Make no mistake, the main character must be the most significant element of the novel. I have come up with nine awesome tips on how to create an engaging main character.
As a prerequisite, writers must first ensure that their main character/central protagonist:
- Is a point of view (POV) character;
- Has the personality, ambitions and makes the decisions to push the story forward; and
- Engages the reader.
After this, writers must then ask themselves: what do I want from their main character?
Tip 1 – Decide The Main Character’s Goal And The Reason For It
In and of itself, a goal is not enough to captivate the audience. Writers must give their central protagonist a reason to strive for the goal. Therefore, they can create empathy with the character. Writers can choose any reason they like for the main character to go for his/her goal. Yet, the reason must be emotionally genuine and therefore not contrived. This way, writers gives readers a chord of understanding with the main character, to bind them to the main character and his/her journey.
A main character needs a goal to strive for, to be the thrust of the plot. For example, in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count Of Monte Cristo, Edmund Dantès’ decision to return to Paris enables the story to become about revenge. Similarly, in Jenna Moreci’s The Savior’s Champion, Tobias enters the Savior’s Tournament and must use all that he has at his disposal to survive and win it.
Therefore, the reader understands why Edmund Dantès returns to Paris: it is to gain vengeance upon his enemies, because they falsely accused him of treason and locked him up in solitary confinement for fourteen years Likewise, the reader understands why Tobias enters the tournament: because he comes from a poor family, and if he wins the tournament he will be able to provide for his family.
Thus, their goals are logical. In fact, readers root for them because we understand what drives them.
Tip 2 – Decide The Main Character’s Endpoint
The second of nine awesome tips on how to create an engaging main character is by deciding the central protagonist’s endpoint. Writers can save themselves a massive amount of time if they can decide the ending for the main character early on in the writing process.
Writers can choose any endpoint they wish for their main character. Once they have done so, they should determine how the main character will come to his/her end. Then, they should decide which personality traits best suit the central protagonist, so that he/she can come to this end in a logical and satisfying way.
To give a classic example, in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), Aragorn’s story ends with him defeating the armies of Mordor, becoming King of Gondor, and marrying Arwyn. Once Tolkien decided this ending, all he needed to do was to make Aragorn a great fighter and a ranger. (Hence why Aragorn was not King of Gondor in the first place.)
A more recent and darker example is Lord Eddard Stark from George RR Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire (ASOIAF). Lord Eddard’s story ends in shocking fashion with him being betrayed and losing his head. George RR Martin determined very early on that Lord Eddard would die, so he made him honourable and made him trust the (figurative) snakes around him. Consequently, when those around him betray him, the reader wonders why Lord Eddard did not see his fate coming earlier.
Tip 3 – Decide The Main Character’s Beginning
Once writers have decided where the main character’s end will be, they will have a much easier time deciding where the story should begin for him/her. Simply, if the journey ends with the main character going on a quest and becoming a heroic king, like Aragorn, then all writers need do is to get their main character moving on the quest. Tolkien does this by having Aragorn enter the story when he meets the hobbits at the Inn of the Prancing Pony. Aragorn defends them, before becoming part of the fellowship.
George RR Martin, however, does something very different with Lord Eddard. Ned Stark’s story begins with him chopping off a man’s head for deserting the Night’s Watch, before learning that his mentor has been murdered. As a result, he decides to go to the capital to bring the culprits to justice (only for everything to go horribly wrong).
Tip 4 – Create A Story-Arc For The Main Character
The fourth of nine awesome tips on how to create an engaging main character is by giving him/her a story-arc. Suffice to say, it is not enough for the central protagonist to go on a physical journey. He/she must develop as a person due to the experiences he/she goes through over the course of the physical journey. This is better known as a story-arc.
Here, the reader must see a logical personality change from the person the main character was at the start of the journey to the one he/she is at the end. This is so that the conclusion of the novel is satisfying.
Tip 4 – Example 1
A classic (if simplistic) example of a story-arc is Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Scrooge starts off the story as being rapacious, miserly, and unconcerned about his family.
But because of his experiences with the three ghosts, he has a 180-degree turn. Consequently, he becomes a generous and loving grandfather.
Tip 4 – Example 2
A modern (and more complex) example of a central protagonist who undergoes a story-arc change is Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne/Batman in Christopher Nolan’s film, The Dark Knight (2008).
Bruce starts off the film with optimism, believing that Gotham has a bright future. But by the end of the film, Bruce is demoralised after suffering another personal loss and for having to take the fall for crimes he does not commit. In short, he is psychologically beaten and a different person at the end of the movie.
Tip 5 – Decide The Main Character’s Positive And Negative Traits
The fifth of nine awesome tips on how to create an engaging main character is the meat and bones, itself. Writers should contemplate what is typically seen as positive characteristics (intelligence, courageousness, and honesty, to name but three); and what is typically seen as negative traits (stupidity, dishonesty, and murderous-inclinations, to name but three again).
Then, writers should give their main character a blend of positive and negative characteristics, and make these characteristics an integral part of why he/she makes the decisions (and mistakes) that he/she does.*
Tip 5 – Example 1
An example of a character with a mix of positive and negative story traits is William Shakespeare’s titular Macbeth. He is brave in battle and a competent commander. Moreover, some may even deem his ruthless desire to fulfil his ambitions as a positive.
Yet, Macbeth is also temperamental; not politically shrewd; and weak in the face of seduction: first from his wife (and her ambitions), and then from the three witches (and their prophecies). Ultimately, his positive and negative characters contribute to his downfall against MacDuff on the battlefield.
Tip 5 – Example 2
Similarly, take Tyrion Lannister of ASOIAF. He is physically small and weak; prone to drinking and whoring; and he comes from a House that has sh*t for honour. Yet, he is also witty, intelligent and has a good understanding for what motivates the people around him. Consequently, he has a knack for getting himself out of sticky situations and finding solutions to problems.
*A Disclaimer About Anti-Heroes
Writers can be tempted to create main characters with more positive than negative traits. This is because it is easier for readers to empathise with such characters.
However, writers can create a main character with more negative than positive traits. In general, such characters are called ‘anti-heroes.’ Fantasy, particularly dark fantasy, is replete with examples of them. We shall assess some of these in another blog post, but it will be for subscribers only. So subscribe by filling out the form below!
End of Part I
I hope the first half of this blog piece has been useful for you and that it helps to make the writing journey more enjoyable. Next time around, we shall assess tips six – nine (inclusive) on how to create an engaging main character.
PS: Fill out the form below for future writing tips, as well as an exclusive article about anti-heroes.