Creating a Protagonist Readers Will LOVE
I assume that most of you reading this aspire to be great novelists, even those who are preparing to take the NaNoWriMo Challenge in November. Novels are only one form of writing and, truth be told, they aren’t for everyone. Stringing together 60,000-100,000+ words and keeping conflict on every page while delivering a story that makes sense on an intuitive level to the reader is no easy task.
That said, all novels begin with an idea. We talked a bit about how to create a SOLID idea yesterday. Many new writers start out with nothing more than a mental snippet, a flash of a scene or a nugget of an idea, and then they take off writing in hopes that seed will germinate into a cohesive novel. Yeah…um, no.
Not all ideas are strong enough to sustain 60,000 or more words.
Think of your core idea as the foundation that will eventually support your structure. Novels, being very large structures, require firm foundations with lots of rebar. If our goal is to write a trilogy or a series? We must create a foundation capable of supporting 170,000 to 250,000 words or more (depending on genre and length of the series).
So how do we know if the idea we have is strong enough?
James Scott Bell in his book Plot & Structure (which I highly recommend you buy & read, by the way) employs what he calls the LOCK system. Jim, being the SUPER AWESOME person he is, has granted me permission to talk about some of his methods.
When you get the first glimmer of the story you long to tell, the idea that is going to keep you going for months of researching, writing, revisions and eventually submissions, it is wise to test its integrity. The LOCK system is one method we will discuss today, and I strongly recommend you either read Jim’s book or even take one of his classes or consults. He’s by far one of THE BEST writing teachers out there.
Lead Objective Conflict Knockout… or, LOCK
We will begin with the LEAD, because a large part of our story’s foundation is the protagonist we create.
First, we must have a sympathetic and compelling character. It’s critical to have a protagonist the reader will be able to relate to. Our characters must have admirable strengths and relatable weaknesses. Many new writers stray to extremes with protagonists, and offer up characters that are either too perfect or too flawed.
Perfect people are boring and unlikable and they lack any room to grow. Perfect characters are no different. New writers are often insecure and our protagonists are us…well, the perfect version of us anyway. Our heroines are tall and thin and speak ten languages and have genius IQs and save whales in their free time…and no one likes them.
If we make characters too perfect, readers will revel in their destruction. If we didn’t like tearing down “the beautiful people” then Star Magazine and The Inquirer would have folded decades ago.
As writers, we need readers to rally to our protagonist’s team, to like her and want to cheer for her to the end. How do we do this? Give her flaws. Make her HUMAN. Additionally, if our characters are fully actualized in the beginning, there will be no character arc so our story will be one-dimensional and flat.
One of the reasons Bridgette Jones is a fabulous character is because she’s flawed and shares all the same angsts other women struggle with daily. She’s insecure, trying to lose weight, says all the wrong things at all the wrong times, but she is a good person and we love her.
What if you are writing a thriller or a suspense, something that generally has a cast of uber-perfect people?
Give them flaws.
The recent Iron Man movies did a fabulous job of casting one of “the beautiful people” and making us love him despite. How? Tony Stark comes to realize he’s a narcissistic jerk, and that “he’s created his own demons.” Yes, he might be fabulously rich, good-looking, brilliant and has lots of cool toys, but he’s DEEPLY FLAWED.
In Iron Man III, when attacked, Stark directs his armor to protect the woman he loves knowing he could die. He is kind to the kid who’s being bullied. Yes, he’s a jerk, but he knows it and is working to be a better man, even if the path for redemption has not yet been clearly revealed.
Now, to look at the other side of the spectrum. Often to avoid the cliched “too perfect” character, an author will stray too far to the other end of extremes. The brooding dark protagonist is tough to pull off. In life, we avoid these unpleasant people, so why would we want to dedicate our free time to caring about them? Oh, but the author will often defend, “But he is redeemed in the end.” Yeah, but we’re expecting readers to spend ten hours (average time to read a novel) with someone they don’t like. Tall order.
To quote mega-agent, Donald Maas (The Fire in the Fiction):
Wounded heroes and heroines are easy to overdo. Too much baggage and angst isn’t exactly a party invitation for one’s readers. What’s the best balance? And which comes first, the strength or the humility? It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that one is quickly followed by the other.
In my opinion, this was the single largest problem with the Star Wars prequels. Anakin Skywalker was a little-kid-killer, ergo never redeemable…EVER. He needed to die badly and slowly. Lucas should never have allowed his protagonist to cross that line. Heroes NEVER kill defenseless little kids. It was (my POV) an unforgivable action on the part of the “hero” that cratered the epic.
What are some of your favorite characters in movies or in books? Why did you “like” them? How were they flawed? What other characters fell flat? You could never like them because they passed a certain line?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of October, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Also, for all your author brand and social media needs, I hope you will check out my new best-selling book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.