The Path to Deepening Your Protagonist

Experimenting with Your Protagonist's PersonalityProtagonists don’t write themselves. No character does. So why leave trait-choice up to the character?

Setting your protagonist’s complexities is the first step toward building a finely-tuned cast. Your protagonist is an instrument that carries the melody of your sympho… ahem, story. That instrument needs to be precisely tuned.

If you’re an intuitive writer, the character does get to determine some things. But for the good of the story, drag him through a BIT of reshaping and give him a plot-carrying tuning. Just look at what you know and shape from there.

Rational “builders” of characters will find this process more familiar. But you still probably have a starting point from which to shape the personality.

If you already have a process that’s working for you, do that. If you want to double-check with this, that’s cool too. If you’re still looking for a process that works, or if your usual isn’t pulling its weight this time around, feel free to adapt it to your needs or adopt it wholesale. There are no rules.

 But there are goals:

  • Make sure the character’s traits work together
  • Make sure the traits work well with the plot
  • Make sure a few of the traits form a theme
  • Make sure the theme works with the story theme
  • Make sure the cast works together


Not all of them will be primary goals today, since we’re only working with the protagonist.

First Steps

Later on, I’ll write a guide to building a plot around a character.

For now, we’re assuming you have a basic plot idea. I’m using Jack as an example. You can get the full rundown of his “tuning” by subscribing to my free Insider newsletter.

List what you already know about your protagonist. That may include the archetype, black & white or gray morality, hero or anti-hero, principles/values, and whether the character adheres strictly to one theme (hard-line or possibly caricature).

Consider researching what fits. For example I know Jack has a gambling problem, so I googled the risk factors. That helped determine his aspects and fill out his backstory.

I don’t usually go into profession, appearance, or dialect at this stage, because I don’t want those things to affect my choices. Those features are fairly superficial. Character consistency can generally be maintained, even when breaking profession/appearance/dialect cliches. Unexpectedly going against the “usual” is a large part of what makes characters memorable.

But You Should Know…

I go through this process almost instinctively, so putting it into words has been an enlightening challenge. It’s hard to give a written list the same flexibility that it has when I use it.

For instance, there are often multiple flaws. Not all of them have to pass every question of suitability as long as one does. You might have a foundational/suitable flaw, a challenging circumstance, a fear in disguise, and a flaw that also makes them likeable. Beyond that, not every aspect role needs to be filled for every protagonist.

(However, every aspect – multiple or not – should go through the Expansion questions.)

Just keep flexibility in mind.

Protagonist Questions

Next, there are two rounds of questions. The first checks the basic suitability of the potential aspect. If not, you need to pick a different aspect. The second expands the aspect to check if it’s strong enough to fill the role. (The aspects in question are the Cornerstones and Pillars.)

Suitability

Flaw:

  • Will this flaw hinder the character in pursuit of his storyline goal? (…That’s a good thing.)
  • Is this just a fear in disguise? (…That’s a bad thing.)
  • Is it just a circumstance (sickness, etc.) or is it something that that they might be rebuked for? (…A circumstance isn’t a flaw.)
  • Is it something they can overcome and erase from their personality during the course of the story? (….A foundational flaw should be permanent for the duration of the story.)
  • Does it double as a strength or make the character likeable? (…A flaw should NOT be beneficial.)

Fear:

  • Is it relevant to the plot?
  • Is it strong enough to motivate the character further into the storyline when the desire isn’t enough?
  • Is it just the opposite of the desire? (…It should stand on its own.)
  • Is it strong enough to force the character to make irrational and stupid moves?

Secret:

  • Can its keeping oppose the character’s other desires or goals?
  • Is the motivation to keep it strong enough to create real inner turmoil when it becomes necessary for the character to share?

Quirk:

  • Will it naturally make itself known in the course of the story?
  • Is this quirk symbolic of one of the other aspects or the backstory?
  • Does it contrast or complement another aspect?
  • Can it get the character in trouble or otherwise inconvenience him? (…Bonus points!)

Desire:

  • Is it just the intrinsic desire to avoid the fear?
  • Is this just the surface desire? If so, what’s the root?

Strength:

  • Does it parallel the flaw in any way? (…The two shouldn’t overlap unless you can explain it.)
  • Is this the known strength? If so, what’s the unknown strength?
  • Is there a downside to it? (…More bonus points!)

 Expansion

Flaw:

  • Why this flaw? (…Are you including it because it’s familiar? That’s not a bad thing unless it’s making you ignore unsuitability, or it’s the theme holding your character together.)
  • How can I define it more specifically?
  • How can I make the character more defective?
  • How can I use it to raise the stakes?
  • How can I use it to challenge the character in the plot?
  • How does the character feel about it?
  • How does it work with the other aspects?
  • How does it affect other characters; how do they react to it?

Fear:

  • Why this fear?
  • How can I make it stronger (in-story or before)?
  • How can I make it more relevant or tied in on more levels?
  • How can I define it more specifically?
  • How can I force the character into facing it?
  • What extra consequences can come from running away or facing it?
  • How does it work with the other aspects?
  • How does it affect other characters; how do they react to it?

