Monday, February 10

How To Create An Entertaining Protagonist: A Story Checklist

How To Create An Entertaining Protagonist: A Story Checklist


What do you have over your writing desk? Mine is littered with pieces of paper on which I've scribbled bits of (what I think is) sage writing advice. I'll let you be the judge. (grin)

By the way, your protagonist doesn't have to have all these characteristics. I like to look at this list every once in a while and double-check that my protagonist has a fair share of them and, also, to make sure I haven't forgotten anything.

1. Protagonist


Your protagonist should:

a. Have a special talent.
b. Have a strength.
c. Be clever and resourceful.
d. Be wounded.
e. Be pursuing justice or at least have a guiding principle.
f. Have a catch phrase.
g. Have likeable qualities.
h. Be quirky.

1a. Give the protagonist a special talent (/unique ability).

Give the protagonist an ability that no one else has. This doesn't have to be something earth shattering. It can be something trivial such as being able to tie a cherry stem with one's tongue.

1b. Give the protagonist a strength.


The following list is from Character Strengths and Virtues by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman.

i. Wisdom allows one to acquire and use knowledge. Creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective and wisdom.

ii. Courage allows one to accomplish goals in the face of opposition. Bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality.

iii. Humanity allows one to befriend others. Love, kindness, social intelligence.

iv. Justice helps build community. Active citizenship, loyalty, fairness, prudence, self control.

v. Temperance protects against excess. Forgiveness & mercy, humility.

vi. Transcendence helps forge connections to others and provides meaning. Appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope, humor & playfulness, spirituality.

1c. Make the protagonist clever and resourceful.


It seems to me that most good protagonists are both clever and resourceful. They are intelligent and can fix things, both little and big. They can come up with inventive solutions others would never think of. 

Clever characters are quick-witted. They can come up with a blindingly clever retort but without, perhaps, thinking through all the ramifications of what they've just said. (It can, occasionally, be smart not to say something clever.)  

1d. Give the protagonist a wound


Make sure that, in romance writer Terrel Hoffman's words, "In a hero’s character arc, she is missing something so essential that, if she doesn’t find it by story’s end, she’ll fail to achieve her story goal." (For Great Characters it's All About the Wound)

1e. Give the protagonist a guiding principle.


What is your protagonist's guiding principle? What rule do they live by? Turn this into a saying. Almost a tag line for the character.

For example, Poirot's guiding principle is "I do not approve of murder."

1f. Give the protagonist a catch phrase.


For example, two of Poirot's catch phrases are: "My little grey cells," and "I do not approve of murder."

Monk's catch phrase is "It's a gift and a curse."

1g. Give the protagonist likeable qualities.


I've already listed some strengths a character--or, indeed, a person--could have. I think most of these would go toward making a character likable. 

Another thing that works is to show a character being liked by other characters. 

You can also show your character doing something selfless for someone else. Save a cat!

1h. Give the protagonist a quirk


Give your protagonist a reason to be concerned about something, their clothes for instance. Then give your protagonist a reason to continually pay attention to it.

For example, lets say your protagonist, Zoe, buys an expensive dress she can't afford. She plans to wear it once then return it. Her date takes her out for dinner, but at a place that features mud wrestling! Zoe continually worries about staining the dress.

If you can manage it, the silly quirk should contradict the character's strength. For example, Indiana Jones' strength is courage and his silly quirk is fear of snakes.

2. Stakes


Stakes must be clear. What will the protagonist get if she achieves her goal?  What will she lose if she fails to achieve it? 

Also, the stakes must matter to the protagonist.

3. Motivation


The protagonist's motivation must be clear.

Although it seems not everyone draws a distinction between a protagonist's motivation and his desire I find doing this often helps. 

Here's how I look at it: a protagonist's motivation explains why he desires what he does and his goal is a concrete expression of that desire. 

For example, a child might want to win a spelling bee because the school bully taunts him and calls him stupid. In that case, the character's wish to silence the bully would be the protagonist's motivation. His overriding desire, on the other hand, is for people to think he is smart, and the concrete expression of that desire--his goal--is to win the upcoming spelling championship.

4. Goal


The protagonist needs to solve a well defined problem
The protagonist must take decisive action to get what she wants.
The protagonist must want something desperately
Finally, the thing the protagonist wants should be something so concrete that you could take a picture of her doing it.

5. B-Story


The solution to the B-story often provides the protagonist with the solution she needs to finally resolve her dilemma and achieve her goal. (I talk about the b-story a bit in my article on narrative setting.)

6. Antagonist's Goal


The antagonist's goal should be such that if he achieves it the protagonist cannot. For instance, in Lord of the Rings, if Frodo succeeded in destroying the One Ring then Sauron's quest to destroy Middle-earth would fail. On the other hand, if Sauron got the One Ring back then Middle-earth would be destroyed and Frodo would have failed.

The best article on creating an antagonist I've read so far is Jim Butcher's, "How To Build A Villain." If you read that article, don't forget to take a look at JB's comments in the comments section.

Question: What writing advice do you have tacked on the wall above your writing desk? Please share!

Photo credit: "2014-038 this way up" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

11 comments:

  1. "What writing advice do you have tacked on the wall above your writing desk? Please share!"

    Smile when you talk.
    Smile when you type.

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    1. I'll have to try that sometime! Well, at least the typing one. If I tried to smile while I talked I'd end up looking a bit like Data from the "Data's Day" episode. (He's learning to dance for O'Brien and Keiko's wedding.)

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    2. You just reminded me of what a great actor Brent Spiner is. I love that episode. "Am I dancing now, Doctor?" then when he goes too fast, Beverley says "Data....STOP!" Great memories. Great post Karen!

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    3. Ah! Another Star Trek fan. Good. After I posted that comment I wondered if I'd given my inner geek too much slack. By the way, I saw Brent Spiner and Marina Sirtis not last summer but the summer before. Spiner talked a bit about his web series. I had been worried my view of Data would be tarnished but it wasn't in the least.

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  2. Great list. I especially like "make the protagonist clever and resourceful." I never though of it, but it's true.My favorite characters are clever and resourceful.

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    1. Thanks!

      Whenever I read that advice I think of Buffy. I think making characters clever and resourceful is one of Joss Whedon's many strengths as a writer.

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  3. Karen your posts are so helpful. Now I see a few things I can use to add more interest to my protagonist.

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    1. Thanks Denise! After I finish a story I like to read a book on writing--Syd Field's book on screenwriting is good for this, or Dwight V. Swain's "Techniques of a Selling Writer." Or even Donald Maass's _Writing A Breakout Novel Workbook_. I end up seeing ways I can deepen my characters, enhance the tension, and so on. Though, that said, there is the danger of changing too many things.

      By the way, sorry for not publishing your comment until now. For some reason my spam folder ate it.

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  4. My favorite piece tacked on my wall: Murder your darlings. It, to me, means so many different things.

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    Replies
    1. True, true. That's valuable advice which I do try to keep uppermost in my mind when I edit.

      Some have taken it so far as to say if the author is in love with a piece of prose, axe it. Personally, I don't take it that far, but I try to make a mental note of it and, then, if any of my beta readers says it's awkward or it doesn't fit. Well (* sigh *) then say my goodbyes.

      Thanks for your comment. :)

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