Novel Writing 101 – 2. A Great Protagonist

Last week we looked at the first part of my Novel Writing 101 series titled: Novel Writing 101 – 1. The Idea Creation. I find talking about the novel writing process to be really helpful not just for others aspiring to be authors but for my own reference. Being an author is a constant learning curve, and it really helps to have a resource like this that one can return to every now and then.

Like last week, I’ll walk you through the best steps to help you begin your novel and the small exercises involved in doing so. For this week, we’ll be looking at how to create A Great Protagonist.


A Hero’s Overarching Goal

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There are many elements to writing a good novel, and one of them just so happens to be your Protagonist’s Goal. A Goal is essentially the thing your protagonist wants. Your protagonists MUST want something, and that thing must be tangible, physical, measurable and obvious to us readers once the hero has met that Goal. They must also be actively pursuing it.

Many times I’ve come across Goals that are too whimsical or abstract, like the Goal of wanting to be happy or find happiness. This sort of thing is far too emotional, and not enough physical. Instead of a character wanting to be happy, clarify what tangible goal they want in order to be happy, like getting out of debt.

Last week in my post Novel Writing 101 – 1. The Idea Creation, I created a character called Ben, who’s Goal was to stop an evil corporation from dooming an alien species. Let’s follow his Goal as an example.

Motivation

Remember when I said that being happy was too whimsical and abstract to be a Goal? Well, that’s because it’s more of a Motivation! Motivation is the key to achieving a specific emotional point. Motivation is singularly one of the most important aspects to any character, especially your protagonist. It is the true driving force of making your charter active in pursuing their goal.

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Theres a few points to keep in mind about motivation. Firstly, your character has ALWAYS been motivated from the start of the novel, regardless of whether they had a Goal or not. Half way through the novel is not a good time for a character to feel motivated, it has to happen even before page 1.

Also, Motivation and the Goal are two separate things. Don’t get them confused or the novel will not flow correctly. Remember, the Goal is to be reached for emotional reasons, and Motivation is an emotional reason to strive for that Goal.

Going back to our hero, Ben as an example. Ben’s goal is to stop an evil corporation from dooming an alien species, and his Motivation has always been to help animals.

A Damaging Belief

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After you have a strong Goal and descent motivation for that goal, it’s now a good idea to travel deeper into your protagonist’s character by creating a damaging belief associated with their motivation. Motivation works fine, and as I mentioned above, it’s super important to creating depth. However, there’s more to motivation, and that’s a character’s damaging belief.

The damaging belief is almost something we as reader’s will not necessarily agree with, and we hope as the story progresses, the Damaging belief will be shredded. As our example, let’s look at Ben. Ben’s motivated to help animals because he’s come to believe the human race is incurably evil.

We as readers know the entire human race isn’t evil. Sure lots of people are but not everybody. As you can see, this is a pretty damaging belief for Ben to have, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever be happy if he continues to think this. But there is always a reason behind a Damaging Belief. Let’s move on.

The Belief Origin

Essentially a Belief Origin is a form of backstory. Many writers get caught up in backstory, and they get so caught up they inevitably have enough material for an entire novel. But The Belief Origin is important as it sets your character up for their journey.

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The Belief Origin is usually something traumatising that has happened to your protagonist. When we think of trauma, it tends to involve things that harm us both emotionally and physically. Like being attacked, being in a car accident, or your parents kicking you out of the house.

Going back to our protagonist Ben, his Belief Origin too was something traumatic. In my earlier post, I detailed Ben as being an alien animal scientist. His belief Origin could have happened from a number of things: as a baby Ben was born with a deformity and abandoned by his parents, as a child his only friend was a lizard, as a teenager his lizard was killed by a bully stepping on it, as an young man he disassociated himself with other humans, and as an adult he wanted to learn more about animals on other planets, only for his research to be stolen by an evil corporation.

