Character Development: 5 Tips for a Great Protagonist
Here are 5 character development tips for an unforgettable protagonist.
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What's a protagonist?
The main character of your story. They should want something - ex, to solve a crime, win a championship, find love, etc - and the audience should follow them as they pursue this goal. An example of a protagonist in a book would be Jack Reacher, while an example in film would be Rocky.
Most, but not all, stories have a protagonist. Certain stories follow a group of characters as they go after a goal - either their own or a shared one - giving each of the characters equal weight across scenes.
How do you write a great protagonist?
Like anything in writing, there is no single "correct" way to do something. However, since storytelling has been around for thousands of years, characteristics have emerged that certain well-received protagonists share. Here are five helpful character development tips for your story's lead...
Character Development Tip #1: Give your protagonist a want and a need
As mentioned, a protagonist has a want: a desire to go out into the world and accomplish some goal. However, great protagonists often have something else too, known as a need. The need is an emotional problem that requires fixing in order for the main character to lead a better, fuller life.
Toward the beginning of a story, a protagonist is often well aware of their want, however, may not yet acknowledge their need since it's been psychologically repressed.
For an example, let's look at a detective story. Two teenagers in a small town go missing. The main character, Detective Smith, has a clear want early on: he wants to find out who's responsible for the disappearance. Years earlier, Detective Smith's wife passed away. He's tried to move on, but the loss has left him emotionally scarred: he sabotages his relationships with women before they get too close so he can avoid the pain of another potential loss. Yet, Detective Smith isn't even aware he does this.
His want vs. need entails two distinct challenges for him. However, a recommended technique is to form a link between the want and need. For instance, as Detective Smith searches for the criminal behind the disappearance (the want), he meets one of the missing teen's mothers, who also lost a spouse a few years back. This woman recognizes Detective Smith's repressed pain, helps him come to grips with it, and eventually overcome it by the end of the story (the need).
When creating your want and your need, empathy is critical. The audience should understand why your protagonist wants what they do out in the world and why the protagonist needs what they do internally.
Your main character doesn't necessarily have to be "likable" as long as the audience understands how they tick. For instance, a woman may want to rob a beloved local business, but if the audience learns she plans to use the money to help her sick daughter, it'll still identify with her. A guy may act like a jerk to everyone at his high school, but if the audience finds out his father just abandoned his family, it'll still identify with him.
Character Development Tip #2: Choose the right type of protagonist for your genre and story
Certain genres call for certain types of main characters. The three general types:
Make sure you're familiar with the genre you're writing in and the types of main characters that tend to appear. For instance, comedies typically feature leads the audience looks down on, goofs that are laughed at. Horror stories tend to have main characters the audience sees eye to eye with, which allows it to easily identify with the character and imagine the terror they're going through. Action stories are usually led by a person the audience aspires to be like, a capable, courageous hero.
If you'd like, you can flip these conventions on their head. However, if you do, be certain the entire tone of your story matches this flip. For instance, if you are telling a gritty detective story about missing teenagers and your main character is a goofball who barely knows how to hold a gun, you'd run into a clash in tone. However, a story about a bumbling detective could work if you stripped out the gritty elements and fully committed to a comedic angle.
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Character Development Tip #3: Give your protagonist a skill
A skill will instantly make your main character more interesting. As discussed with tip #2 - matching your protagonist with your genre/story - certain genres call for certain skills. Ex, an action hero is usually good at fighting and staying cool under pressure.
However, regardless of your genre, your main character should be good at something, even if they're the doofus lead in a comedy. A skill indicates the character has potential, even if they seem hopeless at the beginning of the story.
Remember, you need the audience to become emotionally invested in whether this characters achieves their want. If your protagonist lacks skills, they can be viewed as a lost case - the audience may feel they'd only accomplish anything through luck, which doesn't make for a dramatic plot.
For example, though your comedic lead may be a clumsy drunk at the beginning of the story, he might be good at darts, which he plays at a local bar while drinking nightly. Through the story, he learns how to channel the focus he applies to darts to other aspects of his life.
Character Development Tip #4: Give your protagonist a secret
Like a skill, a secret instantly makes a character more interesting. A recommended technique is to establish that your protagonist has a secret fairly early in your story, without yet revealing the details of the secret (which you'd do later).
For instance, let's say you're writing a psychological thriller about a suburban woman, Jennifer. On the surface, she may seem like many other women in her quaint town. Then, one day while Jennifer is on a business trip in a different city, a strange man comes up to her and calls her by a different name. Antsy, she tells the guy - plus her coworkers - that he's mistaken. However, the man doesn't accept her explanation. He insists she's in a lot of trouble, then hurries off.
Clearly, Jennifer is keeping a secret from her coworkers, and even her husband and kids back at home. And the secret is so significant she decided to change her name to escape from some aspect of her past. The audience doesn't yet know what happened earlier in Jennifer's life, but it'll surely find her a lot more interesting and anticipate the reveal of her backstory.
Character Development Tip #5: Emotionally tie your protagonist to your antagonist
Your central antagonist is the character most responsible for blocking your protagonist from achieving their goal. The antagonist should not just challenge your main character with obstacles out in the world, but challenge them emotionally, forcing them to confront the pain of their need.
A recommended technique is to give your hero and villain a trait in common, specifically something the hero doesn't like about themself. I refer to this tactic as a "dark mirror."
When the hero recognizes this shared trait in the villain, and sees the negativity stemming from it, the hero is forced to look inward, confronting their own flaws and striving to do better than the villain. This introspection may help the hero finally address their need.
Want more writing advice? Check out my posts on the difference between a protagonist and antagonist, character development for an antagonist, and story plot tips. Plus, make sure you take my free online writing course.
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