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7 Tips to Create Your Protagonist

Updated on May 21, 2021
Priya Barua profile image

Priya has been previously shortlisted for the Margaret and Reg Turnill Writing Competition (2020) and the Val Wood Prize (2020).

Have you come across protagonists who are only kickass? Or, only brave or only dumb? That only one dominant character trait is used to flesh him out. I have, across quite a few. And I have to say, I quite dislike them. People aren’t like that. I understand it is fiction and here we are trying to sell fiction as real. So, you want to get as real as possible with your protagonist. Therefore, I have a few tips that you need to keep in mind while creating your protagonist.

You want to get as real as possible with your protagonist.
You want to get as real as possible with your protagonist. | Source

When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.

— Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

7 Tips to Create Your Protagonist

Important Aspects
Backstory to Personality
Family Background
Likes and Dislikes
Character Traits

1. Goals

Your protagonist wants to destroy the dark lord, free the slaves and become the national ruler. That’s the obvious part. What I want you to do is also think along the lines of what the protagonist wants. Not, what he has to do. Can you tell the difference? He has to do certain things to move the story forward and he wants to do certain things to reach his goals. They may or may not be the same thing. Frankly, a person who only lives, breathes and exists to free the slaves is unrealistic, especially when said person is sixteen or seventeen. Example – Person A has to take care of his parents. Person A wants to free the slaves. Hence, Person A cannot jump on a bandwagon to free the slaves. Alternatively, Person A has to (because he is the chosen one) free the slaves but he wants to marry his girlfriend. To create conflict, try to make his ‘has to’ and ‘wants to’ separate so that he really has to choose. Choosing between two hot girls does not count.

2. Backstory to personality

You want to create a three-dimensional character? So, you’ll have to give a backstory to his personality. A person is a sum of the experiences he has had. Why is your protagonist the way he is? If you want your protagonist to be reckless, you should hint (not blab it out in info-dumps) why he is reckless. Think of a normal person. Would a normal person rush into the witch’s lair because she invited him? This is reckless, not brave, mind you. Therefore, hint. You can hint that your protagonist has seen his mentor walk into the witch’s lair and walk out unscathed. So, he believes he can do the same.

3. Flaws

Clumsy is a flaw but your protagonist cannot become a skilled warrior when danger is lurking nearby. What I mean to say is that the flaw should show and not only at convenient times. If you’re going to choose a flaw, choose it carefully. And don’t tell me what the flaw is. Show it to me through examples. You want to show insecurity? Create a situation where it is obvious to me.

Think long and hard before you choose your protagonist's family background.
Think long and hard before you choose your protagonist's family background. | Source

4. Family Background

Not just family background but also the kind of family he has. Are they loving, dismissive, or downright abusive? Think long and hard before you choose that. Each kind of family type would create a different personality for the protagonist. A lot of writers create protagonists with abusive or dismissive parents and guardians. I want you to be careful with that. Children with abusive and dismissive parents are often depressed, anxious and cannot always go on to save the world. The trauma that they carry may take years to heal. Or a protagonist with loving parents will trust easily and might actually jump on the bandwagon the save the world (and might get kidnapped but that’s a different story). So, think.

5. Quirks

Everyone has quirks. Something that is unique to your protagonist and hopefully doesn’t show up on any of the other characters. Maybe your protagonist fidgets with his ring when he is anxious. Maybe he fights better with his left hand even though his right is the dominant hand. Maybe he likes his swords to be arranged in a particular manner. Writers’ limit quirks to appearances. You might want to expand on it and if you’re having trouble with it – observe people around you. Again, think before you give your protagonist a quirk. Why does he have it and where did he pick it up?

...If your protagonist is a footballer, he has to eat like a footballer. He can’t eat an apple and stay alive...

6. Likes and Dislikes

Your protagonist should talk more on likes than his dislikes. Nobody talks about things they dislike. Remember, if he likes music, he has to speak music. That means, you as a writer will have to speak music in a way nobody can refute it. Similarly, if your protagonist is a footballer, he has to eat like a footballer. He can’t eat an apple and stay alive. These are details that escape writers. A suggestion I’d love to add, say your character likes reading books, you might want to show a scene where he is actually reading a book. Instead of telling the reader, I love to read books.

Character Traits is the make or break of any character.
Character Traits is the make or break of any character. | Source

7. Character Traits

It’s not just choosing that the protagonist is going to be brave. When he is brave? When is he not? Even if bravery is a dominant character trait, there will be (has to be) situations when bravery fails. It’s human nature. For every 90 percent of bravery, there has to have 10 percent of cowardice. No one is consistently brave in every possible situation. So, you as a writer get to choose. I would also suggest you figure your character’s defence mechanism. How does he react when chastised? Does he talk back, listen quietly or simply dismiss it?

© 2020 Priya Barua


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