Tag Archive: characters


Protagonist

The last couple of weeks, we’ve talked about our antagonist. I know. . . . You identify with your protagonist, not your antagonist. That’s natural. The protagonist is the good guy. In fact, don’t tell anybody, but in a lot of our work the protagonist is actually us. Oh, you didn’t realize we knew that?

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Yep, that swashbuckling hero or drop-dead gorgeous doll is very frequently the author. I don’t want to picture myself as the little skinny guy on the beach getting sand kicked in his face by the bully. I want to see myself as the handsome, macho lifeguard who steps in and chases the bully away. Since we find ourselves very interesting, we can’t wait to talk about ourselves. . . . Oops. I mean our protagonist.

Okay. It’s time to do just that. Conflict, primarily created by the antagonist, drives the story and keeps the reader turning the pages, but the protagonist IS the story. There would be no one trying to overcome the antagonist—and therefore no story—without the protagonist.

We said a couple of weeks ago that the antagonist doesn’t have to be a serial killer or a sadistic rapist. He just has to have a goal that’s in conflict with that of the protagonist. Likewise, the protagonist doesn’t have to be some kind of angel. He can be a colossal screw-up or annoy people. She can talk too much or spend too much time touching up her lipstick. In fact, if this character is some near-perfect vision, no one will be able to accept or identify with him or her. He or she must have warts. The main requirement is that he or she can win the reader’s sympathy.

Well, he or she must also have a worthy and positive goal. The goal probably isn’t apparent at first—even to the character. That usually begins to jell after the inciting incident, which we’ll discuss in a future issue. The point is he or she can’t be just wandering through life willy-nilly. And the goal must be positive.

For instance, the goal can’t be trying to avoid being obliterated in a nuclear explosion. That’s a negative goal, and it won’t make into a story. It’ll fall flat on its face.

On the other hand, joining a special ops team to go behind the lines in some rogue nation and destroy that nation’s ability to wage nuclear warfare is positive. The goal is to accomplish something, not merely to avoid something.

And our protagonist must be incapable of achieving the goal. Whoa. Wait a minute, David. This is the hero. He’s supposed to win. What are you talking about?

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Our protagonist cannot be Superman at the beginning of the story. There’s nowhere to go from there. He must start out as Clark Kent. Through his dealings with the antagonist he grows to become Superman, but he can’t start out that way.

If he had a battle with Lex Luthor at the beginning of our story, Lex Luthor would have to win. Our boy must have an arc, beginning in relative weakness but growing through the conflicts along the way to become stronger and stronger until he can defeat Lex Luthor.

One of the books I wrote which the publishing industry managed to miss out on was about a fourteen year old girl who lost her parents in the War Between the States and had to make her own way in life. But I had her start out being able to out-smart, out-shoot, and out-bluff everybody from page one. She defeated robbers, rapists, murderers, card sharks and all manner of bad guys right from the start of the book. No arc. No real conflict. No story.

Okay, so we’ve got this character in mind. Now we need to build a profile just like we did with our antagonist. This is where we make this character an identifiable person with his own distinct personality, character, habits and so forth. Our reader should be able to tell from this person’s behavior and manner who he or she is. This can be accomplished only through the building of a detailed profile. Refer to the things we discussed about the antag’s profile. The protag’s profile needs all those same things spelled out in detail.

Next week we’ll get into some of the other major characters. Meanwhile, have a good week.

Ø What differences do your antag and protag have in appearance, voice, manners, habits, and so forth?

Ø What flaws or weaknesses can you give your protag at the beginning of your story that he or she can overcome along the way?

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Antagonist’s Profile

Last week I mentioned that the characters in my earlier—and rejected—novels were all plastic, one-dimensional characters who looked, acted and sounded like me. Sound familiar? Surely I’m not the first writer to make that mistake.

Since I neither smoke nor drink, none of my characters ever lit a cigarette or had a drink, but they all ate frequently and drank a lot of coffee—just like me. Fascinating as I may consider myself to be, apparently readers not looking for stories populated with David clones.

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Okay, how do we avoid that? We’re going to have to create interesting characters with their own identities and personalities. Their personalities and backgrounds are going to have to contain the seeds for their behavior in the story.

It may help to visualize a movie star or other public figure when we create a character. In fact, lets go to IMDb and find a photo of the person we’re thinking of, and lets put that picture at the beginning of the character’s profile. There’s no law that says we must do that, but at Warrior Writers’ Boot Camp, we’ve discovered this can be a big help in keeping a character in focus.

Okay, so we’ve got a photo. What else? What is our character’s height and weight? Eye color? Hair color? These physical characteristics can affect his behavior and thinking. If he or she is small or ugly or fat or skinny, that could result in a chip on the shoulder that makes him or her mean, testy or defensive.

Let’s build some personal history, too. Any siblings? Single-parent family? Father beats the mother? Loving aunt or uncle of particular importance? All of these things affect a child growing up, and we need to see where our character’s behavior comes from. We probably need a page or more of this background information before we proceed.

