Gail Anderson-Dargatz  

Resources for Writers

On Getting to Know Your Characters

Protagonist is a fancy word for hero, the main character of your story. While there will be other characters in your project, the hero or protagonist is the one the story is about. But it’s not always easy to figure out who your protagonist really is. We often make our “protagonist” a stand-in for ourselves, the writer (even to the point of giving our protagonist the occupation of writer). This can be a problem as writers are very often observers. We stand back and watch, and report, but hesitate to step forward to participate. In short, we tend to avoid conflict. That’s often a good thing in real life. It’s a bad thing on the page. Our job as writers is to make things hard on our protagonists and to throw them into their conflict at every turn. So, you want to make sure you choose a protagonist who is going to repeatedly get themselves in trouble.
As you’re deciding on a hero for your story, here are a few things to consider on that front:Cat Chasing Mouse

Your protagonist needs to be less (much less) than perfect.
Apprentice writers often feel they need to make their hero or protagonist “likable.” And, of course, it’s useful to have a character that readers can relate to or come to feel attached to. A reader needs to care about your character, or they simply won’t read on. But that doesn’t mean you want to create a hero who is “perfect,” who always does the right thing.
Instead, you want a hero who not only has quirks but is flawed. Your hero or protagonist needs to face one challenge after another, and their personality flaws should either cause the problems in the first place or get in the way of solving them.

Is your hero vain or arrogant? Hot-tempered? Are they irresponsible or have bad or potentionally dangerous habits? Maybe they have some growing up to do. Or an old emotional wound that has never quite healed. Do they feel guilty for something they did in the past? Or are they simply unsure of themselves?
For example, in my novel Iggy’s World, Iggy doesn’t feel he’s a part of his (nearly) famous family, so he tries to get famous himself, which only proves to make things worse.
The difficulties your hero faces and the flaws in their personality will drive the story. Very often we’re our own worst enemies, tripping ourselves up through the decisions we make. That’s what you want in a protagonist.
IggysWorld3Your protagonist must want something.
What does your protagonist want or desire? To get rich? To find a lost family member? To win the game? To find friends? To impress the girl? To find acceptance? In my novel Iggy’s World, Iggy wants to feel accepted by his family, his father, and to find others who share his interest in bugs. All the events in the book spring from these two wants or desires.
Being clear on what your protagonist's goals are is the key to finding conflict and plot. We’re talking story goals here. Readers read on to find out if a character will reach their goals. So, you need to be sure about what your protagonist wants and make those goals compelling. If you’re unclear about what your character wants, your project will flounder as the storyline wanders and then fizzles out. We’ll talk more about this in the unit called Developing Conflict and Structure.
Your protagonist must have something they need to learn.
What the character wants is one thing. What the character needs is quite another. What’s the life lesson this character needs to learn? Most often that’s at odds with what they think they want. For example, my character Iggy wants to become famous so his family and other people will like him. What he needs is to learn that he’s already a part of his family and they do accept him as he is. More to the point, he needs to accept himself the way he is.
This one is all about theme. When you know what your character needs to learn, you know your theme. The theme of Iggy’s World: outside validation isn't important. We need to like ourselves as we are.
Once you know what your protagonist needs to learn, you’ll also start to get a sense of how they will change.
Your protagonist needs to change throughout the events of the story.
How does Iggy change in my story? He comes to accept who he is and keeps doing his podcast because he loves talking about bugs. He’s no longer chasing fame in order to find status and acceptance.
Here’s Ten Traits of a Great Protagonist from Fiction University.

Resource Categories

Blogs on Craft

On the Building Blocks of Fiction

Tips on how to craft vivid scene that allows the reader to experience events right along with the characters.

On Finding Your Big Idea

Insights into the writing process and what a writer's day really looks like, as well as perspectives on research and writing from real life.

On Getting to Know Your Characters

Advice on the many ways you can make your characters come alive on the page for both you and your reader.

On Deciding on Point of View

What is the best perspective from which to tell your story? Writers discuss how they made choices on point of view and voice.

On Choosing Your Situation and Setting

Writers talk about how they use situation and setting to build story and convey emotion.

On Developing Conflict and Structure

From how to work in different genres to finding the real story, writers offer good advice on building conflict and structure.

On Revising

Tips on how to gain distance from your work and to how to re-imagine your next draft.

On Publishing

Writers offer practical advice on the business of writing and promotion, and on the importance of finding a writing community.

On Making a Living as a Writer

Writers offer words of wisdom on living on less.

On The Writer's Life

Writers talk about their life as a writer.

About Gail

Gail's novels have been national and international bestsellers and two have been short-listed for the Giller Prize, among other awards. She works with writers from around the world on her online teaching forums.