Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Creating character - the protagonist

To continue this discussion on what makes a great protagonist, I am collecting some elements that go into a main character that some of you who have been reading faithfully will have heard before. But I think it’s important to have all of this in one place, to maintain some illusion of order, and there’s extra stuff in here, so bear with me!

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I have said before, and will reiterate now: while I am perfectly comfortable expounding about how to structure a story, I am not so comfortable explaining how to create character.

I think – I’m pretty positive, really - that most writers have characters in their heads from a very early age. Maybe all people do – because that’s what fantasy is, and we all daydream being other people, or superfantastic versions of ourselves. So in a way we’re all creating character all the time.

And I think we all have our own processes for creating character, especially our main characters, who may very well be some version of ourselves… or who may arrive breaking down some door in your mind and demanding to be written about. Some people dream characters whole. All of that is fantastic. I would never in any way want to get in the way of whatever someone else’s process is - and the only real rule I think there is for writing is – Whatever works. And I mean, anything.

To be perfectly honest, creating character is not a very explicable process, for me. I think what I do is create a space for them – a situation, a theme, the beginnings of a story, and pray that the characters will show up to inhabit it. Which, thank God, they always do. And then from there they do most of the work.

In other words, it’s magic – or possibly my friend J.D. Rhoades is right, it’s mental illness - and I don’t know how to explain magic or mental illness. Quite possibly I don’t want to know.

But I do think there are things that are teachable about creating character. My best general advice is always – take an acting class. Take a lot of them. Read books on acting and creating character – Michael Shurtleff’s excellent AUDITION, which is about so much more than auditioning, Stanislavski’s acting series, Michael Chekov. Learn how to develop and play characters yourself, even on a basic level, and it will translate to writing.

The fact is, if you’ve gotten so far as to be actually writing a book or script, chances are you have a main character already, either in mind, or very developed. So whatever that is, and however you got there, I don’t want to interfere with that!

But besides being a person who may already be more real to you than most of the people you know, a protagonist is also a function in a story. And knowing the classic components of a protagonist can help you focus your story, and also broaden and deepen the qualities you already know about your character. So let’s take a look at some of them.


The first thing any acting student learns in terms of creating a character and building a scene is to ask the question: “What do I WANT?” - in every scene, and in the story overall. When I was directing plays (yeah, in one of my multiple past lives) and a scene was just lying dead on the stage, I could always get the actors to breathe life into it by getting them to clarify what they wanted in the scene and simply playing that want.
 This is something that starts in the writing, obviously, and should always be on the author’s mind, too: Who wants what in the scene, and how do those desires conflict? Who WINS in the scene?

But even before all that, one of the most important steps of creating a story, from the very beginning, is identifying the protagonist’s overall desire and need in the story. You also hear this called “internal” and “external” desire, and “want” and “deep need”, but it’s all the same thing. A strong main character will want something immediately, like to get that promotion, or to have sex with the love interest. But there’s something underneath that surface want that is really driving the character, and in good characters, almost always, those inner and outer desires are in conflict. Also, the character will know that s/he wants that outer desire, but probably have very little idea that what she really needs is the inner desire.

So you, the writer, have to know your character’s inner and outer desires and how they conflict.

One of the great examples of inner and outer desire in conflict is in the George Bailey character in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. From the very beginning George wants to see the world, to do big things, design big buildings – all very male, external, explosive goals. But his deep need is to become a good man and community leader like his father, who does big things and fights big battles – but on a microcosm, in their tiny, “boring” little community of Bedford Falls, which George can’t wait to escape.

But every choice George actually makes in the story defers his external need to escape, and ties him closer to the community that he becomes the moral leader of, as he takes on his late father’s role and battles the town’s would-be dictator, Mr. Potter. George does not take on that role happily – he fights it every single step of the way, and resents it a good bit of the time. But it’s that conflict which makes George such a great character whom we emphasize with – it’s a story of how an ordinary man becomes a true hero.

