I have a special treat for you today, Wrenlings! My dear friend Schuyler has ever so sweetly agreed to guest post here on Curious Wren, and I am doing cartwheels of joy about it (but not actually because I would probably crack my skull and then I could no LONGER READ OH HORRIBLE THOUGHT).
Schuyler has some of the best main characters I’ve encountered amongst my various splendiferous Human Writer Friends/Acquaintances, which I am slightly (fiercely?) envious of in a Oh-Genius-Why-Do-I-Have-It-Not sort of way. Honestly, Roo is such a sweetheart I want her for a real-life buddy, and JAERYN. *momentary mad fangirling*
BUT. As you shall see she has a method to her madness. So, find a comfy toadstool to sit on and make sure to take notes! Cheerio, darlings.
Schuyler? You’re up.
Protagonists are pretty important. Where would we be in the world of literature without colorful main characters like Frodo Baggins, Lizzy Bennet, and Ebenezer Scrooge?
Writing a loveable protagonist is fairly easy with your first book. You know them inside out, and generally for a longer time, then any other character you’ll write. You put all your hopes, dreams, and favorite things about literature into them. But writing subsequent characters can get tricky. If you’re published, you have to write them a little faster (ten years isn’t an ideal timeline after book one), and you have less time on the front end to get to know them. Some people have the knack of creating vivid, lovable characters (personally the characters are my favorite part of the process) while others struggle to connect with their characters, and feel like they come across stiff and unreal on the page. Whichever camp you fall in, I hope this exercise will help you learn how to create loveable protagonists, by drawing from protagonists in literature you already love.
Step #1: Make a List of Protagonists From Other Authors.
Take out a piece of paper or open up a Word document and think for a moment about your favorite protagonists in literature. Who are they? Write them down. Now think of the favorite protagonists you’ve written. Write a couple down. You won’t need a long list, but a fair handful from a variety of genres will really help in the following exercise.
From literature, I chose a handful of my favorite protagonists. I passionately love these people, and have read the books they’re in multiple times. I would write fanfiction about them. I would have them over for a party in two seconds flat. It would be incredibly, deeply special to actually get to meet them. (I know, they’re fictional. But STILL.) I chose Cadfael (The Pilgrim of Hate), Linda Strong (Her Father’s Daughter), Jane Stuart (Jane of Lantern Hill), Erroll Stone (A Cast of Stones), and Wilberforce (Amazing Grace). This group comes from a variety of ages, life conditions, countries, and genres.
Step #2 Evaluate What You Love About Them.
Now take your list and jot down what you especially love about these characters. It could be what they do, a profession they hold, a physical quirk they have, a relationship they have, or a personality streak. Here’s my list:
Cadfael: What I Love
Justice, independence, humanity, the way he mentors young people, sarcasm, friendship with Hugh, matter-of-fact perspective that’s open to the miraculous.
Linda Strong: What I Love
Sensible, loves to write, pursuing her dreams in spite of difficult relationships, loves her dad, great with guy friends.
Jane Stuart: What I Love
Loves her dad, loves keeping house, strong sense of imagination, stays true to who she is in harsh atmosphere, strong protective/caring instinct, loves life’s little pleasures.
Erroll Stone: What I Love
Acknowledges personal weaknesses without self-pity, sense of irony, fights hard to overcome flaws, struggles with people using him as a pawn.
Wilberforce: What I Love
Cares for poor and oppressed, does meaningful society work within his Christian worldview, works for years being defeated without giving up, great spiritual strength in spite of physical weakness, relies on friendships for ideas and strength.
Step #3 Pick Out Recurring Things You Love
See how some similar ideas travel through all those characters I like? Look at your list and see if you’re finding some recurring themes. Here are some of mine:
-big hardships to overcome (mostly relational)
-have to work hard to rise above, often sacrificing the deepest part of who they are
-colorful and close friendships with others in the book
-sense of sarcasm/humor
-sense of care and compassion for the oppressed
-dreamers who love the beautiful, everyday gifts and cling to the hope of better things
Your list might look a little different. That’s as it should be—we need a wide variety of protagonists and personalities in literature! But what you love best will become your brand of protagonist. The themes that resonate with you as you read should be the themes that carry through into your own protagonists.