Secret:

  • Why this secret?
  • How can I make it juicer?
  • What would make them want to reveal it?
  • How can I make it worse on them if they do?
  • Who else knows? How can that complicate things?
  • How will it affect how my character comes across to other characters and the reader?
  • How can I define it more specifically?
  • How does it work with the other aspects? (…It’s fine if it’s another aspect including flaw, circumstance or quirk.)

Quirk:

  • Why this quirk?
  • How can I define it more specifically?
  • How do other characters react to the quirk?
  • How does it work with the other aspects?

Desire:

  • Why this desire?
  • What plot-supporting obstacles could you put in the way?
  • What else does the character desire?
  • Do the desires conflict?
  • How do other characters support or oppose them?
  • How does it work with the other aspects?

Strength:

  • Why this strength?
  • How can I weaken it in light of the plot?
  • How does it affect other characters?
  • How does it work with the other aspects?

Now to Capture The Essence of the Human Mind

We constantly make decisions. And with every decision, there’s an option we reject. Sometimes it’s a tough call.

Inner conflict is a daily reality. Fortunately, most of us don’t have to deal with choosing between facing our greatest fear and watching our dearest desire slip away. If you’ve set it up right, your character is poised to have a choice of that magnitude. Preferably recurring throughout your story.

The setup can be through the existing nature of the aspects (like wanting to fly but being afraid of heights), or it can be created through obstacles in the plot.

The Key to Character Consistency and Cast Dynamics

If you’ve read The Four Pillars of Strong Characters, you know that I’m talking about the character theme.

The protagonist’s theme is central to the story. It interacts closely with the plot theme, and all the other character themes branch out from the protagonist.

You might choose to pick the theme first, or near the beginning of your process. And if you come across another theme as you progress, that’s perfect. Multiple character themes make for a more complex character. Just make sure they don’t completely contradict each other.

Keep an eye out for emerging patterns as you write. Character themes interact and help define how characters react to each other. Diverging themes create tension in allies, converging themes create confusion or grudging respect between enemies.

The Bit of Advice that Makes It All Work

How to Experiment with Your Protagonist's PersonalityDon’t get attached to any aspects. If the character doesn’t end up needing it as you write, drop it. Don’t force it into a story where it doesn’t fit.

Call it “Darling” and KILL IT.

On the other hand, you might discover new aspects along the way.

Don’t fight it. It’s part of the process. The experiment never ends. 

If you have any questions, please let me know. I’m sure I left out something that could make the process easier.

 

Download the Question List (PDF)

Download the Character Chart (PDF)

 

When they’re ready, my answers for Jack will be sent to my Insiders. It’s free, so sign up to get an extra dose of insight.

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About MJ Bush

Developmental Editor.
Founder of Writingeekery with 10,000 monthly readers.
I help writers like you master the craft.

Comments

  1. Wow! This is really incredible advice. I’m going to have to go through and look at all my characters objectively now. I know that at least one of them as a major character flaw that ends up driving the entire story – she has a hard time controlling her temper. But the others? Hmmmm.

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  2. Thanks for this very helpful character insight/info! It helped with my wip atm! :)

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  3. Shawn Farritor says:

    I like this! A very analytical step by step process of building a character. Very different process than what I have done!!! These tips have me thinking…hmmm.

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    • Thanks, Shawn. Honestly, it sounds a bit more analytical here than it is in practice. But there isn’t a way to convey the questions that I feel for other than to spell them out.

      Either way, I hope it helps. :)

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  4. And make sure that your character’s action stay consistent to his personality.

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  5. Okay question: can you deepen a protagonist’s personality even if it’s a short story?

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    • Absolutely, Gwenn. Ideally, the personality should be evident in every action, although that’s incredibly hard to achieve. But in every scene something should show. And if every scene shows something different, and sometimes multiple aspects in a scene, your character ends up deep and complex.

      It’s even possible in flash fiction. But really good flash works each sentence – each word! – to its limit, making room where there seems to be none.

      If you need help, just give me some details. =)

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  6. Thank you very much for those pdf, particularly for the Questions List. That will be useful. :-)

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  7. Ipshita Raj says:

    Thank you so very much! This post has been a really great help to tell me what to just remove and what to keep! Thanks again!

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  8. Hello. I found this extremely helpful in putting my ducks in a row. Luckily I had most of my ducks already, they were just, well, not in a row. One ducky that I’m missing however, is the “desire” aspect. Everything else fits together so perfectly- except my character has a lack of motivation. Her motives seem to only include her “fear” at the moment. Is this a big problem? I think so- I feel like it creates a lack of depth. I believe this stems from, perhaps making the protagonist too weak- even without the impending entrance of the antagonist. I can’t think of any strengths that I can give her that won’t conflict with- well, everything. Right now I’m trying to work it from the angle of the antagonist’s weakness, although she might not be well shaped enough to exploit that. : )

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    • So she needs a desire and a strength… Have you signed up to be an Insider? There are a couple worksheets that are delivered over the course of the first week that might help, and here soon I’ll be releasing a character mini-course to really guide you through the process.

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