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Amy LeTourneur

Amy LeTourneur

Three Steps for Creating a Captivating Protagonist

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What is a protagonist?  

Your protagonist is, without a doubt, the most important character in your story.

According to Dictionary.com, a protagonist is “the leading character, hero, or heroine of a drama or other literary work.”

The protagonist, also called the main character (or MC), is the central character in your story. She’s the one the novel is built around, the character who will appear most often within its pages, and (hopefully) the one your reader will be most drawn to.

Character Creation 101

Creating your MC is one of the most important steps of the novel-writing process, and it can feel overwhelming. So I’ve broken it down into three easy steps for you.

(Note: To simplify things, I’ll be using “she” and “her” throughout this post. If that pronoun doesn’t apply to your character, then just do a little switcheroo in your head. 😊)

1. Give her a flaw…and maybe more than one.

As writers, we love our characters, so it’s hard to give them flaws and limitations that make them seem anything but perfect. Because, in our eyes, they kind of are. I mean, we created them, so that’s understandable.

But here’s the thing about characters…just like real live human beings, they’re not perfect. At least, they shouldn’t be. Readers have a hard time connecting with characters who drift through life without a hair out of place. They’re just not realistic…and, truth be told, they’re a little annoying. Nobody likes Little Miss Perfect. Nobody.  

Even worse, perfect characters are one-dimensional. Or, to put it more bluntly…boring. And these flat characters don’t often compel readers to keep turning the pages.   

But beyond that, your MC’s flaw is a key element in your story. Her weaknesses and missteps not only add depth and dimension to her, but they can also be the driving force behind the plot.

For example, in my novel, Kaleidoscope, my protagonist, AJ’s, main flaw is that he refuses to process his grief over his mother’s death. He lurks in the anger stage for months, leading to trouble in school, broken relationships, and eventually to him being arrested. (No more details, though…I hate spoilers!)

AJ’s flaw (anger) leads to his actions (committing the crime) which leads to the consequences (being arrested) which ultimately leads to the climax of the story. Plot points galore!

But none of them would have happened if AJ was just a happy-go-lucky teenage boy who never did anything wrong.

So give this some thought. How can you make your protagonist more relatable (or at least more believable) to readers? What flaws can you give her that will not only make the story more interesting, but they may actually drive the plot?  

My favorite resource for finding my characters’ flaws is The Emotional Wound Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. This fabulous book not only supplies you with a plethora of negative traits and weaknesses to choose from, it also provides insight into the emotional wounds that cause them. In order to create a realistic MC, you need to understand what makes her tick, and this book gives you all the answers. It definitely earns its spot on my “Must Read” list!

(That list will be in Friday’s post, so don’t miss it!)

2. Give her a unique voice.

Have you ever read a line of dialogue and knew immediately which character was talking without even needing to glance at the dialogue tag?

That’s a character with her own unique voice. But what are the elements that make a voice stand out from the crowd?  

Think about your own voice for a second. Or, better yet, pull out your phone and record yourself as you read a paragraph or two of this post. Then listen to the playback and take note of your voice’s characteristics.

Are your words clearly enunciated, or do you tend to mumble? Is your tone business-like or conversational? Is your voice high or deep (or somewhere in between)? Keep these things in mind as you begin to craft your protagonist’s voice. Unless it’s very different from most human voices (think Gollum from Lord of the Rings), you don’t want to include too many unique characteristics. Just choose one or two that set your MC’s voice apart from the rest of the characters.

Another thing to consider is where your protagonist lives (or where she grew up if she’s a recent transplant into your story’s setting). Many regions – both in the US and in countries around the world – have their own distinct accents. If your MC lives in one of these locales, then your reader will expect her to have the accent typical to that area, and including it will add a layer of dimension to your protagonist’s voice.

These days, with our ability to stream international shows and movies at a moment’s notice, we’ve become familiar with a whole new array of interesting accents. So no matter which one your MC has, chances are your reader will be able to “hear” it in their heads as they’re reading her dialogue.

 

But there’s more to your protagonist’s voice than just the way it sounds. Her choice of words is equally important. Just as with accents, every region also has its own slang and common phrases. For example, in much of the US, people say “you guys” to address a group of people, but in the South, they say “y’all.” In Chicago, it’s “you’s” (or “you’s guys”), and here in my neck of the woods, people often say “yins” (which I think is a shortened version of “you ones” or “you’uns”).  

The same is true for names of objects. Here in the East, we call soda…well, soda…but in much of the Midwest, it’s pop. In Georgia, all sodas are called Coke regardless of their actual brand name, and over in the UK, they call them fizzy drinks.

Including local terminology and quirky phrases adds depth and interest to both your character and your setting. So do a little research into the region where your MC lives or grew up to learn about the accent and the vernacular its people use.

Bonus tip – Build a Voice Database

I know this sounds weird, but a voice database is actually a very valuable resource for a writer. Unless you’re writing a series, every book you write will have a new protagonist with her own unique voice…one you’ll have to create out of the blue. “Collecting” voices ahead of time makes this task easy-peasy. Here’s how you do it:

Go sit in your favorite coffee shop or eatery or wherever else floats your boat and just listen to the voices all around you. This is a great way to immerse yourself in the local vernacular, so jot down any unique phrases or slang terms you hear. And when a distinctive voice catches your ear, take note of its characteristics. Is it sharp or lilting? Mousy or bossy? Lightning fast or slow as molasses? Take notes of what you hear to “collect” these voices. Then the next time you’re creating a character, just peruse your database to see if anything in your collection suits her.   

3. Get to know her.

Knowing your character…and I mean down to the last detail…allows you to write her in a way that will make her as real to your reader as any living, breathing human being. And not only that, but it makes a world of difference when it comes to plotting your novel (which is arguably the hardest part of the writing process!).

I won’t get into plotting right now (that’s a whole other ball of wax), but to help you with this step, I’ve written a four-page Character Creation Worksheet. Just click HERE to download this FREE printable PDF to your computer, and then you’ll be able to print it out as many times as you need to.

That’s all for today! I hope this post is helpful to you as you create the protagonist for your novel. Take a sec to introduce yourself in the comments below, and tell me: What makes your protagonist captivating?

XO

Missed my latest posts?

Love to daydream? Then don’t miss tomorrow’s post, when I’ll talk about how valuable daydreaming is for a writer. 

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