, or least have a significant part in doing so, then why let an unrelated, outside force do so? The characters should interact, not merely react to what’s going on, otherwise you’re just writing fake history.
27. he isn’t balanced
Your novel isn’t black and white. Nobody is boring or fascinating, and nobody is a genius or an imbecile. We’re an unequal mix of factors, and we’re unstable too.
28. person vs?
Whether its himself or nature, your character must oppose something. Otherwise, there would be no antagonist and no story. That said, the antagonist is the protagonist from a different perspective, so each reflects the other exactly in that sense.
29. It’s a game
We have the antagonist a possible game master, and we have the obstacles that must be overcome. We have the aim of the game and why it’s dangerous. There is often something or someone who is defeated. There might not be a reward, but there’s definitely a reason to play. And our audience is the observer.
30. forget about masculine and feminine writing
Like I said, step out of your box. Men can write about women and vice versa. Men could even write like a woman (thus proving that it’s gender we’re concerned with, not sex). We are all composed of the same stuff, so gendered writing need not be a bother. And anyone – writer, critic or reader – who says “you write like a man/woman” is sexist and old-fashioned.
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