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:
- The Superficial Appearance. Just as the title implies this is the “wanted poster” description. We’re talking height, weight, hair color, eye color, distinguishing scars, etc. But, wait, you just can’t tick off a list of features. That’s a surefire way of creating a snooze-fest for your readers. Its much better to incorporate those bits of description in your narrative. For example: your heroine is at the supermarket and is trying reach the top shelf. You might say something like, “Mary stretched her five foot-two frame to its maximum, stood on tip toes, and reached until she felt her arm would dislocate from the socket, but still could not grasp the bag of flour with her six fingered right hand.” Here you have two features mentioned in one sentence all within the context of a snippet of action. You don’t have to include a complete description within the confines of one paragraph. You don’t necessarily have to completely describe you character in one chapter. But, it’s best to include all you want your audience to know physically about your character early on.
- How Others See The Protagonist. You generally take great stock in how others see you and think of you. And you should exhibit the same care regarding your protagonist. In other words, how do you want your protagonist to be seen by other characters? Do you want your character to be seen as dynamic and powerful? Then write a dynamic action scene in which your character saves a child in a dramatic way. Your reader’s respect for your protagonist will accelerate through the roof. Or perhaps, you want that character to be seen as heartless. Easy. Have them walk away from a situation where a modicum of charity could make them likable. Let’s go back to that example of Mary at the supermarket. You could write something like this: “Mary caught, out of the corner of her eye, the vision of a tall, kind faced man approaching. He was heart-quickening handsome. A sympathetic smile widened his lips. She quickly brought her right hand down, covered it with her left, and hurriedly looked down at her feet.” Your main character has evoked pity from another character. You can now use this to let your reader learn more about your protagonist.
- How The Protagonist Sees Herself. One thing that we generally want to hide from other is how we truly see ourselves. If we’re completely honest, we can be self depreciating to the point of viciousness. Self doubt reigns even if we are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company making a salary in the high six figures. In your novel you have to dig deep to understand your main character’s faults and self doubts. This makes your protagonist more well rounded and more sympathetic. One way to mine your protagonist’s depth is to write a brief one to two page biography. Another way is to have your protagonist write a letter to a friend, family member, or past lover laying bare all of her concerns and shortcomings that she’s encountered over the years. No all of this necessarily has to find its way into your novel, but you’ll have a fuller understanding of your protagonist and likely write a better book. You can expose those problems through internal monologue, with backstory, or through action. Let’s again go to our supermarket heroine. She’s encountered the handsome stranger and is embarrassed over her polydactyly. You could have her engage in some internal monologue that might go something like this: “He saw it! Damn you Mom. Why couldn’t you just have had my hand fixed like any normal mother would. Oh, no, you had to follow that crazy religion. No doctors. No medical care. God will fix it. Well, guess what, Mom, God didn’t fix it.” Giving your character a flaw, whether physical or psychological, allows you to create a character arc. I’ll cover this in another blog.
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.