1. Gholin
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    Gholin Member

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    A problem with protagonists

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Gholin, Sep 5, 2012.

    Hello all.

    I have an interesting problem in my writing career.

    I can flesh out settings, supporting characters, and antagonists with no problem, but I am always finding my protagonists hard to define, hard to pin down into someone interesting.

    I don't know if it has to do with how I perceive other protagonists I've read about or if I just don't have the right guy for the job. I have a general idea of the character, but other than making them smart, able, and full of a few flaws, I don't know how to see them. Maybe I have the "Bella" problem, a protagonist that is an empty shell for the readers to place themselves into. My protagonists are always surrounded by more colorful characters, and yet, they are the steady ones, the ones that keep others in check and keep on the path of the plot.

    I sometimes give them flaws, but don't realize how to use these flaws. For instance, one of my protagonists is a ghost hunter who happens to be a scaredy-cat thrust into the business to save his family. How the heck do I write that? I just don't know. I think my problem is, I want to write middle grade and I don't know how to write the main kid. They just all end up sounding like Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, or any of the other countless protagonists that seem too casual or common, even though they have awesome strengths and weaknesses.

    It seems to me that those other characters are pretty plain, that their stories and abilities are what are interesting, not their personalities. Does anyone else know what I'm talking about or what I can do to improve my protagonists and pin down who they are? Thank you for any help! It's quite frustrating to feel like everything works but my main character!
     
  2. ...
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    ... Member

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    They can be whoever you want them to be.

    If you cannot empathise with a character then you should avoid those characters and use ones you can empathise with.
     
  3. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Nevil Shute once wrote a novel entitled "Trustee from the Toolroom" about an ordinary, nondescript character who, because he was the trustee for his niece when her parents died, felt compelled to travel around the world to find assets that were to be hers. He develops no superpowers, no great, searing intellect, but possesses a simple, dogged determination.

    Characters don't have to be (and, in my view, shouldn't be) superheroes.
     
  4. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Laid back heros help anchor the more unusual ones - it's a pattern that
    happens in a lot of ya fiction - on the flipside if the hero is kooky and
    unusual then surrounding characters have to take a backseat to the hero's
    energy.

    Try eavesdropping on some kids for inspiration, pick out some sports
    events, an arcade, a library, a bus stop. What's great is they're
    strangers, you have no agenda invested in their conversation -
    accept hauling tidbits - so they're raw, you can cull ideas on
    personality, behavior, gestures, clothing, attitudes, interests,
    friendships in mere moments. Take a notebook and fill it up.
    You don't have to take everything as inspiration some
    dialogue will curl your hair - pick and choose.
     
  5. lachesis77
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    lachesis77 Member

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    I think the example you gave of a ghost hunter who's scared out of his wits is a pretty solid basis for an interesting character, actually. I would play that up. Try to imagine what that character goes through every time he's on a ghost hunt: sure, he's doing it to protect his family, but he's also terrified. Build on that and develop your character from there.

    If you still feel that kind of main character (or any character, for that matter) is too bland for your tastes, you could try to create a foil for that character, someone who is almost a polar opposite and will contrast with your protagonist. If done right, it won't make your protagonist more bland, but will instead serve to highlight his or her personality. You might find that your main character isn't as boring as you thought he or she was.
     
  6. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'd say that if you like your supporting characters, then perhaps the best plan is to pick your favorite and move your lens so that _he_ is the center of the story.

    If you find yourself saying, "no, he can't be the main character because..." then I'd guess that inside that "because" is the clue to whatever is wrong with your main characters.
     
  7. Ettina
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    Ettina Active Member

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    The scaredy cat ghost hunter has plenty of potential. What are you struggling with in terms of writing him?

    One really good portrayal of a scaredy-cat character who goes on a dramatic adventure despite being terrified is the movie Spirited Away. Chihiro is a timid, whiny girl who's unhappy about moving to a new place. Then her parents, despite her protests, stop and explore this abandoned theme park on the way, and they find some fresh, very delicious food. Reassuring Chihiro with the claim that they'll pay for it when the owners come, they start eating. Unfortunately, it turns out that the food belongs to spirit beings, who aren't really interested in money and are pretty angry that her parents stole their food. They turn her parents into pigs, and it's up to Chihiro to save them.
     
  8. captain kate
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    captain kate Active Member

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    A protagonist can be anyone you want him/her to be, but I do recommend learning who they are. I've learned enough, and had Kate tell me enough about her life, that I feel like I'm leaving a good friend when it's time to walk away from the computer.

    As with any character, KNOW you character. They don't have to be a superhero, just be able to do the job. Yes, Kate's cybernetic, but there's plenty of obstacles I throw in her way, which mitigate her speed and strength advantage and end up reducing her to the level of normal humans.

