Guest Post: Bolstering the Protagonist

by - 8:00 PM

Every story needs a central character. Sure it can branch out, encompass dozens of characters, but there needs to be one identifiable person at the heart of the story, the reader's guide into the new world. They don’t have to be that for long, you might even kill them off early into the story (George R.R. Martin would be proud), but that singular perspective to orient the reader is essential. To keep the reader interested, it’s more than just being the “protagonist” because the plot demands it.

Here are some elements I’ve found while conceptualizing and writing Urban Legend that are sure-fire ways to amp up your central characters.

Being Likable is Overrated
If a reader or editor says they didn’t like your story based on the fact that your character wasn’t “likable”, then simply nod, smile, and then never think of that critique ever again. Saying something isn’t likable is literally the most pointless piece of advice anyone can give for the incredibly simple reason that everyone likes different things! Likable is as subjective as it gets and you as an author don't need to be subjected to such subjugation.

Some people like the flawless leader, incorruptible, always ready to rescue kittens and old ladies from burning buildings while keeping his coif perfectly managed. I find that boring. Save for rare exceptions (#TEAMCAP!), that kind of character is uninspiring. Give me a character who has made terrible mistakes, who learns from them, makes more mistakes avoiding those past failures, and holds on by sheer strength of will to keep from falling apart and giving up. And maybe they do that too. That's the kind of character I love reading about, so without surprise, that's the kind of character I like writing about too. There is a whole spectrum of qualities characters can draw from, and not everyone will like them. But some will.

Take my wife’s book for instance (warning, shameless spousal plug ahead): On the Way to Simple has the main character Dakota and her best friend Kaylee as two of the central characters. Take a gander at the reviews and you might be surprised. Jennifer Acres has hit a sort of “blue dress/white dress” phenomenon with those two characters because every other review has polar opposite reactions to each of them. Some say the POV character Dakota was annoying and Kaylee was more fun and wished it had more of her. Then scroll a couple reviews down and see how another reader absolutely loved and identified with Dakota while finding Kaylee to be a bit much.

No two people read the same book, everyone sees the world through their own lens, and what is likable to one is potentially off-putting to another. So since the math washes out, all that matters is that you, the author, enjoy writing them. Characters don’t have to be “likable” to be lovable.

Finger on the Trigger
Everyone has a pressure point, something that makes them react. Writer’s should tread carefully with character triggers that translate into reader triggers. There is some horrific stuff out there and to potentially pull the reader directly into that might turn them off to the whole thing. Care and research must be taken with this kind of thing. But to ignore this element of the human condition would be a disservice to both the writer and reader. People react to all sorts of things, some serious, and some silly.

Your central character should have a trigger that they cannot ignore. It can be a heroic trigger: she cannot rest until justice is served. Or something a bit self-serving, but stems from their values: he cannot let anyone disrespect him openly, in prison he learned respect was the difference between life and death. And it could be something shallow or largely inconsequential (though you might want to save that for minor characters): the kid has to grab that shiny thing.

These kinds of triggers can be whole story arcs, or hindrances along the way to their goals. It’s more than getting mad or even a strong emotion to something; whatever trigger event happens captures your character’s full attention, to almost the full exclusion of anything else.

For example, say your protagonist has a trigger for bullying children. She can take any verbal abuse thrown at her, watches with amusement as two adult men go at it in a bar, but if anyone starts pushing around a kid, she will wreck them up and down. Where might this come from? Was she bullied as a child? Did she see others bullied before but was unable to help them? Was SHE a bully once and had a life changing experience that shifted her worldview? The possibilities are endless.

Now, as with any response, there is the possibility of abuse. What does she do if she sees a parent seeming to be rough on their kid? What if she is absolutely wrong in assessing the situation and makes it worse? What if by helping in the short term, it negatively affects the child in the long term?

Lots of ways to deepen and torture your protagonist with this, so go for it!

