Writing Essentials: Characters Part Four: Protagonists Part 2

>> Wednesday, February 3, 2010

So I came up with a second part.

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.

Aside from what a main character should be, there are certain things a main character needs to do during the course of story or book.

In my opinion, one of them is grow. Of all the things that leave me cold at the end of a book, few beat a stagnant main character (and this is why perfect characters rarely work - where they gonna grow?). They have to learn something, challenge themselves, find out things about themselves, their world, the people around them or, even better, all the above. Why?

Because a book or story should be a journey, not just for the reader, but for the characters involved. If not, why bother? That also argues that the main character should be actively involved, not sitting to the side while everyone else does the good stuff.

Characters should also reveal something of themselves. As characters are, as the are for me, the entree into the story, it's important to provide enough insight into them that the audience can get involved, can at least empathize with the decisions and choices the character makes. If this fails to catch a reader, the reader often becomes more and more frustrated and isolated from the character and, by extension, the story, if they ever get involved at all.

Characters need to be consistent to themselves (which may mean being completely unpredictable it that's their character). They need to interact with other characters in believable ways.

But, there are many limitations main characters don't have: gender, race, species, appearance, age, height, religion/belief system, etc. In other words, you can hitch a ride on anyone or anything as long as you have something for the readers to latch on to so they can enjoy the ride.

You don't have to tell the reader everything about your characters, but you should know about your characters, understand them, know their motivations for what they do. If you don't, it will be almost impossible for it not to be muddy for the reader.

In my opinion.


  • Jeff King

    Bravo... I like to see a main char, be tested physically, emotionally and morally. I want to the whole platter and then some.
    Show me the struggles and loss, so me the passion, show me the hatred, show me the love, show me it all...

  • The Mother

    Not all stories are journeys; for instance, it's unusual to see a character grow in a mystery. Our favorite mystery solvers are pretty much stable characters who are just so damn good at what they do that they fascinate us.

    But, yeah, in any journey type novel, growth is the whole point. Even, I think, for secondary characters. If they don't grow, they provide a foil for the main character as he does.

  • Stephanie B

    Thanks, Jeff.

    The Mother, you make an interesting point and that may be why, as a general rule, I can't find myself interested in mysteries. The exceptions being JD Robb (which probably aren't really mysteries) and Dorothy Sayer's Peter Whimsy stories. In both of those series, the primary mystery solvers are growing and grappling with changes in their lives. Maybe that's why I like them when Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot leave me cold.

    That's not necessarily a bad thing. I make no bones about the fact that I'm a character driven reader - that's what I read for. Not every reader does. Many are plot driven readers who want a novel that keeps them guessing what happens next. I don't doubt you're right under those circumstances and, as I've mentioned, I encourage any of the plot-loving readers/writers to expound on the plot elements because it's not my forte.

    These are my opinions only. And, in my opinion, a great character, one that is the force that draws a reader into a book, really needs some form of growth. My opinion, however, is just that. Not fact.

  • Stephanie B

    Note that I'm not arguing with you, The Mother, just pointing out what I'm looking for. I think those different perspectives is what makes a conversation like this interesting.

    There isn't ONE typical reader or only one good way to make a character.

  • The Mother

    Gods, if there were only one typical reader, literature would get pretty boring pretty fast.

    Loved the Peter Whimsy tales, too. But, although he had some emotional stuff going on in his life, I don't see him as someone who did a lot of growing in his life. Harriet did.

  • Stephanie B

    Not sure I agree with you, though I admit most of the changes were subtle. Having said that, the books that demonstrated the biggest impacts to Peter (and his view of the world) were definitely my favorite of the series (like Murder Must Advertise) while ones where he was more static are rarely pulled back of my shelf.

    It reminds me, though, that I should reread some of those.

  • Marilynne

    Thanks Stephanie. Your take on writing comes from the heart of someone who likes to read. Your comments come at a good time for me to look at the book I'm writing and see if I'm meeting your criteria.

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