    Sit down, look at people, read books like you want to write, see how a character is. John McClane from "Die Hard" is far from a super hero-at least up the Live Free or Die Hard-just an average Joe doing what he has to do to both survive and stop the antagonist from winning.
     
  9. ...
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    I think characters develop through the story. You may even find yourself going back and taking out whole chunks that do not fit the character. Just allow your character to grow with the rest of the story.

    Your character is formed by their responses to events. write those events and the character will form naturally. surely?
     
  10. Gholin
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    Gholin Member

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    Thank you everyone for your advice! As for this particular reply: The problem I have with my character is I can't really pin down what he's like. What makes him a person. I know what he likes, what he has to do, what his backstory is, and what made him scaredy-cat. I just don't know how he talks or solves things. He's a bit of a detective, but how do I give him a cool way of investigating. Monk is obsessive compulsive. Columbo totally drives murderers nuts. How does a scaredy cat investigate ghosts? Maybe I have enough info, I just don't feel like it.

    I just don't want the story to be a bunch of moments where his heart beats fast and he sweats the whole time. By being a scaredy cat, he has to be a coward almost, doesn't he? Does anyone want to read about a coward? Maybe that's my problem.

    I think I got a little better handle on him since listening to all your ideas, but maybe my problem is how to show fear. I've never written anything involving horror before. It seems very repetitive having a guy always having a fast heartbeat and sweating.
     
  11. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    Characters develop as the story advances. You don't have to understand Your character fully until they've been through a few trials that you can analyze. One alternative is making your protagonist one of the other characters. It can follow your main character but the protagonist is the one who leads the story.... also, there is nothing wrong with a character who is lucky and gets kind of pulled through the story by circumstance. Cowards don't take initiative, they are pulled by need and other characters. Harrpy Potter is not a very deep or interesting character, but his villain makes him great, his story makes him great. if you cant develope your protag. develop their story.

    If you want to talk about interesting characters, think about batman [not just in the dark knight moovies... they only give you a glimpse] look at all the comics or do some research. he is one of the deepest most trouble and even iconic characters in comics.
     
  12. prettyprettyprettygood
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    prettyprettyprettygood Active Member

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    I agree with others who have a said that a cowardly ghost hunter sounds like the bones of a fun and interesting character - I'm actually having a bit of an 'I wish I thought of that' jealousy moment :)

    It puts me in mind of Terry Pratchett's Rincewind who, although I don't think Pratchett himself liked him much, was a fun MC to read about with lots of character despite constantly running away from everything. Perhaps you could seek out a few characters you do like with a similar or comparable flaw, and see how the author manages to create depth, etc.

    Or if all else fails you could always make him part of an ensemble, like Shaggy in Scooby Doo :p
     
  13. Padfoot
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    Padfoot Member

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    It is a great idea you have there. Something a friend told me she did, that I ended up picking up, is having interviews with her characters. I've got a couple interviews that ended up not being my person, but we eventually got there in the end. I found out their personality and continue to get to know them. It can be time consuming and annoying though.
     
  14. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    But think of Frodo - what does he actually do beyond carry the ring from A to B? He's boring, but LOTR is still a hit and the real heroes are Sam and Aragorn.

    Neverwhere by Gaiman has an absolutely unspectacular main character called Richard - he can't fight, is scared of things, and is rather ordinary on the whole and every character around him is brilliant, colourful and mysterious. But you still like Richard, because he has a noble heart.

    I guess when we write, we just forget what normal people are like.
     
  15. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Absolutely, I think that reading about a coward who manages to do scarey things anyway would be great.

    I wouldn't worry about "cool"--that leads you down the dangerous path to stereotypes.

    My thoughts are: He's a scaredy-cat. But he does this stuff anyway. So he finds a way to make that possible. How do nervous people make things possible? When I'm nervous about something, my strategies include preparing, often overpreparing, and finding ways to comfort myself.

    If I were writing this guy:

    - He'd have an elaborate ghost-hunting bag with everything he needs, extra batteries, everything charged up, extra pens and paper, two different voice-memo devices because he's afraid one will fail, an analog _and_ a digital camera.

    Before he goes into a situation he comforts himself by going through the bag, putting fresh batteries even into things he hasn't used, making sure everything is where it belongs, trying the bag on and making sure he can easily grab the things he needs, even though he tried all that last time.

    - He over-prepares. Research, research, research, and elaborate timed plans of action, and new equipment, and protective gear against the hazards that he can predict (rickety stairs, mouse droppings) because there's no protective gear for the things that he can't. He can't go this week because he needs to get a new voice memo recorder. He can't go next weekend because he needs to wait for a full moon. But eventually he can't take the tension any more, he decides it's better to get it over with, he stops procrastinating, and he finally goes. When he's ready to go, he's furious if one of his colleagues has a conflict, because he's _ready to go_, why are you people always delaying things?!

