Read Part 1 of this post, “Develop Your Protagonist’s Flaws,” here.
I’m going to continue discussing your protagonist, because one of my readers, Julia, had good follow-up questions. Whether you’re considering your protagonist’s strengths or weaknesses, the process is the same for building a 3-D character.
Julia said she would like her protagonist’s flaw to be something extra that adds value to the story or even entertains the reader. But she’s concerned that might not make sense with her plot. Let’s address this.
The flaw will always originate in your character’s backstory. We do not follow a protagonist from birth to death, therefore, he has a backstory that shaped his character. Just like you have a childhood that shaped your character.
Speaking of entertainment value, why is Indiana Jones afraid of snakes? I’m not sure what his trauma (the backstory) was, but the insertion of snakes in the plot and his reactions to them added brilliant moments of levity to the story. If your adventurous detective’s mother was beat by his father, he might be a cool cookie until he sees a man grab a woman and yank her out the door. Then he might lose it. Surely there will be somewhere that would come out in the story, just like in real life.
Journal about your protagonist’s life. I’m willing to bet money you’ll come up with things that can effectively play out in your story without seeming inorganic. Rowling always knew Dumbledore is gay, but she never used it on the page. Still, it shaped how she wrote him and his relationships with other characters. Start with your character. Don’t force things into your plot. When you know his history and build him a whole life, his flaws will occur naturally, usually when he reacts to something. If you remember my example from my own work, it’s natural for Beckett to get mad if he feels lied to. Until I remembered that, I had him mad for another reason, and it felt awkward and the scene felt forced.
If a dramatic moment feels forced, remember the famous actor’s question: “What’s my motivation?” Once you know your character’s motivation, the reaction will become natural.
Julia points out there are so many flaws to choose from, it’s hard to know what to pick. Should she focus on her plot, her hero’s strengths, the theme, etc? She asks, “In what order do you work on flaws and events?”
I wouldn’t look at it as a question between flaws and events, but between traits and scenarios.
If my story is about a young detective, then I know the primary scenario for each book: Trouble finds Young Detective. Young Detective escapes trouble. Young Detective solves case. Each book in a series will be different, but the scenario won’t change from one to the next.
You need to build a character who can fill those shoes. We know he’s young. We know he’s a detective. What traits are required? Let’s brainstorm a few possibilities.
Young: inexperienced, naïve, trusting, unskilled, gullible, hormones raging, energetic, untainted by the world, optimistic, idealistic, single, free…
Detective: brave, enjoys a challenge, smart, can hold his own with older adults, not your average teen, has some unexpected skills…
Let’s call those traits that are required by your scenario the character blueprint. Every Young Detective could be modeled on the same blueprint, just like hundreds of homes could be built from the same set of plans.
Variety and specificity are what make homes interesting. The same is true with people and your characters.
There are tudors everywhere in my neighborhood. They’re all similarly shaped with pitched rooflines, decorative half-timber framing, and multi-gabled rooflines. So how does one tell them apart? Color, landscaping, decoration… It’s the same with people. How do you tell one Young Detective from the next? Color, landscaping, decoration…
So we know your Young Detective is going to be inexperienced and brave. Energetic and smart. Establish your blueprint, the traits your scenario requires. Then decide how to make your house—I mean protagonist—different than all the others out there.
To do that, journal. Find out your Young Detective’s life story. Was he bit by a dog at age 4? What happens when a dog is introduced in one of your plots?
After you’ve done your character development work, do your plot work. Story board the series.
Yes, the series.
Now look for moments in the story arc when you can use some of this character work. Like that villain in book 3 who lives in a secured manor with Doberman Pincers patrolling the grounds.
Also, look for areas where you can add levity to your story without forcing it. How do you not force it? By doing your work now and establishing the character’s trait before you need it. Let’s say you’re writing Indiana Jones and you’re sitting around with a bunch of writer friends. One of you says, “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if Indy climbs into a plane and a giant snake slithers into his lap?” And another of you says, “Yeah, only the plane is already in the air, so he can’t go anywhere!” Then you all laugh at your brilliance.
Well, if you have this bright idea in the planning stages, it’ll work. You’ll make it work by establishing early in the series that Indy hates snakes. If that airplane moment is the establishing moment, it will have to come early in the story. If you never mention snakes until book 3, then suddenly there’s a snake and Indy is petrified, guess what? You blew it. Your reader probably won’t believe it, because you didn’t establish it up front. Want another example? When did you first learn that Harry Potter can speak to snakes?
These are called plants.
I have one in Skoghall—I have quite a few, actually. Mitch, Jess’s ex, is mentioned several times in the first couple of books, and will be mentioned again in book 3. Why? I’m establishing not only his existence, but also something of Jess’s feelings toward him, so when he’s a key player in book 4, he won’t be coming out of the blue. The reader will have a sense of context and meaning already established. And Jess’s reactions to his presence will make sense, will seem organic. I don’t live in a vacuum. I have a past. Same for Jess. Same for you. Same for your Young Detective.
Yes, sometimes you want a character to come out of the blue, but probably not an ex-husband, someone the protagonist knows intimately and with whom she shared a chunk of her life.
The lesson here is this: you need to know where you’re going, what you’re doing, and who is on the ride. When you know all of those things, they will work together organically, whether for comedic effect or dramatic. What’s more, you’ll know what to plant when, and you’ll recognize when the bud is ready to bloom!
One more little thing: some of your protagonist’s traits can seem contradictory on the surface. Imagine a kindergarten teacher who is a kickboxing champ. Or a pro wrestler turned governor. Now that’s unexpected!
Get Your FREE Guide to ReVision
Join hundreds of Word Essential writers to receive inspirational writing tips and advice.