Hi there Writing Witches and Wizards.
Welcome to the second post in our blog series ‘So You Want to Build a Story’.
Today we’re tackling characters. Now, the topic of characters could cover dozens of posts. But today’s post will just be a broad exploration to help you identify your protagonist and build their arc. Next week, we’ll continue with the antagonist.
Most stories—not all; and this merits a whole different blog post—are centered around a single protagonist (ie. your lead of the story).
Your protagonist is the heart and soul of your story. It is their actions, their struggles, their decisions that govern the plot, that guide the narrative. Their arc, growth, is the throughline that binds the beginning to the end. If you want your character and their arc to be as compelling as possible, you need to breathe life into your character, know them as well as you know yourself. Even if only 1/6 of that makes it to the page, crafting a well rounded character beneath the surface will lend credibility to their decisions and arcs and the narrative built around them.
What exactly does that mean?
Well, there are a few ingredients you need to throw together (see the magic coming into play?) to get a fully formed picture of your protagonist…
their quirks and habits that others see,
their backstory that precedes their appearance in your novel,
their growth from start to finish,
their ‘inner demons’ that hold them back,
their view of the world they inhabit (ie. beliefs, philosophies, values),
their strengths and weaknesses,
their needs and desires,
their status and ability
All of these characteristics and psychological traits will help you define your character’s goals and motivations and decisions throughout the novel.
Once you have a solid picture of who your character is, you can start to build their arc through the larger narrative. From last week’s discussion of premise we determined your character, goal, conflict, and stakes. With those elements in mind, you can plot a growth for your protagonist.
Let’s start with these questions:
What lie does your character believe?
What does your character want?
What does your character need?
What truth does your character need to learn?
Let’s break these down further.
The Lie Your Character Believes
Most stories open with their protagonist in their ordinary world. As you have discovered in your exploration of their psyche, they have certain points of view, certain belief and value systems, certain desires and fears, etc. All of these add up to one specific belief about themselves and their world that holds no truth and is, in fact, holding them back from a full and good life.
Behind each lie is a traumatic incident, an event or moment that we may call your character’s ‘ghost’ or ‘wound’. The Lie they believe in is only because of something they suffered or endured in their life up to this point.
Let’s look at a few Jane Austen novels to break this down!
In Emma, Emma believes that people’s lives can be manipulated. Her ‘Ghost’ is her success in matchmaking her governess with a wealthy man.
In Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth believes that people are as they first show themselves to be. Her ‘Ghost’ is the society she knows.
In Persuasion, Anne believes that love once lost is lost forever. Her ‘Ghost’ is her broken engagement with Captain Wentworth.
These lies that each of them believes is the justification they need for their actions especially in the first act.
As long as your protagonist is subservient to this inner deception they cannot grow. Only by relinquishing the Lie can they emerge from their cocoons as freed butterflies. But that freedom can only come as they chase their goal and face the conflicts ahead in their story.
Your Character’s Want
The next element to knock into place is what your protagonist wants. Or, in other words, their plot goal. This will be the desire, the dream, the object that keeps your character moving forward throughout the story. Tied to this desire is motivation. As we discussed in last week’s post, a compelling character is one whose reason for desiring a certain goal is relatable and believable.
Let’s look at our Jane Austen examples again:
In Emma, Emma wants to set Harriet up with a man of worth. Her motivation is proving to Mr. Knightly that love, not wealth, matters in marriage.
In Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth wants to marry for love. Her motivation is seeing the trials of her parents.
In Persuasion, Anne wants to win Wentworth back. Her motivation is seeing him again and remembering how much she loved him.
As your character pursues this goal through the story, they are always held back by the Lie that they are clinging on to. They are also held back by…
Your Character’s Need
As much as your protagonist wants something, what they need is even more important. While the Want in a story is often something physical, the Need is most often something internal: a lesson, if you will about life and how they can work within it. Discovering and embracing this lesson can sometimes work against what a character wants or be necessary to your character obtaining their goal. Either way, if your protagonist wants to overcome their Lie, they must come to terms with the emotional know-how they are missing.
Back to our examples!
In Emma, Emma needs to accept that she can’t control people’s lives.
In Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth needs to let go of her prejudices.
In Persuasion, Anne needs to let go of her hold on the past.
Once your protagonist embraces this need (usually around the third act), they can take the final steps in their arc, towards breaking down the Lie they believe with…
The Truth Your Character Needs to Learn
As we come to a full circle in the character arc of the narrative, our protagonist discovers a Truth about the world that will undo the Lie that has held them back all this time. This Truth is usually tied to the theme of your story (which we’ll get into at a later time).
Let’s close off with our examples, shall we!
In Emma, Emma learns that the only actions you are in control of are your own.
In Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth learns that you should never judge a person by a first impression.
In Persuasion, Anne learns that true love endures all.
There you have, Writing Wizards and Witches! Our protagonists are essential to our stories and the best way to ensure they are compelling is by making them feel real and grow through adversity within as much as without themselves.
Next week, we’ll delve into our Antagonists!
Keep the writing the good write,