Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

The Writer’s Way: you need to care deeply about your protagonist

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 04•20

It’s impossible to write about a main character you don’t care about. And care deeply. When I say care, you can actually pity the poor sod {Quoyle in The Shipping News}, or disagree with his morality as when you write an anti-hero like Scarlett O’Hara or Tyrion Lannister of the Game of Thrones series.    Many readers find anti-heroes  likable or relatable,  but so must the writer/creator. Because fiction writing requires a serious emotional and intimate involvement.

Ideally you’ll find your protagonist fascinating, indelible, someone you can cohabitate with for at least a year.Because between first drafts and final revisions it will take at least a year to finish your novel  Naturally this can work for short stories too, but the duration is often shorter. This means your main player needs to be fun to write.

I’ve known writers who have fallen out of love with their characters and it ain’t pretty. Especially if they created a series character. Typically they discover their creation feels stale or predictable. Similar to a failing relationship in the real world. Like those glum couples you spot in restaurants not speaking to each other; sitting in slumped misery or apathy. Of course I’m nosy and apt to spy on my fellow diners and I’ve been noticing these miserable pairings for years.

Back to you and your main characters. Think long haul. Lasting commitment, curiosity, or admiration. Think not being judgy. A few suggestions for you:

  • Character first. Plot is people.
  • Create an intricate backstory that will cause motivations.
  • Give it time. It doesn’t need to be an instant attraction or intimacy, but your character should pique your curiosity.
  • Discover what in your character’s nature validates his/her humanity. Makes him or her worthy of your reader’s time.  Some of the best protagonists are not immediately sympathetic or understandable. It can take readers time to understand them. But that’s okay. Because there will be tests along the way that reveal his/her true nature.
  • Your protagonist needs traits you admire, even begrudgingly.
  • Figure in your protagonist’s chief vulnerabilities, then exploit them.
  • Understand how your character’s triggers, reactions or overreactions under duress.
  • Consider working out your demons through your protagonist. Is he or she insecure? Will he feel misunderstood? What about rewriting your awkward adolescent years through your character?

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