In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice’s outer desire is for advancement in the FBI. And Harris conveys this desire in what is a brilliant storytelling trick: He has Dr. Lecter tell her so. “You’re sooooo ambitious, aren’t you?” He purrs. And “I’ll give you what you most desire, Clarice. Advancement.”

It’s brilliant because it makes Lecter all-knowing, but it also clearly spells out Clarice’s desire, which the audience/reader really does need to know to commit to the character and relax into the story. I’m a big believer in just spelling it out.

But what Clarice really needs is not advancement. What she needs is to save a lamb – the lamb that haunts her dreams, the lamb she still hears screaming. In the story, the kidnapped senator’s daughter Catherine is the lamb, and Harris uses animal imagery to subtly evoke a lamb and the scene of the slaughter of the lambs that haunts Clarice.

And again, Lecter is the one who draws this deep need out of Clarice.

Also Clarice’s need and desire come into conflict: what she WANTS is advancement, but in order to save Catherine, she has to defy her superiors and jeopardize her graduation from the academy.

It’s usually true that the external desire will be a selfish want – something the protagonist wants for him or herself, and the inner need will be unselfish - something the protagonist comes to want for other people. This is a useful guideline to follow because it clearly shows character growth.


Closely entwined with the inner/outer desire lines is the ARC of the character (since you are devising the end of your story at the same time as you’re planning the beginning). The arc of the character is what the character learns during the course of the story, and how s/he changes because of it. It could be said that the arc of a character is almost always about the character realizing that s/he’s been obsessed with an outer goal or desire, when what she really needs to be whole, fulfilled, and lovable is --------- (fill in the blank). On top of that a character will go from shy and repressed to a capable and respected leader, from selfish to altruistic, from pathological liar to a seeker of truth… and the bigger the change, the more impact the story will have, as long as you keep it believable.

So it’s essential to know where you want your character to end up, and then work backward to create a number of personal obstacles and external problems that are keeping that character from being everything s/he can be.


For any story you write, there are certain big arcs that most characters fall into. One is a hero/ine who starts the story in emotional trouble if not actual physical trouble (generally brought on the emotional problem!), who takes the journey of the story, is forced to confront her or his deficiencies, overcomes them, and triumphs - to win a goal that was probably not the goal s/he started out with, but is clearly what s/he really needed all along. (This is the most common character arc).

A second pattern is an innocent hero/ine who triumphs over evil and opposition and wins her/his goal through sheer goodness. (THE WIZARD OF OZ and SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE are good examples). The heroine and hero in those stories don’t have huge character arcs (although both characters gain in personal strength); the lesson for us (the reader or audience) is a more general one of how virtue and passion and doing the right thing are rewarded (and hopefully we the reader or audience are inspired by the story to be virtuous ourselves.).

A third pattern, though, is a hero who fails or falls. THE GODFATHER shows the moral fall of Michael Corleone (even as he rises in societal stature). CHINATOWN shows the fall of Jake Gittes, despite his sincere and determined attempts to do the right thing. While Michael Corleone makes the choices he makes deliberately (although the pressure of family history weighs heavily); Jake is a pawn, up against the greater forces of a malevolent universe. The only thing Jake learns in CHINATOWN is that his best efforts are useless; he should have learned his lesson long ago that the only way to survive and not do damage is to do “as little as possible.”


In terms of character arc, series hero/ines are a different animal than standalone hero/ines. One theory of this is that readers who are devoted to a series character really just want to see the same person, over and over again.

I think it’s a little more complicated than that. I think a lot of classic series characters, especially series detectives – and of course Ian Fleming's James Bond and his sexier modern incarnation, Lee Child's Jack Reacher, spring immediately to mind – are really examples of the “Mysterious Stranger” archetype, and Mysterious Stranger stories have their own story structure. PL Travers' Mary Poppins is the classic Mysterious Stranger; she pops in (get it?), fixes the family, and pops out, while remaining herself “Practically Perfect in Every Way”. SHANE is a great film with a Mysterious Stranger structure, although Shane is a much more wounded Stranger than Mary Poppins – he’s very imperfect, unable to change, and therefore unable to integrate into society in the end – but he does fix the town’s problem and the wound in the family that temporarily takes him in.