Irreverently Irreverent
A kinda-sorta opposite of the trigger aspect is irreverence. This could be a possible way to make the character “unlikeable,” so it’s a good thing we aren’t going for that. Instead of taking a special attention to something like the trigger, they take a special dismissal of it. The most obvious and readily available irreverence is authority. Who can’t name a teenage heroine with her devil-may-care attitude who thumbs her nose at authority and takes crap from no one? A bit trite perhaps, but have you met a teenager? That’s who they are: semi-sociopath troublemakers fighting to forge their identity through sheer energy and will against a culture who has decided how they should act. This is nothing new, rebellion is a trope dating back to Homer’s Iliad (Paris is the reason no one can have nice things, btw). It is primal to want to tell your teacher, boss, parents, or government where they can shove their two-cents. It’s why it persists.

But let’s play around with this idea with irreverence. What else can be done with it? There needs to be a bit of caution having a character be irreverent to someone based off gender, race, or sexual orientation because that a sure-fire way to alienate readers unless the whole arc is that character overcoming those prejudices. Again, tread carefully. But what about irreverence towards religion or science as a whole? How about a character who thinks doctors are idiots, or lawyers are schemers, or politicians are corrupt? What about a character who lives their whole life sneering at happy couples, or harassing the rich, or rolling their eyes at the idea of being a housewife or career woman? All people have these kinds of irreverences, so your protagonist should too.

Secret Keeper
There is something comfortable about having a reliable protagonist, honest to a fault and you know exactly where they stand. Unfortunately, our purpose is not to comfort, but challenge the reader. Secrets damage that trust, to other characters and possibly even to the reader. And if done properly, that’ll make the character jump off the page like nothing else will.

“Having a dark past” is a bit of a trope, but doesn’t need to be exclusively for a morally conflicted assassin or criminal. It could be that sweet old guy who works at the ice rink who spent 10 years in prison for aggravated assault in his youth. Or the bubbly co-ed who conspired to break up a marriage while in high school. Maybe that city-slicker father doesn’t want anyone to know about his other family upstate. And it could be the neighbor keeps his garage locked at all times to hide his cache of dissected cats and squirrels.

Obviously these are incredibly extreme cases and probably shouldn’t be used for the protagonist… unless that is EXACTLY the sort of story you are writing. The secret should be kept from those the protagonist holds dear and maybe even from the reader until the reveal is at the most damaging point (note basically anything Colleen Hoover has written). It’s not a little thing like shoplifting a candy bar when they were eight. The secret should be something that would absolutely damage their lives, livelihoods, and/or relationships if it got out. How much do they regret the secret? How much do they regret keeping the secret? Is the secret even theirs, are they keeping it for someone else? Think on your secrets and see if maybe inspiration can be pulled from them. The artist becomes the art.

It’s Not All About Them
Possibly the best thing you can do to give your character that spark of realism is to make them the center of the story without them being the center of the universe. I like working with multi-POV; it expands the world and keeps each of the characters in context. The sun rises and sets whether or not the protagonist saves the world (in most cases); others will go their entire lives not knowing who the protagonist who is or caring if they did; or history texts of the world may regard the protagonist's epic journey as a mere footnote in the greater scheme of things.

There is no cut-and-dried way of doing this, and it doesn’t even need to be a big thing. When the world is bigger than the hero, then it won’t read like the world is conforming to the protagonist. Rather, the protagonist will have to go to great effort to either change themselves, or carve out change in their little corner of the universe, failing often along the away. And therein lies a story we can all relate to.

I hope you found some bit of inspiration from this! Every person in the world is unique and valid, so fictional ones should reflect that and I know what it’s like to fight against creating cookie-cutter characters. Next, I’ll tackle how to Bolster the Antagonist that'll make their eventual defeat immensely more satisfying and possibly even bittersweet.

Future Guest Posts:
  • Bolstering the Antagonist (March 18, 2017)
  • Bolstering the Minor Characters (March 29, 2017)
  • Bolstering Character Development (April 15, 2017)

Author Bio:

In his junior year of high school, J. P. Dailing found his passion for writing while living in San Diego. He dabbled a bit with screenwriting in college, but ultimately returned to his first love of novel writing in after moving to Texas. He lives in Houston with his wife and writing partner, Jennifer Acres.

If you want to follow up with the author or purchase a copy of his book, please follow these links: 

Find inspiration in J.P. Dailing's guest post? Tell us about it in the comments below!

* This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click on one of the product links, I'll receive some type of commission. For more information, you can read our full disclosure here. *

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