In the previous blog post, we discussed the first five of the nine great pointers on how to create a compelling central protagonist. These included:
- Decide the main character’s goal and the reason for it;
- Decide the main character’s endpoint;
- Decide the main character’s beginning;
- Create a story-arc for the main character; and
- Decide the main character’s positive and negative traits.
In this blog post, we look at tips six to nine (inclusive):
Tip 6 – The Central Protagonist Must Have A Flaw
The sixth of the nine great pointers on how to create a compelling central protagonist is by giving him/her a flaw. Curiously, what makes a main character interesting is the flaw. The flaw must be internal* to the character and one that:
- Impacts upon the main character’s decision-making process (and the plot); and
- Is one that readers can relate to.
For example, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the titular doctor is a genius and innovative in the field of science; after-all, he becomes the first man to create life outside of the womb.
However, Dr Victor Frankenstein is ashamed of his creature and discards it at every turn. Thus, his shame and the net of effect of that are his flaws. What’s more, Victor’s flaws affect the plot because when the creature returns to see its creator again, it does so with tragic consequences.
Similarly, in Macbeth, our eponymous character’s flaw is his haughtiness, which results in him failing to see Macduff as a threat. Therefore, Macbeth’s flaw is an essential part of his character and impacts the plot. Like with Dr Frankenstein, Macbeth’s flaw enables the reader to understand how he comes to his demise.
*The Problem Of Only Having An External Flaw
When writers assess the character of Superman, they will realise why it is essential to give a character an internal flaw. One of the legitimate criticisms of Superman is that he has no weaknesses or flaws; that he is practically invulnerable.
The only way his enemies can weaken him is either by bringing him into proximity with Kryptonite, or by putting his love interest (invariably Lois Lane) into danger. While these have made for interesting stories, these are external weaknesses and poor substitutes for trying to get around the problem of Superman’s invincibility.
Tip 7 – Make The Central Protagonist Internally Conflicted
The seventh of the nine great pointers on how to create a compelling central protagonist is one of the most vital. Writers, it is all well and good giving the main character positive and negative traits, even giving him/her a flaw. But, at best, those will only make for a solid, two-dimensional wooden cut out of a character.
To make the central protagonist three-dimensional, and real in the eyes of the reader, writers must give their central protagonist an internal conflict. As in the header above, William Faulkner famously wrote that “the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.”
Writers, therefore, must create internal strife for the main character, and make this strife drive the plot forward. This way, the reader can empathise with the central protagonist, and will find him him/her compelling.
An internal conflict can take one of two forms. It can either be:
- Within the paradox of the main character’s personality; or
- Purely situational i.e. the main character finds himself a situation where he has to choose between one of the two things he wants most.
Example for 1 – Theon Greyjoy
In fantasy, Theon Greyjoy is a brilliant example of a conflicted soul. He becomes a POV in the second installment of A Song Of Ice And Fire (ASOIAF), A Clash Of Kings, and we get a true understanding for the paradox of his personality. Born a Greyjoy, but raised a Stark for reasons, Theon wants to please both his non-biological Stark brother and his biological Greyjoy father.
But this is impossible. Consequently, Theon is conflicted, resulting in him taking half-way measures. The net effect of this for Theon is a disastrous mess, filled with pain (both mentally and later physically, at the hands of Ramsey Snow).
Example for 2 – The Train Scene In Goldeneye
In the train scene in Goldeneye, James Bond finds himself with torn between wanting to kill his enemy, Alec Trevelyn, or save his new belle, Natalya. James decides to save Natalya, meaning that Alex has the time to get away.
But it is just as well that James saves Natalya in this scene. She uses the little time they’ve got to hack into a computer system and find out where the other Goldeneye satellite is. Unsurprisingly, this is their next destination.
Tip 8 – Decide The Gender, Age And Status of The Central Protagonist
Writers have the right to make their central protagonist be of any age, gender or status. The main character could be a sixteen-year-old girl from a poor province, like Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series; or an uncle to a King, like Dalinar Kholin in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives; or a middle-aged fugitive, like Logen Ninefingers in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy.
The gender, age and status of the main character can give the reader an interesting perspective on the society from which he/she comes from or lives in. Similarly, it can explain why the main character is in his/her position at the start of the story. But nothing more!
Indeed, if a writer relies on these factors to make his/her main character compelling, the writer will fail. Gender, age and status provide a base from which the central protagonist can work with. But they do not, in and of themselves, force the main character to make decisions or drive the plot forwards. Katniss, for instance, does not become the symbol of the rebellion solely because she comes from a deprived area. (Or else how to explain why thousands of others in a similar predicament do not become the symbol?) Rather, it is Katniss’ skills and achievements that earn her her status.
Likewise, Dalinar is not a royal advisor solely because he is King Elhokar’s uncle. Rather, it is because he is loyal and a competent general, who gives sensible advice. That he is born into royalty certainly helps him get into his position (in the same way that Katniss being born in a poor district means that she and her sister have a chance of being selected for the games). But that is it. Once Dalinar is in his position, he must make decisions that show himself worthy of his position (in the same way that once Katniss is in the games, it is up to her to show herself worthy of survival).
Oh, and Logen Ninefingers is not a fugitive because he is middle-aged and a criminal. (By God, there are no shortage of those where he comes from.) Rather, it is because he has refused to kneel to King Bethod.
Tip 9 – Give The Central Protagonist A Backstory
The ninth of nine great pointers on how to create a compelling central protagonist is by giving him/her a backstory. Everyone in the real world has a backstory. We all came from somewhere and have all experienced events that have influenced us, both positively and negatively. The same must be true for the central protagonist, otherwise readers may feel that writers pulled the main character out of thin air (or a part of their anatomy that is best not written).
Whatever the main character’s backstory may be, it must have an influence on the plot. For example, in Kenneth Lonergan’s film Manchester By The Sea, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) regularly gets drunk and beats up people for seemingly no reason. The viewer has no cause to empathise with him until we see, through flashbacks, why he behaves in an uncivilised manner. His past affects him on a day-to-day basis in a negative way, but it is also explains why he tries to do his best for his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
A good example of a main character with a backstory that impacts the plot in the fantasy genre is the eponymous Harry Potter. At the start of the story, he lives with the Dursleys and not his parents. That his aunt, uncle and cousin treat him horribly explains why he enjoys going to Hogwarts every year; and that his parents were murdered by Lord Voldemort explains why he is determined to defeat the Dark Lord at every turn.
I hope you have enjoyed this blog post and that it helps to make the novel-writing journey a little easier and more enjoyable. I have an exercise that I believe will help you write a compelling central protagonist, based upon this and the previous blog post.
Peruse through books, films and TV shows. Then, draw up a list of all the characters that have stood out in your opinion. Once you have done this, ask yourself this fundamental question: why did you enjoy those characters so much?
You should dissect each character on the list, to the point where you can outline each character’s strengths and weaknesses, and what it was about them that made them stand out in your eyes. Once this is done, you should do the same for characters that you did not enjoy reading or watching, and which ones you hated. This exercise will give you an idea of what you want in your main character.
What do you think? Do you agree with my tips? Write your answer in the comments below, along with the characters in books, films and TV shows that you have most enjoyed (or despised).
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