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Creating Characters Your Readers Will Love

Updated on February 26, 2015

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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

Strengths
Flaws
Courageous
Awkward
Caring
Slightly insecure
Astute
Untalented at: "__"
Selfless
Physical defect
Daring
Addicted to "__"

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.

Character Flaws Book
Character Flaws Book

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

Strength
Flaw
Book smart
Shy
Funny
Overly insecure
Evil (see explanation)
Very physically flawed
Passionate about a cause
Sad/Depressed
Passionate about a hobby
Too Temperamental/Abusive

Explanation of Secondary Character Strengths and Flaws

As you can see, all these strengths and flaws fit under two categories:

  1. They don't have a forward effect on the plot.
  2. 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.

Fear of water.
Fear of water.

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

Goals
Fears
Defeating the villain
The villain
Reuniting with family
Water
Reuniting with a loved one
Flying
Finding a sacred object
Exams
Returning home
Insects, spiders
Seeing the ocean
Agoraphobia (fear of crowds)
Saving their home
Girls/boys/the opposite sex
Saving the world from destruction
Falling asleep
Getting out of the woods
Fire

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.)

Conclusion

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!

Now Tell Me This

What are your favorite strengths and/or flaws you like to write or read about in a protagonist?

See results

Comments

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    • BessieBooks profile imageAUTHOR

      BessieBooks 

      3 years ago

      Thanks Ammon and Kristen!

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Great tips on how to create strong characters for your readers. Very helpful for any writer in their writing level. Voted up!

    • Ammon Beardmore profile image

      Ammon Beardmore 

      3 years ago

      Nice point of not sharing too much of the protagonists thoughts and letting the events tell the story.

    • BessieBooks profile imageAUTHOR

      BessieBooks 

      3 years ago

      Thanks for your feedback Lee!

    • BessieBooks profile imageAUTHOR

      BessieBooks 

      3 years ago

      Thanks for commenting, and for your comments on my other hubs as well!

      I'm glad if it can help you, good luck with your writing!

    • MonkeyShine75 profile image

      Mara Alexander 

      3 years ago from Los Angeles, California

      Great hub, and I have bookmarked it.

      I am new to writing, and I have so much to learn. I think this will teach me a lot. Thanks for sharing. I have voted it up

    • profile image

      Lee Cloak 

      3 years ago

      Great hub, very interesting, very useful. Thanks!

    • BessieBooks profile imageAUTHOR

      BessieBooks 

      3 years ago

      Thanks Clive!

    • clivewilliams profile image

      Clive Williams 

      3 years ago from Jamaica

      Nice hub, good points there

    • BessieBooks profile imageAUTHOR

      BessieBooks 

      3 years ago

      Yes, these are some thoughts to get writers started, but they're not the final word of course. Everyone has a different way of creating characters. And the most important thing is complexity, as you said. Thanks for your feedback!

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      3 years ago from sunny Florida

      You have made some very valid and interesting points. There are a few I would challenge but that is the art of an effective piece of writing....that is spurs discussion.

      thanks for sharing...and the characters I like to read about the most are those that possess all of the characterisitics you cited at the end and then some.

      Complex characters make them seem real and are those with whom I can identify.

      Angels are on the way to you this morning ps

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