Creating an Compelling Character

The main character of your book is key to both the story itself and to your readers’ enjoyment. An interesting hero will keep readers turning pages and bring them back to your book again and again.

It’s the centerpiece of your story. The source of all reader satisfaction and dismay, and it might not be what you think.

World-building, romance, a good antagonist, and epic battles are all important to telling a good story, but at the end of the day, people want to read books about people. That’s why a strong protagonist is an absolute must for all-powerful stories.

Used here, strong means to describe the realism and depth of the protagonist, not their physical or emotional strength. Some of the best characters ever written actually start out lacking in one of these areas, and it’s that growth that makes their story so engaging.

Here are three activities to help you make sure you don’t end up with a flat, cookie-cutter character, but with a strong protagonist to drive your story.

A great way to get your protagonist off to a strong start is to build them a profile of interests, values, flaws, and abilities. Build a list of traits for your character using the list below, and you’ll have a solid foundation to start with.

Choose one interest:
Give your protagonist something to love! It can really be anything, as long as it aligns with his or her core values, i.e., a deeply religious protagonist probably wouldn’t have an interest in artistic vandalism.

It is advisable to make it something that fits into your story. For instance, you can make your protagonist seem more human by giving them a love of playing piano, but it won’t do much for readers if he or she never comes across a piano in the story.

Choose two core values:
Core values are (seemingly) unshakable beliefs your protagonist holds, at least at the beginning of the story. One of the most powerful storytelling devices is challenging those beliefs, but we’ll get to that later.

For now, pick two things your character believes in, that matter to him or her more than anything. Examples of these values include: religion, spirituality, family, revenge, justice, community service, advancement in a business and so on.

Choose one character flaw:
Make something wrong with them! It doesn’t necessarily need to have anything to do with morals either. A flaw is just an aspect of a character’s personality that creates challenges for them in the plot, and as such should have something to do with the conflict.

An example of an effective character flaw would be giving your protagonist the need to handle problems alone in a situation where others’ skill sets are needed. Your protagonist’s growth towards accepting help as they fail to conquer obstacles on their own makes for an interesting journey.

An ineffective character flaw would be to make your protagonist bad at math in an adventure story where the conflict revolves around a quest. It wouldn’t necessarily lead to failure, or challenges. Your character might never fail or experience adversity, which would make for a very boring story.

Choose one change to your Protagonist Profile:
This change is something that should be sprinkled throughout the story, through many minor conflicts like the alleyway experiment above. As the story goes on, your protagonist should question one of their core values, or perhaps gain a new one. They might act in a way that defies their flaw.

Your protagonist can grow, or devolve. There are endless possible paths he or she can take, but the key is to make sure your protagonist is not the exact same person at the end of your story that they were at the start.

This is just one method of piecing together the aspects of a strong protagonist. If you build them a Profile, then put them through a minor conflict, and make sure they change, you’ll have a great place to start.

Remember, the plot revolves around your protagonist’s conflict. Make sure they aren’t defined by one trait. Make sure they are a strong character, and the story should follow.
My fictions have appeared in numerous publications, including Saturday Evening Post, New Millenniums Writings, Blue Earth Review, Micro Monday, R-KV-R-Y, Funny in Five Hundred, Blue Lake Magazine, Adanna Literary, Dying Dahlia Review, 34th Parallel Magazine, Off the Rocks, and others. The News was on stage at a Chicago Theater. I was a recipient of a fellowship and grant from the Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Prose, and two of stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Also, my book of my stories placed semi-finalist from Elixir Press.

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