You can have an incredibly detailed world, adrenaline-spiking action and jaw-dropping plot twists, but unless the character in the driver’s seat is interesting, layered, and memorable, the story will pancake. So building a protagonist (and a story cast) that wows readers is a top priority for us all.
We all like to believe we’ve created a protagonist that is undeniably compelling and unique…but how do we know if they are strong enough to carry the weight of the story on their shoulders?
Give Them A Past That Hurts
If a character just shows up at the doorstep of your novel with a handful of random qualities, great hair, and a guitar slung over his shoulder, he might quicken the pulse initially but it’s doubtful he’ll have enough substance to keep the reader in thrall. Readers crave a bit of complexity, something deeper than what’s on the surface. After all, we all have pasts – you, me, and the reader. Those pasts make us who we are. Your character needs one too, and to cut right to the chase, it should contain some unresolved pain.
Emotional wounds–painful events that hurt your character deeply–are formative. These negative experiences will change a person, instilling fears, corrupting their worldview, and damaging their self-worth. These things shape the character’s attitudes, behavior, and personality so knowing what happened to them in the past will help you write their every action, choice, and decision authentically. So, don’t skimp when it comes to exploring their BACKSTORY, especially the bad.
Uncover Their Aching Need
There are five basic human needs that cause all people to act despite fear, danger, pain, and risk when urgency is strong enough. Your character is no exception. Take a look within them to find their “empty bucket,” a part of the character that is longing to be filled by something meaningful: love, connection, safety, recognition, family, forgiveness, or something else.
This missing need is their INNER MOTIVATION, and only it can push your character to leave their comfort zone to obtain it.
Give Them A Meaningful Goal To Chase
The character’s goal can be anything (literally anything) as long as the readers believe down to their boots that the protagonist must have it. Pay close attention to your character’s empty bucket and choose a tangible goal (OUTER MOTIVATION) that will fill it.
The best goals are ones that will greatly challenge your character, not only externally through opposition and conflict, but internally also. To become someone stronger and more capable of winning, force the character to shed their dysfunctional behaviors, traits, attitudes, and the lies they believe about the world and themselves. These negative elements are all part of their emotional shielding which can only be dismantled when the character recognizes it hurts them more than it helps. To be free of it and their fear, they have to find a way to heal from the wound that caused it to form in the first place.
Reveal A Layered Personality
Choosing a character’s personality is more involved than taking a list of traits and assigning ones that seem interesting or appealing. People are complex creatures, and their personalities are full of contradictions: compassionate and impatient. Affectionate and jealous. Lazy, yet intelligent.
Backstory once again is the garden from which a personality grows. Experience is a teacher, and so the influential people and events from your character’s the past (good and bad) are what cause certain traits to form. A personality test or two can help you draw together an eclectic personality sure, but if you want one that is nuanced and rooted in truth, spend time unraveling their backstory to see how the past created the present.
Find Their Line In The Sand
Every person has morals, beliefs, values, or ideals that they will defend to the death, and so must your protagonist. Threats won’t sway them, nor will temptation, because it is their line. They may sacrifice many other things, but not this.
Decide what truths your character believes, truths so absolute they become part of their identity. Whatever belief they refuse to shift on, show it at work in the story: how they treat other people, interact with the world around them, and the many small ways they try to be someone better to honor those beliefs. Show readers they are worthy.
Make Them A Mirror Of The Reader
For readers to truly connect with a character, there needs to be commonalities: viewpoints, beliefs, desires, struggles, fears, emotional experiences, and needs that they both share. No person is perfect, and the character shouldn’t be either. Instead they should be realistic and flawed, making mistakes, struggling, and learning as they go.
Your protagonist might be facing incredible scenarios or be tasked with responsibilities the reader has never experienced yet still there are things that connect them to the reader. For example, on the surface, a protagonist who must save his children by defusing a bomb in their school may have little in common with your audience, but underneath they can relate. Every reader has someone they love who they would do anything to protect. A person they fear for and would sacrifice everything to keep safe. Because of this, readers can put themselves in the protagonist’s mindset and emotions and imagine what it would be like to be the only thing between loved ones and death. Emotions are always the great connector between the page and the real world.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were a tool to help plan all of this? (There is.)
One Stop for Writers has a Character Builder that lets you explore the deeper layers of a character…easily. How? Because it has been hardwired to our massive description database for characters and so will prompt you with meaningful ideas at every step. Once you plan your character’s backstory, emotional wounds, personality traits, needs, goals, emotional range & behavior, talents, and more, well, you’ve got a character that will definitely wow readers. Check out this character created using the Character Builder!
Even better? You’ll have a custom Character Arc Blueprint which will show you exactly what the real story will be. Why not use the 2-week trial to create a character of your own?
What else goes into a strong character? Let me know in the comments!
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Jan Sikes says
These are AWESOME and go right along with the Character Development webinar you guys held yesterday!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
I am so glad you made the webinar! I hope it was helpful and you enjoyed it! Thanks for bearing with the technical difficulties, too. Ah, technology…lol.
Ingmar Albizu says
Great advice for character building.
I like you emphasize giving traits your readers can identify.
I was thaught to give characters resilience. Your “line in the sand” example illustrates this in a way I understood.
I would add characters benefit from having a quirk.
Great post, Angela. I learn so much from your posts.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
So glad this is helpful to you. I agree quirks are also good, as are talents, skills, hobbies, and all the other elements that add interesting layers to a character, making them more human. 🙂