Thursday, June 23, 2016

Creating Original Protagonists

A few reviewers of my books have asked, rhetorically, how I come up with such original characters. We, as writers and readers, know there is no such thing as an original character. My protagonists have all been written before in one book or another, going back hundreds of years. My only recipe for creating characters is to make them human, with all the flaws of real people, because, you know, no one is perfect.

It’s challenging to write a character who might not be likable—an unrepentant, high-priced call girl (Hooked), a brooding, bordering-on-surly man who spent fifteen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit (Murder Déjà Vu),
a cheating wife (Indiscretion), or a con artist psychic (Mind Games)—and make the reader like and even root for them. There are even times when my villain elicits pity, but not for long. Villains are people too, remember, and should be more well-rounded than just evil, though I have a couple of those too.

Where do these people come from?

Writers get ideas for stories all the time. It may be an organic idea or something we see or hear that triggers a story and/or a character. The hooker in Hooked—get the title?—resulted from the true story of a New York governor who got caught paying for a high-priced call girl, after, as attorney general, he broke up prostitution rings. He resigned because of it. Figuring out the kind of man who does that isn’t difficult: he thinks he’s above the law. But what kind of woman sells herself? The research was eye-opening. Actresses, students, and housewives, among others, turning tricks to make extra money is not uncommon. Some, like my character, make a lot of money. Who knew?

My surly ex-con in Murder Déjà Vu came from one of the many stories I heard about how DNA results freed a man who spent years in prison. My guy is released when a cop admits the crime scene had been tainted. That frees him, but it doesn’t absolve him from the murder, so some still think he committed the crime, including his father. What does fifteen years in prison do to a man? He’ll never be the same, never be able to pick up his life where it left off when a murder, trial, and conviction sent him away for what could have been the rest of his life.

My idea for the blind psychologist in InSight
came from watching blind students run at a track meet at South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind when my runner son was in high school. I was amazed and awed, so my blind character runs with a guide. Then I saw a story about a deaf cop and added him to the mix. Could the blind psychologist help the bitter deaf cop? Could they help each other?

I always wondered what happened to the paintings stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum twenty-five years ago, so I wrote a book, Indiscretion, and solved the crime—not really, but it was fun imagining.

Unfortunately, it isn’t hard to find true stories about child abuse and abuse toward women. These are not themes that appeal to everyone, but the subject matter is important. What becomes of an abused child in adulthood? I think I created an intriguing character in Threads, maybe one of my best. Readers agreed. Can he help a woman who was a victim of abuse? What do you think?

I’m drawn to conflicted characters from real life situations, then create a “what if” circumstance. Does the hooker heroine find a better path? Does the architect ex-con get some semblance of his life-before-prison back? Do the two damaged people in Threads find a way to put their pasts behind them and survive? I try to keep the stories and characters real and believable, but sometimes there are no pat answers in fiction. That’s okay. There are no pat answers in life either.

Polly Iyer is the author of seven novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and three books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, and Backlash. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. This is a powerful, insightful piece on the creation of a protagonist. Great post, Polly.

    You mentioned what happens to abused children when they grow up; this is addressed in the second book of my series about three attorneys living and practicing in a small Colorado town (currently being written). I also employ the "what if" questions and often explore those scenarios.

    1. Linda, there's nothing like real life to give a writer ideas for a story. They're all over the place, daily. No author should ever be without a storyline for long. I look forward to the book you're writing. Thanks for posting.

  2. Excellent post, Polly. I’ve had a major struggle with my current manuscript primarily because one of the two protagonists is a selfless, intensely moral man who’s led a pretty much charmed life. Seriously, what do I do with a guy like that? But even the happiest, most well-adjusted of us still face challenges. After a score of rewrites, I finally realized this man’s journey through conflict is even more profound then that of the other protagonist—a deeply troubled abuse victim—precisely because it’s new territory for him.

    VR Barkowski

  3. Glad you found your way out of that, VR, and realized you can use his perfection as his cross to bear. I have a cousin who grew up in a home where everything was perfect, and when trouble hit her life, she couldn't quite deal with it. She thought of how simplistic she'd been in dealing with others' problems. A rude awakening indeed.

  4. Yep, Polly ... it's all about the characters. In my humble opinion ... okay, maybe it's not so humble ... anyway, readers can be interested in plot ... but they fall in love with characters. Keep kicking out those wild and wacky folks.

    1. You got to love the characters, Christopher, even if the plot leaves something to be desired. At least that's my opinion.

  5. Good post, Polly, and I do find your characters interesting. I look forward to the next one. :-)

    1. Thanks, Eve. I'm glad you enjoy them.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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