Writing: How to bring your protagonist to life

One of my blog friends just found a wonderful, generous group of fellow writers who critiqued her manuscript. There’s nothing as wonderful as writer friends. Their main comment: her protagonist was static. That critique resonated with me, because when I started writing, I got it often. The thing is, I think it’s harder to bring your protagonist to life than most of the other characters in your novel. Why? Because we see everything through the protagonist’s eyes. He/she describes the people he meets as the story unfolds. We get visuals and impressions of everyone he meets. Everyone BUT the protag.

The gospel of writing is that a protagonist has to grow or change from the beginning of the novel to the end. The BIG book question that he/she wrestles with has to make him dig deep and come out a different person at the end of the book than he was at the beginning. But that’s sort of a given. When Life smacks you down, you either grow stronger, change tactics, or you curl up and suck your thumb. Most authors don’t want their character in a fetal position for the entire novel, so we give him what he needs to deal with the problem and, if you want a happy ending, resolve it. But there’s more to developing a character than that. We want the reader to LIKE our character, to enjoy spending time with him–hopefully, so much so, that they hate it when the book ends and look forward to another one.

So how do we make readers CARE about our protagonist? This was a tough one for me, but EVERYTHING counts. How our protagonist ACTS is the first clue to readers. What drives him/her? What does he want and what will he do to get it? The digger he has to dig to reach his goal, the more readers care. Remember–emotional impact is pay dirt. If readers only wanted information, they’d read nonfiction. Fiction should make us FEEL. We want to sweat alongside our protagonist, to get frustrated and worry about defeat when he does. We want to laugh and cry with him.

We pay a lot more attention to what a character DOES than to what he says. If he says one thing and does another, we know he’s lying to himself and to us. He says he loves animals, but then a stray that’s so skinny, its ribs show, comes to his door. If he grabs a broom and scares it away, he’s done as an animal lover for me. If he says he loves his grandma, but he never has time to visit her at the nursing home, the guy’s all talk.

How he REACTS to things is another clue. If he says he hates conflict, but then his best friend irritates him and he rakes him over the coals for it–bull pucky. I’m not buying it. If he says he’s not brave or strong, but when bullies pick on his friend, he jumps in–even if he’s afraid–to help, I know he underrates himself. What does he do when his girlfriend’s friend comes on to him? When he meets someone who intimidates him?

Internal dialogue is awesome for getting to know the protag. What are his thoughts when he meets his best friend’s girlfriend? When his fiance’ breaks up with him? When headlights are speeding toward him on a highway? What’s his voice like? Stoic, funny, or smart-ass? When I can “hear” him, I get to know him. Some writers use first person POV so that we live in the character’s head, but that alone doesn’t work. I’ve read first person where I’m immersed in the character and I’ve read others that make me follow the protagonist around, but I don’t really get to know him/her.

I try to give my protag a friend or two in every novel. Friends usually know us better than anyone else. They know which buttons to push, how to comfort us, and what we’re up against. Scenes with a friend can add new perspectives to a protagonist, sides he’d never show to anyone else.

The trick is, to KNOW your protagonist before you start writing. Every writer accomplishes this in a different way, but know what works for you. And then, bring that living, breathing character to life for your story. Flawless people are admirable, but boring. Keep that in mind. And the protagonist needs to be challenged in one scene after another until the end of the book.

Have fun with your characters, and Happy Writing!

P.S. In case any of you are thinking of making an e-book free, I made EMPTY ALTARS free on Kindle for Aug. 14-18, and the response sort of overwhelmed me. It made it all the way up to #89 in the free rankings, #1 for fiction with mythology and #2 for witches & wizards. I don’t think it helps a writer very much to make a book free if you only have one book for sale, but if you have three or more in a series, and you’d like more readers to discover you, it’s something to think about once in a while. It’s too soon to tell if there’ll be any carry-over for my other books, but I sure hope so.

P.S. I finished loading FABRIC OF LIFE onto Wattpad. Enjoy.

9 thoughts on “Writing: How to bring your protagonist to life

  1. Your point of giving the protagonist a friend (or a few) really stands out to me. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in the two main characters I am focusing on in my story, that I forget that I can incorporate a few more necessary people. Thank you!


    1. It helped me to give the protag a few more and different types of people to interact with, which was good, because I struggle trying to bring my protagonist to life:) Hope it works for you.


      1. I will be working on my characters tonight (and if I’m lucky, starting the first chapter). I’ve already got an idea for at least one of the friends. Thanks. 🙂


      2. When I wrote mysteries, I had a list of “available” characters to include in each book–a sidekick (who the protag could tell EVERYTHING), a few different suspects he could interact with, a few witnesses, the villain, and even better, the antagonist. The antagonist was someone who kept challenging my protag or competed with him. Antagonists can push the protagonist and make him defend what he’s doing. Good luck with your chapter! I got the idea of friends from a workshop Shirley Jump gave. She has an awesome blog with writing tips: http://www.shirleyjump.com/article/category-c8c382eb-f506-42a6-8cb6-2198a1a80134.aspx


  2. Really great post! My current WIP involves a larger number of significant side characters than I’ve attempted before, and one of my main concerns is that they will overshadow or otherwise outshine my protagonist(s). Thanks to you, I’ll look for ways to also use them as mirrors to reflect back on my main guy and gal. Awesome!


    1. I think it works, watching them interact with the protags. In Blood Battles, I got a little too gung-ho and had more secondary characters than I’ve ever tried before. But if I had them interact with Enoch, it brought both him and them more into focus. So good luck!


  3. I really enjoyed this post Judith! Every point hit home- especially how the protag reacts vs what they say. I think that’s my characters weakness. She reacts one way and feels another. My group keeps saying they want more from her. They want her to stop reacting and start responding.
    Sigh. If only that was a simple fix.
    Thanks you for sharif your wisdom and experience. As always, I learn something when I read your posts.
    I see you are on watt pad. Is that your romance? I’ll check it out!


  4. It’s not my romance. It’s an early novel I wrote that leads into the Emerald Hills novellas I bundled. I can relate with you and your protagonist. I used to hear that my character didn’t act, she just reacted, when I wrote cozies. But once you’re aware of that, you can fix it. You’ll think of a way.


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