James Bond and Jack Reacher are also perfect characters in their ways (although, from a female point of view, perfectly infuriating). We don’t really want them to change. The trick to the Mysterious Stranger structure is that it’s the other characters who have the big character arcs in the story (although in some Mysterious Stranger stories, the Stranger does have an arc as well. Emma Thompson had some fun with that – as the screenwriter and actress – in the film NANNY McPHEE, based on the books by Christianna Brand). And of course not all series detectives are perfect Mysterious Strangers, either – I myself am partial to the flawed ones, like Tess Gerritsen’s surly Jane Rizzoli.

This all goes to re-emphasize the underlying point of ALL of these blogs: different genres have very different story structures, and you need to study and understand the classic tricks and expectations of your own genre. That’s why I so adamantly advocate creating your own, personalized story structure workbook.

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that if you think you might be writing a Mysterious Stranger story, then you should make a list of Mysterious Stranger stories and take a look at the patterns of those stories and what other storytellers have done with them. It will give you no end of interesting ideas for your own story.


A classic pattern of drama is that the hero/ine has a wound from the past – a traumatic event, a lost love, the death of a friend, alcoholism, the loss of faith, that continues to haunt her or him in the present, and which s/he will be forced to confront in living color in the course of the story – generally in the climax of the story. (As we discussed about CHINATOWN – Jake gets involved with a case that takes him metaphorically and physically right back into Chinatown.). Clarice Starling’s wound is her trauma over witnessing the slaughter of the spring lambs as an orphaned child – and being unable to save the lamb she tries to kidnap. In the climax of SILENCE, Clarice must fight a psychotic killer to save a young woman from being slaughtered.

This recreation and reliving of a past trauma is a staple of drama for a reason: a lot of psychologists would say that that's the human condition, the "repetition compulsion", Freud called it: we all unconsciously seek out people, events and situations that duplicate our core trauma (s), in the hope of eventually triumphing over the situation that so wounded us.

In many stories the wound or ghost is more akin to a family curse. Michael Corleone is unable to escape the long shadow of his family business, and his particularly powerful father.

I must caution you that it’s very easy to slip into clichés, where ghosts are concerned. The young father who has recently lost his wife and feels unable to find love, the cop whose partner was killed in front of him in the line of duty, the FBI agent whose brother or sister was abducted and murdered by a serial killer. Okay, I admit that one of the most excellent recent series I’ve read has a variation on that last ghost for the hero (In Mo Hayder’s BIRDMAN, and mindblowing sequel THE TREATMENT, the detective has a brother he believes was murdered by a child molester), but realistically, how many people really go into police work because they have family members who have been killed by serial killers? It seems like every other fictional detective I read these days has that backstory. I eventually suspended my disbelief for those two books because they’re so amazingly well-written, and Hayder eventually puts an incredible twist on that backstory, although not until the second book. But it’s a gamble when you decide to employ a cliché like that. They say all the great stories have already been told, but that one’s been told just a few too many times for my taste. I’m sure you can come up with a few pet peeve clichés of your own!


Of course you’re going to devise an interesting, clever and evocative introduction to your main character. There's a whole discussion on that here:
Character Introductions


The characters you surround your main character with will tell us a lot about your main character.

In real life our families, friends and significant others say volumes about who we are as people – through both the choices that we’ve made and the things that we had no choice about. It’s exactly the same in books and films: the characters who surround your hero/ine should be characters in their own right, but they also reflect a lot about your hero/ine. Let’s look at just a few examples:


The person whom the protagonist is fighting is often a dark mirror of the protagonist; in many stories we see that it wouldn’t take much for the hero/ine to become the antagonist, metaphorically speaking. In fact, Belloq says pretty much exactly that in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The hero/ine and the antagonist often want the same thing, whether it’s an actual object, like the lost Ark of the Covenant; or money; or a power, like control of a town (IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) or a country (THE LION IN WINTER), or a family (ANOTHER PART OF THE FOREST); or a person: a child (KRAMER VS. KRAMER), or a lover (five billion romantic comedies). And sometimes the only thing that distinguishes the protagonist from the antagonist is what methods they’re willing to use to get what they want; the hero/ine, we hope, is moral about it (though crossing the line is almost an inevitable part of any story), and the antagonist is willing to lie, cheat, hurt or kill for it.


