Nobody’s perfect. How often have you heard that old saw? The thing about sayings like this is they’re generally true. And when it comes to creating the main character of your novel you should definitely keep this in mind. As you put together the character that will dominate your story, you should construct her with one or more flaws. There are several reasons to not have a perfect protagonist.
Protagonists with character flaws are more realistic. Bet you’ve never gotten to know someone well without discovering a few warts. Besides, perfect heroes are pretty dull. Ever watch a movie in which the hero is always righteous and upstanding? At some point you were probably glad each time the villain make his appearance on the screen.
The primary reason you want a main character with flaws is it gives you a better opportunity to create a character arc. A character arc is the change in your main character over the course of your story. Its also called an inner journey. She starts out as one type of person and as the story develops we see the character slowly become a different person. Typically, we see the character grow. She matures. Becomes more complex, perhaps more sophisticated.
By giving your main character a flaw you set her up for an inner journey to overcome that shortcoming. Let’s look at an example from a previous blog. A couple of weeks back I talked about making your main character three dimensional. (See the previous blog “See Your Protagonist Through 3-D Glasses“.) In that blog I gave an example of a character with polydactyly (an extra finger). She is angry at her mother for not correcting the deformity when she was a child and is so ashamed of it that she’s reluctant to become romantically involved with anyone. You could in the course of the story have her meet someone who doesn’t care about her deformity and as a result she comes to realize that true love cares more about a person’s inner beauty. Maybe a little cheesy, but you get the idea.
Of course, we see character arc in many classic novels. In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov, a murderer transforms into a man of moral conviction to the point that in the end he turns himself in to the authorities. In Hugo’s Les Miserables, Jean Valjean starts out as a violent criminal only to become a loving, caring father.
In my recent medical thriller, The Peril Protocol, my protagonist, Hope Allerd, starts out consumed with hatred for the murderer of her parents, then for the murderer of hospital personnel. Over the course of the novel she must come to terms with this shortcoming to save her life.
By giving your protagonist a character flaw they must overcome you create a richer, deeper, and more interesting hero. I wish you good writing.
As a kid I enjoyed watching cartoons. One in particular that held my childish attention was “Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties”. In each episode Dudley, a not very bright member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, bumbled and stumbled into defeating his arch nemesis, Snidley Whiplash. On his initial appearance, old Snidley, with black suit replete with cape, black top hat, shifty eyes and curlicue mustache leaves no doubt that he is the bad guy.
This is fine for cartoons, but in your novel your villain should be a well-rounded character, one that your reader will recognize as a fully developed, three-dimensional human being. In other words, you should spend nearly as much time developing your antagonist and you do on your protagonist. If you’re not sure how to do this, see my previous blog: “See Your Protagonist Through 3-D Glasses”.
Not too long ago, I was talking with my pastor and the discussion drifted into people’s motivations and why some people did bad things. Drawing on my fiction writing experience I offhandedly said, “Everyone is the hero of his own story.” Some time later I think he used that quote in one of his sermons.
The point of that little anecdote is even your villain should see himself as the hero of his story. His motivations, although seen from the point of view of the protagonist and the audience as evil, must make sense to him and, to a certain extent, appear in his eyes as pure and constructive. This requires you to get inside your villain’s head and figure out why he acts the way he does.
Of course, this requires a certain amount of work on your part as writer to make your villain a 3-D character, one with a background that has molded him into the person you present in your novel.
Interestingly enough, as I write this blog a documentary on Hitler is playing on the TV. His background as an abused child, a failed artist, and a heroic soldier, who fought in a lost cause and came to blame antagonistic internal political forces for Germany’s defeat, paints a more complete portrait of the evil dictator. Learning of all of this I can almost see why Hitler came to become who he was.
Your job is to make your antagonist a complete person; one we can almost empathize with, one that is dynamic and believable. Do this and your novels will be much more interesting.
Perhaps the most essential component of your novel is not plot, nor setting, nor action, but your main character or protagonist. You can have the most intricate plot, the most exotic setting, and spine-tingling action, but without your main character to interact within all of this things would fall pretty flat. Let’s face it, without your main character you have no story.
So, how do you create your main character? What you don’t want to do is have a caricature. For example, in your action adventure novel your square jawed, clear eyed hero takes on a half dozen muscle bound bad guys in a dark alley and dispatches them all while hardly breaking a sweat or getting a wrinkle in his $1500 suit. Or, in your police procedural your cerebral detective deduces the identity of the killer with a cursory scan of crime scene and a superficial interview of a few witnesses. Unless your goal is satire, those type of protagonists sound pretty unrealistic.
To have a well-rounded main character it’s a good idea to develop him or her on three levels. The three I use are: the superficial appearance, how others see the protagonist, and how the protagonist sees herself. These three areas, if done right, will give you a well rounded main character. Let’s look at each in some detail:
Before you begin writing your novel it might be a good idea to sit down and define your main character with these three parameters. You’ll get to know that character much better and you’ll exhibit greater depth in your writing.