Writing Essentials: Characters Part Four: Protagonists

>> Tuesday, February 2, 2010


For those of you space junkies freaking over the latest budget proposal by Obama, calm down. It'll all work out. If you want, I'll tell you why I think so when I'm finished talking up characters.

Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on writing. I am not a published author, don't have any sort of English or writing degree, have never taught English or writing and, in fact, do something entirely different for a living. I am simply stating my opinion and caution any reader to assume that every statement described as if it were incontrovertible be assumed to include an "in my opinion" on it. This series is my own opinion as an aspiring writer to describe things I work to do in my own writing and what I look for when I read.

Having talked "bad guys" nearly to death, it's time to move on to other characters. Now, to my way of thinking, there are three primary kinds of remaining characters.

Protagonists - those characters (often described as "good guys") who are at the center of the story, often providing point of view and/or a sypathetic aspect to entice the reader into caring what happens. I mean, if you don't like the main characters, why would you care what happens to them? There can be one or two protagonists or there can be host of them (as in an ensemble piece). They don't have to be "good," noble, understanding, pleasant, polite, etc - they can even be a villain per se, but, if they are too ignoble, they can alienate the audience. Most protagonists, even the "anti-heroes" have some measure of redeeming qualities. The best ones, in my opinion, have a bit of the not-to-good aspects as well, but we'll go into that later in this same post.

There are also the secondary characters, or side characters. Some might support the bad guy; some might support the main characters. It is challenging to write a book about only one or two characters and not have any secondary characters and have it still appeal. Can be done. Has been done, but, unless we're stranded on a desert island, it can come off as contrived feeling. Side characters are wonderful. They flesh out the world, can add humor, provide opportunities to make the protagonists seem more human, can add depth, can provide an expository opportunity and did I mention adding humor. I love side characters.

Then there are the bit players, the tertiary characters. Often available in only a scene or two or such a side dish for another character they have none of their own, they are rarely deep or meaningful. The secretary who lets your protagonist into the villain's office might be one. Or the person who brought the mail. However, the way they act and behave, the little bits of description or reaction to what the bigger playing actors do can really add life to a scene, can set the stage as it were. I doubt I'll write a whole post on these kinds of characters, though. I'll probably just include a quick paragraph in the secondary characters' post(s).

Today, though, I'm going to focus on main characters. Now, as a character-focused writer type, I've talked about characters and character types I liked, main and on the pro side of secondary: stupid but pure, cool and cutting, happy-go-lucky, stoic, diamond-in-the-rough, hard-ass, deceptively sweet, and flamboyant and kind. Reading through them (if you did or you want to), you'll see certain things in common.

Now, I can't tell you what you have to do with your protagonists, but I'll tell you what I do and what I look for.

First of all, for me, the characters are the key to the story. When I was a kid, I'd read anything. Now that I'm old and have many demands on my time, I'm less likely to sit through a book that doesn't interest me, doesn't grab me, doesn't make me want finish it. Number one way to get me interested? Give me a character I want to know more about, one I identify with, one I like. Once I like someone, really like someone, I'll put up with crappy plots and weak settings, I'll walk through fire with them. Not everyone is so patient, but the popularity of some of the most hackneyed plots in history (romance, for instance) argues good characters can do much to make a book appealing, even if there's nothing else going for it.

By that same token, weak or unappealing characters can turn someone off a very clever premise, a brilliant plot, a vivid venue. The challenge, of course, is that not everyone looks for the same things in a character. People, I think, tend to want to see something that reminds them of something in themselves without duplicating them.

When I'm reading/writing, this is what I look for/strive for:

1. Not truly stupid. In other words, capable of logic (even if it's a bit off kilter), creative or otherwise savvy. Not necessarily book smart but quite effective in his or her own way. I personally have soft spot for people who appear not-quite-so-bright only to be far more clever than one first suspected when you get to know them. Those that are overtly and even obnoxiously bright work for me, too. People, however, who are genuinely stupid or require someone to tell them what to do, who are unable to break away from traditional thinking generally don't appeal to me personally.

2. Not deliberately unkind. I live by the golden rule and, even if one of the characters is callous or thoughtless, he can't be sadistic or needlessly vicious. If he is, I'm not going to like him. I'm not talking about being sarcastic or grumpy. I'm talking about bullying or treating people harshly just because one can.

3. Not amoral. Flexible morals I can deal with. Nontraditional morals work just fine with me. Even traditional morals. But she has to live by them, whatever they are.

4. Minimal moralizing/judging. There is a huge difference between having morals one actually lives by and moralizing. Characters who don't know this difference don't impress me. Nor do the characters who don't know the difference between evaluating people by who they are rather than what they are. It's amazing how often the two traits (which would seem to be unrelated) go together. Ironically, it's even more amazing how often moralizing and having morals one lives by are mutually exclusive.

OK, these are more things I don't want to see in my characters, but there are things I like, too.

5. Critical thinking. Everyone has situations where he reacts irrationally, but it needs to be the exception and not the rule. The character must be able to think on his own, make his own mind up, weigh information on his own or it's unlikely I'll have much respect for him.

6. Sense of humor. Admittedly, this isn't a have to have, but it's much easier to like a character who can laugh, particularly at herself. I love this in side characters, too. Books with characters that make me laugh, I read over and over and over again.

7. Imperfect. People without flaw, dark sides, neuroses, issues or bad habits are irritating to be around. Why bother to read a book about them. Those quirks and failings not only make the characters more real, it makes them far less frustrating to read. If you can identify with "perfection," you don't sound like anyone I know.

8. Capability. No one can do everything, but everyone can accomplish something. If I run into a character who seems immune to that notion, who doesn't do whatever it is he can, it is unlikely to appeal to me. Passivity doesn't interest me.

9. Honor or selflessness (to at least a degree). Books about characters who are focused only on their own needs, own wants, own goals and to hell with everyone else - not what I'm looking for in a protagonist (unless they outgrow it). I can live with it in a side character, but I won't walk through fire with someone unless she can see beyond herself and cares about others in the world around her.

10. Interesting. If I want to be bored, I have plenty of fodder for that at work. I want something interesting to happen. I'm OK with interesting events making an otherwise boring person come into his own, but it helps if they're good company even before that.

Well, that ought to do, I think. If I think of more, I'll add it tomorrow. Right now, I'm going to bed. It's been a frightening night.

3 comments:

  • Jeff King
     

    Good night, and thx for sharing. I love everything you’ve posted; good info and summed up beautifully.
    thx

  • The Mother
     

    Who am I kidding? When I read a book, I want the protagonist to be the kind of guy I would fall in love with (ditto with the women--although I don't personally lean that direction, I want the girls to be the kind of people that the guys I would fall in love with would fall in love with).

    Smart, capable, funny, sexy. Sarcasm optional, but expected. Cool under pressure, capable of making split second decisions without any hemming and hawing and willing to accept the consequences (no throwing failures under someone else's bus).

    Quirks and character traits that make them vulnerable are side issues that strengthen the characterization but, to me, don't add to that falling in love thing.

  • Stephanie B
     

    Thank you, Jeff.

    I tend to agree with you, The Mother, except I don't have to fall in love with them. I do, however, have to identify with them enough they matter to me. In some cases, that's finding bits of myself and my husband in the characters I'm reading. In others, it's finding characteristics I respect and appreciate or that I aspire to attain.

    The description of what you're looking for is not far different from my own, except I'm possibly more forgiving of actions under pressure (we all have our weak spots) and the vulnerabilities are part of the charm to me.

    But, then, as I said in the next post, I like my characters to grow.

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