If I talk about a Dickens protagonist, or a G.A. Henty hero, or a Gene Stratton Porter heroine, there are many to choose from, but all of them have the stamp of the original author. They often love the causes and act in the way their author could resonate with most deeply. Your protagonists will be the same. They’ll have different careers, time periods, ages, and relational status in each book—but at their core, they will be who you love most. Making a likeable protagonist doesn’t merely mean throwing together different personality traits and life circumstances from your last story. It means carefully weaving in what you love and along with those things.
Step #4 Evaluate The Protagonists You’ve Written
Now that we’ve looked at protagonists in literature, take a look at your stories, and choose a couple of protagonists you’ve written or want to write that you especially love. For the sake of this article, I’m going to choose Jaeryn Graham, a colorful Irish agent in my WW1 spy novel, and Roo, a sweet ballet teacher who lives in modern day New York. Very different people, right? Let’s see how they compare to my favorite protagonists in literature:
Jaeryn Graham has a fierce desire to be treated justly, and will risk anything to achieve the object he wants without worrying about the consequences. The justice theme in Jaeryn’s arc also appears in all the characters in the above list in different ways, and is one near and dear to my heart. He’s also kind to the oppressed, though sometimes he chooses to oppress them himself to achieve a necessary object. Realizing the importance of close friendships is a huge part of his story as well.
Roo couldn’t be more opposite. She cares deeply, is sweet, loves nothing more than taking deep joy in daily life with friends, and doesn’t need grand things to feel fulfilled. But like Jaeryn, she cares for the hurting, even though she’s unlike him every other way. Roo’s spiritual strength comes from stories I love like Wilberforce, she’s great with guy friends like Linda Strong, and she loves life’s little pleasures like Jane Stuart. Friendships are a very key theme for Roo. I didn’t consciously copy any of those things from the above characters. But because they resonate in what I read, they also resonate in what I write.
I’m about to write my favorite protagonist ever, and already some clear and classic Schuyler themes are emerging. A sense of passion for relieving oppression. An irreverent sense of humor. Some really cool friendships. Those are my core values. They make the writing process fun for me, and what I love can in turn be what someone else loves too.
Do you like your protagonists? Do they carry some of the themes you already like in books you’ve read? If you don’t like your protagonists, or feel they’re lacking something, is it because you haven’t given them the relationships and personality traits you love most?
One Extra Step to Bring Them to the Next Level
Once you have core themes for your protagonists worked out, there’s one more thing you can do that takes your character from good to great. That is simply to know them like a real person. I refer to characters as my fictional friends very intentionally. I have shared sorrow with them, shared work and laughter, shared the deepest parts of their soul. To maintain that same level in each story, as soon as I start a new story, that new protagonist is automatically moved into personal friend. I take them shopping with me and notice the foods and flavors they would like. I pick out their favorite restaurants as we’re driving, make them playlists on Spotify, take them to the concert or watch a movie and register their likes and dislikes. I imagine them in a very vivid way—allowing them to be deeply passionate about big and small life things that might get in the story and might not. The point is not to go story scouting all the time; the point is simply to get to know them on such a deep level that no matter what time period or profession they are actually in, I know exactly what they like. My sister often whispers to me at social functions, “What would so-and-so be doing right now?” And she and I can both tell what they’d be doing, because they have been our friends for so long.
In summary, the important parts of a lovable protagonist are real personality, real life, and real relationships. Those are most easy to write and most colorful on the page when you determine the relationships and personalities of already published protagonists that bring you alive. Put those resonating aspects into your own work, wherever each story takes you—and you’ll be giving the protagonists a piece of your own real, living heart to turn them from flat to 3D.
Schuyler McConkey is a novelist and Bright Lights ministry leader living with her parents and two siblings. She authors a blog, My Lady Bibliophile, where she writes book reviews and articles evaluating classic literature. In her spare time, she enjoys listening to Irish love songs, learning Gaelic, and reading too many Dickens novels.