Friday, February 20, 2015

The Art of Storytelling P. 2: Crafting Memorable & Likable Protagonists

Last week, we discussed the definition of the art of storytelling, as well as the three basic ingredients that build a story. Today we're going to discuss one of my favorite aspects of writing: Creating the protagonist. 

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First, if you really want to learn how to craft an intriguing main character, here's what I would advise:

Write a list of your favorite main characters. Then ask yourself:
  1. What is it that I find intriguing about these characters?
  2. What are their strengths and weaknesses?
  3. How are they different from the protagonist of other books? What sets them apart?
  4. How can I relate to this character? And is that why I like them so much? 
  5. What qualities do they possess that make them likable? 
Every element of a book -- the setting, protagonist, and the plot -- plays a specific role in storytelling. 

But out of all of these components, the protagonist is probably the most important ingredient

If your book has a nice setting and a strong plot but an under-developed main character, then your reader won't care what happens to the protagonist. They won't be interested in following their journey.

So how can you craft your protagonist in a way that is compelling and draws your reader into the story?

I highly advise that you get to know your character before you set out to write their journey. Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:

    1. Protagonists need to be likable (or at least sympathetic).

If your character is unlikeable, it's important that you at least give your reader a reason to feel sympathy towards them.

Saving Mr. Banks movie still
In the movie Saving Mr. Banks, the protagonist, P.L. Travers, could come across as unlikeable. However, since her backstory is woven throughout the film, the viewers understand that she is not an "evil person"; rather, there is a reason as to why she is the way she is. 

As her backstory progresses, the viewers begin to feel sympathy towards her. (Another thing to note is that, even though she might not be a friendly person, the screenwriters showed her personality in a way that came across as humorous rather than harsh.)  

Whether or not your protagonist is naturally likable or unlikable at the beginning, your readers should understand why they behave the way that they do and why they make certain choices. 

To craft a likable character, give them admirable traits, such as: humility, self-lessness, optimistic, etc.

However, keep in mind that your main character should not be perfect. They need flaws as well, which brings us to point #2:

    2. Protagonists need strengths and weaknesses.

Although your main character should be likable, they should not be perfect. Give them flaws. Show that they are human. Doing this will help enable your readers to relate to them, and it will help your character to come across as realistic.

However, be careful that your protagonist doesn't come across as weak either. Although they should definitely grow and become stronger by the end of the book, show a bit of this strength at the beginning.

For instance, here's one comment I received by a reviewer for my novel, Purple Moon (via Amazon):
Selena from my novel, Purple Moon

"I was immediately drawn to Selena and her plight, she was honest and easy to relate to. She wasn't perfect, she had her struggles and her flaws and it would have been easy to make her someone to pity, but she had a certain spark and strength that truly brought her to life."

When crafting your protagonist, keep in mind that when it comes to strengths and weaknesses, it's all about balance. You don't want them to come across as pitiful or weak, but you also don't want them to be perfect, either. 

    3. Protagonists should be relatable (to your readers as well as yourself).

Readers like to identify with the character they’re reading about. They want to feel a connection with them. To establish this connection, give them similar struggles and insecurities that your reader might be dealing with as well.

This is my favorite part about writing a book: Connecting personally with my main character, and finding ways for her to connect with my readers also. 

When I went into writing Purple Moon, I wanted to craft a protagonist that could easily identify with the majority of teens. 

To do this, I gave her several of my own struggles, insecurities, passions, etc. (Fortunately, that connection came across, because the one comment that I receive the most on Purple Moon is that Selena seems genuine and relatable.)  

I'm not saying that your protagonist should be an exact replica of yourself; however, it is possible to identify with your character, even if she is the complete opposite from you. 

Give her a similar personality. Or hobbies. Or style. Or family dynamics. Then, while you're writing, try to bring out this connection as much as you can. 

Not only will doing this cause your protagonist to come across as realistic and relatable, but it is also a very fun way to express yourself through your characters. =) 

    4. Protagonists need to be unique in their voice, interests/hobbies, dialect, as well as their style.

There are so many books on the shelves today. How in the world are we going to craft a protagonist that is unique, one that stands out in the crowd?

Well, think about it: There are no two humans alive today that are an exact replica of another.
photo credit: Frauen via photopin (license)
We all have different backstories. God has given each of us a certain appearance, personality, family dynamics, dreams, passions, hobbies. We each have a specific way that we speak, a unique way that we dress, certain behaviors and mannerisms, habits and quirks, etc. 

Filling out a character chart might help to organize the details of your protagonist, however it's not going to truly bring them to life. 

When you want to really get to know a person, do you read a fact sheet about them? Or would you rather have a conversation with them over coffee?

If you truly want to craft a unique protagonist, it's important to first get to know your character by sitting down and having coffee with them. Allow them to speak to you, to come to life in your own imagination first. 

photo credit: P1000156 via photopin (license)

Then, when you write, highlight on the specific details that sets your character apart and shows who they are. (Do they wear the same key necklace every day? Do they have a strange obsession with rocks? Do they only listen to 80s music?)

Doing this is the only way you will be able to craft a genuine, unique, and 3-dimensional character.

    5. Protagonists need a backstory.

photo credit: Katie T via photopin
Every person that we meet has a story

Our history--the things we have struggled with, the decisions that we have made, the people we have met, the places we have seen--they all contribute to the person that we are today. 

There's a reason why that man is afraid of flying: Maybe his parents were killed in a plane crash when he was younger. There's a reason why that teenage girl won't wear a bathing suit: Maybe she was bullied for being "fat" as a kid. There's a reason why that college student is afraid of dating: Maybe she was in an abusive relationship as a teen.

Just like real life, it's hard to really understand why a person is the way that they are until you hear them speak about their past. 

So when you're crafting your protagonist, begin with their backstory. That way you will see how their past has shaped them into the person they are today.  

 à Conclusion:

Readers fall in love with characters. I don't remember every plot twist of Anne of Green Gables, but I do remember the red-headed, optimistic, and imaginative orphan girl who was in love with stories. 

One great way to create 3-dimensional characters is by "studying" the people around you (in a non-creepy way ... haha!). Why do you like the people that you like? What are their flaws? Insecurities? Habits? Are there any unique traits or quirks that they have? What are their mannerisms?

If you want to craft characters that stay with your readers long after they've read your book, I would recommend spending as long as you can developing a protagonist that comes to life, one that will be unique, memorable, likable, relatable, and realistic. 

It is only when you really get to know your protagonist(s) should you then begin to write their story. 

! Challenge: In the comments, discuss your favorite characters by answering the questions presented at the beginning of this post. Be sure to respond to other comments as well!

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1 comment:

  1. Hi!
    I really like your blog. I love writing too. I hope you check my blog out and follow by email.
    I hope you leave a comment too! God bless you!


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