As you can see there are many things you can do when it comes to a Belief Origin. Here’s a good chance to get very creative and come up with something terribly (though realistic to your story) dramatic and traumatising for your character to go through.

The Flaw

A flaw is so important as to not make your character too perfect. We as writers have a tendency to fall in love with our characters, and so we make them utterly perfect and beautiful, but the truth is, nobody wants to read about a perfect flawless character because they’re just too darn boring. Make your protagonist difficult to get on with or make them cowardly so they shy away from danger.

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In my previous post I talked about this in some detail, but I’ll jot it here again for your reference. The Flaw is essentially the thing that stops your character from getting to the end of the story. Your character Flaw is very important because it adds to their depth and gives your novel more emotion. When thinking of a Flaw, try to imagine the characteristic that holds your protagonist back.

Going back to Ben, he must overcome his lack of self confidence in order to stop his evil boss from killing all the animal species of a new planet. The point here is that we’ve given the protagonist a Flaw which serves as drama and conflict. The Flaw being: a lack of self confidence. Or you could be adventurous and give your character multiple Flaws, in this case, ben could also have anger issues. If anyone comes near him, he’ll lash out!

Flaws are also great way of injecting drama and conflict, and your protagonist can even be responsible for some of these issues as well. An aggressive protagonist could punch another character, which would get them into trouble, which would lead into something else, etcetera.

The Stakes

Taken directly from one of my previous posts: Giving your protagonist an objective, motivation, a dramatic past and a flaw they must overcome is all very good. Having these elements makes sure your character isn’t boring. But to ensure that the plot isn’t boring, your character is going to need stakes. Put simply, stakes are all the terrible things that will happen if your protagonist doesn’t achieve their objective or objectives. By having something bad happen if the objective isn’t met, then we as the reader are not really going to care so much for the character in question. For example, let’s say Bob needs to run for the bus.

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In Scenario 1, if bob misses the bus, the stake is he’ll be late for work, oh dear, can you feel the tension? But in Scenario 2, if Bob misses the bus, the stake is he’ll be late for work and he’ll get fired because it’s happened too many times and his boss has threatened him. And if Bob get’s fired he won’t be able to pay his loan shark, and if he can’t pay his loan shark then Bob will be murdered! Oh deer, poor Bob. As you can see, the more bad things that will happen (stakes) the increase there is in tension.

Or in Ben’s case with the evil corporation, if he does not stop them, then all the animals he’s come to have known from the planet he’s studying will all be wiped out and turned into burgers.

Conclusion and Check list

As you can see there are a few posts to consider when creating your protagonist. But it’s best to get them figured out now before you jump into too much writing. This is because it can be pretty difficult returning to a novel in the editing stage once the book is planned and semi-written. Having these Protagonist Elements figured out first will help with your overall story creation, and assist in showcasing a well thought out character.

These elements can also be considered when planning other characters. In fact it’s recommended. It’s all very well having a strong Protagonist, but if your cast is lacking any real depth, the novel may be at risk. It’s best to take some time with this exercise and put it against each character you come up with.

To summarise:

  1. Give your Protagonist a physical tangible Goal
  2. Give your Protagonist an emotional motivation for the Goal
  3. Give your Protagonist a Damaging Belief based off a traumatic past
  4. Give your Protagonist a dramatic past and belief origin
  5. Give your Protagonist a flaw that stops them from reaching their goal
  6. Give your Protagonist stakes that will be dire if the goal is not met

That concludes Part 2 of my Novel Writing 101. You can read Part 1 here: Novel Writing 101 – 1. The Idea Creation. I’ll try and get something like this done each week to give you guys a better understanding of how I write my own novels.

If you have any questions or want to discuss the ideas above, either drop me a message, or leave a comment below so we can chat about it! Other than that, what things do you do to get your creative juices flowing? What do you think makes a Great Protagonist?

Next week, I’ll discuss Inspiring Sympathy in your characters.

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