The sidekick, the roommate, the best friend, the love interest, the brother or sister – all of these can illuminate different sides of the protagonist (see the post just below this one for a specific discussion of how the employees of Jake Gittes’ detective agency dramatize the two conflicting sides of Jake himself).


The annoying – I mean, amazing - thing about a good mentor is that they know the protagonist better than the protagonist knows her or himself. From Glinda to Yoda to Hannibal Lecter, the mentor often represents the hero/ine’s higher power or superego, sometimes both, and always holds the key to the life lesson the hero/ine most needs to learn. And the great thing about a mentor character is that they’re allowed to be on the nose and say exactly what it is that the hero/ine needs and wants, and why they’re too screwed up to ever get it (unless of course they do exactly as the mentor tells them to).


This character generally plays a dual role: the love interest can also be the antagonist (in most love stories), an ally, or a mentor. The object of desire is very often the opposite of the hero/ine – and thus represents all the qualities that the hero/ine needs to become whole.


The first visuals we get of a character: where she is, what the weather is like, what she's wearing, what her relationship is to her surroundings, the general atmosphere - all serve to give us a picture of what's going on inside her head - are all great ways to introduce us to deep character. Just the place that she's in can be thematic.

I introduce Robin in THE HARROWING in a classroom with an unnervingly violent storm outside. She is surrounded by people but completely isolated, in her own head, and dressed all in black, and the phrases that jump out at her from the professor's lecture are ominous, even irrational. I think we get a good sense that this girl is in psychological trouble and should definitely not be left alone on campus to fend for herself, which is exactly what is about to happen.

I introduce Will in THE PRICE as alone in a freezing, silent chapel tucked away in a back corridor of a hospital. He's dressed in an expensive, power suit, but he is helpless and desperate and alone; trying to pray but completely unable to. But he also is carrying a live bunny rabbit in his suit, sneaking it into the hospital as a present for his daughter. I think - hope! all of those visuals combine to give us a layered sense of who this man is from the very beginning of the book, and make us want to find out more about him, and even maybe go on this difficult journey with him.

Now, in novels, I realize that we have more time to get to know a character than film gives us, and the knowledge we gain about a character is more cumulative. I think in novels the main character very often is a role that we take on ourselves, and we LIVE the character more than observe them. That's what having access to a character's internal thoughts does for us. (And I’ll go more into that next post).

And obviously if a book is in first person, those first few sentences from the character to the reader are especially crucial, because that’s the character TALKING to us. So character voice, in first person, is as important as the visual. But the visual is key, and here’s where that collage book I talked about here can really help you detail your main character.


I am not going to get into advice like writing out a 30-page biography on your character. If that’s what you do to create character, you’re probably already doing it. Personally I always do a timeline based on the character’s age so I can see what was going on in his or her society and world when s/he was at various stages of life - from wars to music. But one thing I’ve found invaluable to me in understanding and creating character is archetypes (read your Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler!), and I particularly respond to Greek archetypes. One of the most useful books I’ve ever read on character, and I mean ever, is Jungian psychologist Jean Shinoda Bolen’s books GODDESSES IN EVERYWOMAN and GODS IN EVERYMAN – both fascinating analyses of how the Greek gods and goddesses are still alive and well in our own personalities. Start reading and you’ll see instantly how applicable these books are to creating character.