How about mannerisms? Does this person always let a cigarette burn until the ashes fall off without flicking them into an ashtray? Wave hands to illustrate or emphasize oral communication? Squint or blink a lot? We can use these little mannerisms to make this guy distinct and separate from our other characters.

How about fears? What things keep him awake at night? Prevent him from taking an action he may want or need to take? Drive him to do things he maybe shouldn’t do?

What are his dreams?

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Does he see himself in a multi-million dollar mansion? Owning a private island with a bevy of women serving him? Running a criminal empire? What moves him and gives him long-term motivation?

What are his stressors? A stressor is something that triggers a fear or a reminder of some important bad experience. If our guy grew up in an abusive family, seeing someone yell at or strike a child might be a stressor. If he grew up in abject poverty, old run-down shacks or clothes with holes in them could be stressors. These things will cause a strong reaction in our character.

How about his manner? Is he boisterous and obnoxious? Quiet and calculating? Kind? Polite? Rude?

What is his inner conflict? What does he really want to do or really want to be but he can’t because . . .

What are his goals? NY Times Best-selling Author Bob Mayer (http://writeitforward.wordpress.com/) suggests asking these three questions: What does he want? What does he really want? What does he really, really want? We should have three different answers to these questions, each a little more revealing about our character.

What blind spot prevents him from being able to see his path clearly?

What is his main problem in the story?

We might be able to come up with a few more things to put into his profile, but this gets us a pretty good sketch to work with. One of the things we accomplish by building this profile is that we can see in the course of writing our story what sorts of things this person would or would not do. Anyone who will be involved in beta-reading or critiquing your novel should have access to this profile to help you stay within the character’s personality and behavior.

How about our other characters? Let’s talk about them next week.

Ø Think about the cast of your favorite television show. What things so completely identify one character as opposed to another that you don’t even have to see them to know which is which?

Ø What things can you do to create such distinctive identities for your characters?

Antagonists

If you ask the typical layman who the most important person in a story is, he would probably say the hero, or protagonist. A lot of writers would say that, too. Until we got into Warrior Writers’ Boot Camp, yours truly would have been among them.

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We would have been wrong. The protagonist is the person we want our readers to love and identify with. He or she is the person we want the reader to pull for—the person we all want to see win. But the protagonist does not drive the story.

That’s the job of the antagonist. His or her agenda is at cross purposes with that of our protagonist, and that is where the conflict comes in.

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When we first began talking about antagonists at WWBC, we all had the idea this person had to be a mass murderer or serial rapist—or at least the guy in the old movies who always tied the heroine to the railroad tracks. Had to have a skinny handlebar moustache and skulk around going “Bwa-ha-ha!” in an evil voice.

Not so. An antagonist can be Adolph Hitler or John Wayne Gacy or the Unibomber, but he doesn’t have to be. An antagonist is simply the person whose agenda conflicts with that of the protagonist, causing the conflict that drives the story.

In the movie Double Jeopardy Ashly Judd is the protagonist. She was framed by her husband to take the fall for killing him. Knowing she was innocent, she figured he wasn’t really dead, and when she was paroled from prison she set out to try to find him and either exonerate herself or kill him.

Tommy Lee Jones is the antagonist. He’s not a serial killer or anything like that. He’s her parole officer. When she violates her parole, he goes after her. Not a bad guy—just a man doing a legitimate job. But his job is at cross-purposes with Judd’s agenda, which makes him the antagonist and creates the conflict driving the story.

In the movie You’ve Got Mail Meg Ryan is the protagonist. She owns a small independent bookstore and just wants to run her own business and maybe find love.

Tom Hanks, the antagonist, is not a villain. He just happens to run a family-owned chain of bookstores that puts independents out of business whenever it comes into a neighborhood. When he begins exchanging emails with Meg Ryan, he has no nefarious scheme in mind. He’s also seeking love, just like she is. Two basically good guys with conflicting agendas that drive a good story.

Your antagonist may be a thoroughly despicable criminal, like Alan Arkin in Wait Until Dark, or Patrick McGoohan in Silver Streak, but he or she doesn’t have to be. All that’s needed is that the antagonist must have a goal or purpose that keeps the protagonist from achieving his or her goal.

Since our antagonist is the driving force of the story—the one that makes the reader continue to turn pages—we need to be careful in designing his or her character. No room for playing by ear here.

Remember those seven novels I told you about? The ones the publishing industry failed to snap up and turn into mega-million sellers? Want to know how I built my antagonist in those stories? I didn’t.

That’s right. I didn’t. I just sat down and began to write the stories, giving little or no thought to what kind of people my characters were. I ended up with plastic, one-dimentional characters who all looked, acted and sounded like me.

To avoid making this blog too long, we’ll wait until next week to talk about how to build an antagonist with his or her own character traits. Someone with his or her own distinct personality, who doesn’t look just like you or like your other characters.

Have a good week, and we’ll meet again next Monday.