    - He might comfort himself with superstition - lucky socks, lucky leather jacket. Or he might not consciously embrace superstition - he might have pseudo-scientific theories, like the idea that ghosts fear synthetics, so it's a lucky GoreTex jacket and he's always debating the protective, versus movement-hampering, factors of having a full GoreText duster made.

    - Before an outing he always, always has to have three-bean chili, extra meat, extra cheese, and a handful of chopped onions, at whatever diner near the ghost site he's determined (from his extensive research) is the best. This comforts him, and if no one nearby sells chili, he might drive out two hours to eat it for breakfast and drive back again to the ghost site. For sites in the middle of nowhere he carries canned chili and an onion and a pack of cheese, but he's not the least little bit happy about it, and his colleagues aren't happy about the groceries in the car. ("Yes, we could get your third camera in the car if it weren't for the damned _cheese cooler!_")

    - When he gets into the actual ghost hunt, he has filled his brain with plans and new equipment and detail, detail, detail, so that there's little room left for fear; he's just working through his plan, grimly. When his colleagues joke around to cover their fear, he doesn't join and it annoys him no end. When something scarey does happen, he may give the illusion of being the bravest in the bunch, because he's armored himself with all these distractions. But when the distractions fail and he gives way, he _really_ gives way.

    - Due to all of this, his ghosthunting colleagues think he's OCD; his friends who never see him ghost hunting would be surprised, because in his relaxed regular life he's a little bit of a slob. He has a friend who really likes him in regular life, but after going ghosthunting with him once, he refused to do it again, because he doesn't like the person he becomes.

    That's what I'd do. It's not so much as suggestion (though you're welcome to it if you want it) as an example of taking a personality characteristic (scaredy-cat who nevertheless has to do scarey things) and expanding it to fill larger parts of the character's life and personality.
     
  16. Gholin
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    Gholin Member

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    Thank you again everyone. I've actually made headway on my character with your help! ChickenFreak, I think you are really onto something here. I thought about how he would prepare himself for dealing with terrifying things, and found him to be a little superstitious. He often puts salt and onion powder at the base of his door in his room, thinking that will help. I also imagined what kinds of things he had in his bedroom after thinking about that and now I know what kind of clothes he wears, books he reads, and music he listens to. I've also decided his curiosity sometimes overcomes his fear (so he can't help but pursue a supernatural thing until it leads him into face-to-face confrontation, and then he freaks out and goes limp or runs, only to turn back and face it because something is at stake or a friend gave him an extra ounce of courage). I really just couldn't see the guy before, what he was like what he looked like. I see the sandy brown hair now, the geeky love of b-movies and emotional scars from the fear that his own house is haunted by something terrible. I see how he wears slacks, t-shirts and a jacket, a weird mix-mash of casual and formalwear, because his father is a prominent scientist and his mother a farm girl. And he wears a jacket at night, even in Texas heat, because he doesn't want some undead fiend to touch his bare skin.

    My biggest problem was seeing the quirks and personality traits that made him unique, and not some Harry Potter/Frodo/Percy Jackson wannabe.

    Thanks to everyone's help. Your ideas really helped me think it out where I had writer's block before. I finally have a protagonist I'm excited about!
     
  17. Motley
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    Motley Active Member

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    Why?

    You can make the protagonist the unstable one, who has flights of fancy or takes dares or strays from the right path. Maybe his 'sidekick' friend keeps him going in the right direction. Protags don't exist just to make the plot go. They're just people in their own right.
     
  18. Gholin
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    Gholin Member

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    Good point, Motley. Thanks for the advice!
     
  19. Bjørnar Munkerud
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    Bjørnar Munkerud Contributing Member

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    As Jim Carrey said in an interview once (with James Lipton, The Actors Studio) you may/should find or make some special thing about the character; a flaw, a quirk, a skill, doesn't matter; and spin on it, developing reasons for that character to be like that and, even more importantly, deciding how that affects how they act. Of course he was talking about acting characters, but the same thing goes for creating them.

    Did the protagonist grow up poor? Was he/she responsible for ruining his/her first romantic relationship? Does the protagonist cycle to work every day? Does he/she have green eyes?

    Even if the answers to these kinds questions aren't obvious (or really: the question or description YOU come up with for YOUR character), that isn't a problem since you as a writer can make these things up. Whether/what you tell the readers why is also obviously your choice, as is how far you go in developing characters and everything else. Find things to build on; molding a character around a firm starting point, and then adding more traits and removing and changing things you don't like until you feel you have a well-defined interesting character. One that fits the story and the other characters and that is realistic, fun to write, and that you hopefully also that you can transfer successfully from mind to paper. And that gives the readers what they need to enjoy the character, story and plot.
     

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