I also recommend the book SHADOW SYNDROMES, by John J. Ratey, which breaks down how personality disorders like schizophrenia, sadistic personality disorder, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc., can manifest in ordinary personalities in a more subtle form. And of course Myers-Briggs tests are always helpful in honing in on character; other writers swear by the Enneagram and that old standard, astrology.

So I’d love to hear what you all have to say about how you create character. Does the main character come first for you, and then the story? What are your personal methods for expanding on and deepening character? Any favorite books on character, or that help you with creating character – whether they’re about writing or not?

- Alex


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  e format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 13.99.

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Siddharth Mistry said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
K. Keith Johnson said...

I think I pretty much do what you wrote about. I set up the environment and wait for my character/s to report for duty. Sometimes they don't show, and I have to remodel their world so its safer or more inviting for them to step forward.
Good information here. Thanks Alex.
K.Keith Johnson

Gayle Carline said...

In my first, really-bad-using-it-for-parts-now novel, I created a lot of fascinating characters, put them in an environment and waited for something to happen. And waited... For my next attempt, I put the same amount of thought into the environment as I did the people in it. It turned out better, as this is the one that's being published this fall (FREEZER BURN - insert girlish squeal here).

I'm watching Shadow of a Doubt as I type this - wonderful characters! The young woman, Charlie, is named after her uncle and feels so close to him, even telepathically. It's a test of her strength to discover her uncle is a murderer. They say it was Hitchcock's favorite; it would be a good movie to pick apart and study.

Gayle Carline

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Keith, thanks, it's good to get some validation on that method. For me the world often comes first, but I know not everyone is like that.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Oh, man, SHADOW OF A DOUBT is one of the best ever. I never get tired of that film!

Congratulations on FREEZER BURN! Great title!

Bobby Mangahas said...

Thank you for yet another great post, Alex. (Damn, my binder is getting thick :) )

As for creating character, I would say I tend to have a character first then build the environment around him or her. Although other times, I have the landscape done and just wait for people to start showing up.

In my WIP, what actually came first was a set of circumstances and both the characters and their world was created around it. So I guess it really depends.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Yeah, RJ, you're right - any story element might come to you first. It depends on the project.

Delta Dupree said...

Alex, I've been lurking mostly. You write a fabulous blog!

I've often wondered how other authors *begin* their stories. I usually dress a situation, sort of bikini-style, then bring in a pair of characters that should fit. Sometimes it works well, sometimes...not. Typically creating the situation works best for me.

Anonymous said...
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Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Delta, thanks for delurking!

Yeah, I have to say I usually have the situation first, and then I start daydreaming about who would find themselves in the situation. But sometimes there's a very clear character that I have to stalk around my mind to see just what it is they're up to.

Weird, weird job we have, here.

Drucie said...

Hello, Alex and friends.

If you really want to understand archetypes, there are better books than Dr. Shinoda Bolen's. Archetypal psychology is the product of post-Jungian research. The best authorities are James Hillman, Ginette Paris, Chris Downing (although she is more Freudian than Jungian). There is much that has been written in this field and it is really interesting. I know because I hold a Ph.D. in Depth Psychology and Mythology.

Your interest in Campbell's heroic journey is also a part of this study. There is in Campbell a deep-rooted misogyny and ethnocentricity that I would like to avoid rather than incorporate. However, he was a brilliant teacher and mythologist. His wisest observation was that, at the core, all religions are the same and serve the same psychological functions. I think one might say the same of literary genres.

Yes, the gods are still alive in the human psyche. Many of us believe that the Greek pantheon is an incredibly accurate map to the human soul.

Drea said...

I get snippets of scenes when I dream. It's so cheesy, but I dream about a situation and then I try to write down all the impressions I got about a character. I'll flesh a character out and some times it's re-reading what I wrote before I fall asleep and letting my subconscious do the work for me.
So I guess I do the make the environment first, and then develop full characters second.

Angie McCullagh said...

Can I just say that your blog is brilliant? I found it last week and it is inspiring me and giving me so much insight into my WIP. Each post is so packed with information that you generously share and I can't thank you enough!