Creating Characters Your Readers Will Love
But First, Tell Me This:
Who is your favorite female protagonist?
Creating Protagonists Your Readers Will Love
The Right Strengths and Flaws
If you're an aspiring writer, you've probably heard that a character shouldn't just have strengths: he should also have flaws to make him relatable.
But picking a few strengths and flaws aren't enough.
A character has to have the right strengths and flaws. Without them, your plot will stagnate, and your characters will seem either too perfect or too pathetic.
Of course, there are exceptions--there always are. You can technically give your characters any strength or flaw and make it work. But bestselling books time and time again give their protagonists the same strengths and flaws, and give their secondary characters a very different set of strengths and flaws.
As a writer, you should always have your audience in mind. So, while you may not want to compromise your character to your readers' whims, it's still a good idea to know what they want--so you can make informed decisions.
If you're interested in writing a commercial novel, read the following list to know what strengths and flaws will make a reader love your protagonist--and what will make them dislike, or worse, not care, about him or her.
Protagonist Strengths and Flaws
Untalented at: "__"
Addicted to "__"
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Explanation of Strengths and Flaws
As you can see, all of the protagonist's strengths serve to push the plot forward.
Courage, daring, and selflessness are important so that he will plunge headfirst into adventure.
Astuteness means that he will figure out key points of the plot; notice that it does not mean that he is smart. Book or street smartness is not necessary for your protagonist.
Caring means that he will bond with a few other characters, which will create subplots and will also be a way for him to externalize his feelings, keeping the novel from being too internal; plus, it will be another way for the protagonist to show bravery, should something happen to his friends.
Awkwardness and insecurity are flaws that the protagonist struggles against and which he eventually overcomes, showing a transition in his character. Addiction can be a flaw that shows the darker side of a protagonist who struggles against past demons, yet it's a safe flaw, as addiction is an illness, not the result of an evil nature. Meanwhile, being untalented is a great way to show that your protagonist isn't perfect while actually keeping him perfect for the things that matter--the plot and subplots of your novel.
Example of the Perfectly Flawed Protagonist
In one minute, I created a flawed, and therefore relatable protagonist, using the above table.
James, an island inhabitant, becomes alcoholic after the death of his parents. Yet his courage is tested when he learns that they may not be dead after all, but imprisoned in a mysterious government prison across the ocean. He decides he will free them no matter what. But will he succeed despite the fact that the only way to get there is to go on the water, and he doesn't know how to sail a boat? Luckily, his pretty neighbor, Anne, does. But she doesn't know he's desperately in love with her...
I came up with this plot in about two seconds and I'm sure I could do a lot better. But the point is that each of the strengths and flaws above help to carry the plot along. Courage and daring are what push James to save his parents. Insecurity makes him wonder if he'll be able to do it. Addiction tells us he has a dark, intriguing past. Awkwardness is what creates the subplot with Anne.
Strengths and Flaws To Give OTHER Characters
The following strengths and flaws should not usually be given to your protagonist, because they may slow down the plot. I will explain why after you see the table.
Strengths and Flaws for Secondary Characters
Evil (see explanation)
Very physically flawed
Passionate about a cause
Passionate about a hobby
Explanation of Secondary Character Strengths and Flaws
As you can see, all these strengths and flaws fit under two categories:
- They don't have a forward effect on the plot.
- They're extreme versions of characteristics.
If your protagonist were book smart, he would be reading a lot. Think of the kinds of scenes you could write: unexciting ones in which you describe the protagonist reading. An easy fix would be to show the protagonist's best friend as the bookworm. This gives your novel an intellectual dimension without dragging scenes down.
If your protagonist were shy, too insecure, or sad/depressed this would create too much internal plot in comparison with the external plot. We don't always want to be in the protagonist's head; a fun, commercial book should feature lots of action that doesn't depend on the protagonist's thoughts.
However, having a shy friend is a good way to incorporate this characteristic into your novel without affecting the plot.
If you want your protagonist to be depressed, think about exteriorizing it by giving him a visible problem that creates obstacles he must overcome, such as the addiction already mentioned.
Extreme characteristics should also be given to secondary characters.
Your protagonist shouldn't be completely passionate about a cause or hobby, unless it's 100% related to the plot. While they can and should have interests, dedication to one thing and one thing only should be reserved to secondary characters. Your protagonist is multi-faceted, and making him too passionate could lead him to seem one-dimensional, plus it will prevent him from having the flexibility to do what is needed to make your plot advance.
Other flaws such as temperament and physical appearance are unrelated except that they can have the effect of keeping readers from associating with your protagonist. Don't make your protagonist cruel or unjust, and don't uglify him to the point that no one would be attracted to him, or your readers won't be either.
Finally, I placed evil in the strength column because evil can be the strength of your antagonist. There are of course lots of exceptions, but in most commercial novels, while protagonists are flawed, they act in a way that readers can relate to, while evil is a one-dimensonial trait without reason behind it.
Goals and Fears
While strengths and flaws are useful, not just in constructing your protagonist, but in moving your plot along, goals and fears are another component of creating your character and of imagining the obstacles that will face him.
Here are some ideas.
Goals and Fears of Your Protagonist
Defeating the villain
Reuniting with family
Reuniting with a loved one
Finding a sacred object
Seeing the ocean
Agoraphobia (fear of crowds)
Saving their home
Girls/boys/the opposite sex
Saving the world from destruction
Getting out of the woods
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Example of a Character with a Goal and a Fear
These are just a few suggestions for some goals and fears.
Remember that both goals and fears should drive the story forward. But while the goal you choose will probably clearly relate to the story, you may find yourself picking a few unrelated fears that end up giving your protagonist several different obstacles throughout the story.
The story should rise in tension, so the protagonist should face ever-greater obstacles as he reaches his goal.
Here is my example, a follow-up to the previous James story-line:
James decided to find his parents. (That's his goal.) Swallowing his fear, he began the month-long sail across open waters (Fear 1) with his awkward first love (Fear 2). But when they reached the island on which his parents were held, his troubles were far from over. The land was run over by poisonous spiders (Fear 3). And then there was the mysterious Mr. Valentine... (Fear 4.)
(By the way, if you want to use this story idea, you're free to. I'm just making it up for fun.)
The Perfect Circle
- The Perfect Circle, A Fantasy Novel (1)
Earth: Vi and Edwin are the sole survivors of chemical warfare. Taken to a parallel world, they embark on a quest to save the different countries there from similar self-destruction. An epic fantasy.
Remember that the main takeway for a commercial story is: If a strength or flaw doesn't advance the plot, don't give it to your protagonist.
I've been using this character-buildlng technique to draft stories for many years. You can read a free online novel I wrote in the links to the right.
(The main goal of Violet, the protagonist, is to reunite with her mother and save the world from destruction, while she fears the villain, flying, and fire. She is courageous and caring, and slightly insecure about her looks and ability to do what is before her.)
I hope this advice has been useful to you! Write on!
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