Thursday, June 16, 2016

Are Your Protagonists Powerful or Pitiful?

Grist for the writing mill springs from a variety of sources: strangers, situations, people watching, news or human interest pieces, others’ books, family members, history, personal experiences, and the list goes on. When an idea sprouts from one of those seeds and takes root, we then face the task of choosing the right protagonist(s) to tell our story.

My first novel has one protagonist, several strong supporting characters, and multiple points of view. The second has three protagonists, also multiple points of view, and is growing into a series despite my reluctance. The three simply have more to share than can fit comfortably into one volume. Because the protagonist can make or break a story, even if it is plot driven, we need to give serious thought to this vital element. Will our intended audience connect with him or her? Is she a fully developed, three-dimensional character with endearing qualities and annoying faults just like us? Does he stand up off the page and invite us into his cheering section? Can she adequately engage our readers to follow her story page after page all the way to the end?

My protagonists’ personalities often evolve from bits and pieces of people I know, have read about, even myself. Then, before committing a single word to paper (or hard drive), I get to know them. How? By creating detailed character sketches that include parents, grandparents, siblings, education, ethnic background, likes and dislikes, quirks, good and bad experiences, and so forth. I study their vulnerabilities and learn what makes them tick. Then I bring them to life. Powerful individuals whose hidden strengths might not at first be evident, these protagonists pick themselves up when they are knocked down, face their foes with determination, and touch the hearts of all who venture into their pages.

Pitiful protagonists, on the other hand, don’t engender sympathy or inspire readers to care what happens to them. They lie on the page feeling sorry for themselves, do nothing to improve their lives or anyone else’s, and discourage readers from ever buying another novel by that author. They don’t inspire readers. They don’t sell books.

How do you develop your protagonists? Are they based on real people? Are they composites? What techniques do you use to connect them to your readers?

Linda Lane and her editing team mentor and encourage writers at all phases of the writing process. To learn more about what they do, please visit them at


  1. I BECOME my protagonists AND antagonists, male and female both. I step into their shoes. It isn't a matter of how I "would" react as my characters, it's a matter of how "I" react. Maybe it's my long-ago dream of being an actress that makes it my method. Does it always work? Most of the time. Being a bad guy is hard though, and sometimes I feel I have multiple personality disorder.

  2. I like your approach, Polly. Elements of myself show up now and then in my protagonists, so I may be doing a bit of the same thing. As for the antagonists, I think they're very interesting to develop. More on this next month.

  3. I loved the picture of the pitiful character. How fitting. :-)

    To make sure, or do my best to make sure that readers connect to my characters, I don't forget that emotional and intellectual connect. Think of the people we meet at a party. I am drawn to people who have something of substance to offer to a conversation as opposed to those who skim along the top of social niceties. So if we give our characters emotional depth, and let them share that in the story, readers are going to want to have them as friends. :-)

  4. You mention a great point, Maryann -- our readers need to view our characters as friends. Then they will care what happens to them.


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