Learn How to Create a Protagonist

Some writers come up with characters easily, but that doesn’t happen for everyone. You might have a story idea and need a protagonist who can carry your themes across the finish line. Use this guide to learn how to create a protagonist for any story idea that flashes through your mind. They’ll feel as real as any character that steals hearts from the top of best-selling book lists.

1. Give Them a Goal

Everyone wants something. It might be achieving a professional dream job or just making it through the day. Short-term and long-term goals make people relate to protagonists because they feel real.

Your protagonist’s goal should match where you want your plot to go or your desired theme. Consider their age as well. You wouldn’t engage with a story about a 13-year-old who’s frustrated because they aren’t the CEO of a Fortune 500 company yet. It isn’t within their power to do that at their age, but you might read one about a 13-year-old discovering the power of found family.

If you’re not sure where to start with goals, you can browse options like:

  • Inventing something to help their family
  • Getting out of a dangerous situation
  • Defeating their greatest fear
  • Stopping a bad habit
  • Finding a best friend

It can also help to categorize them as internal and external goals. The external goal (moving to a new location) could support the protagonist’s internal goal (finding where they belong). You’ll need at least one to drive your character forward.

2. Create a Backstory

Protagonists also fall flat when they don’t have history. You don’t need an elaborate timeline of their life, but you should know generally what made them the person they are when your story starts.

Include essential details like these to get started:

  • Where they were born
  • Who their family is
  • What their culture is/was
  • What they value most
  • What shaped their worldview

Be careful about creating a history for your protagonist and info dumping. Your reader can learn about your character’s history throughout your story or the first few chapters. It depends on what length of story you intend to write. Info dumping will only overwhelm the reader and come across as amateur storytelling.

3. Add a Few Flaws

Unless your perfect protagonist is supposed to grow by falling apart at the start of your story, your characters need flaws. People have flaws and find perfect characters annoying. It also makes it unrealistic when they always know how to solve problems or handle conflict.

Think about your protagonist’s character type to pick flaws that relate to their archetype or arc. A tough guy who scares people could have a weakness for something viewed as soft, like cotton candy. Maybe their flaw is more detrimental, like a protagonist who gets more self-centered as they get happier.

Their flaws should intertwine with the plot you want to write or the major conflicts. That way your protagonist isn’t just the face of your story but the foundation of it too.

4. Save a Visual Resource

It’s challenging to remember what your character looks like if you’re writing a novel that takes months or years of your life. I depend on visual resources to remember the finer details of my protagonists, like the way their hair flips over their brows or where their freckles are.

Some writers use AI image generators to create characters. You can do that, but just be aware that AI generators most likely use artists’ images without permission to create new art on demand.

If that makes you want to look elsewhere for character creation resources, I’ve got you covered with these alternatives:

5. Raise the Stakes

Tension plays a huge role in what makes a story work. Your readers need to feel tied to the plot, which means giving your protagonist (and other characters) something to lose. That thing could justify their actions or be the motivation behind bad choices. It could also be the end goal of your novel.

6. Help Them Grow

If you read a story where a character accomplished a goal and finished in exactly the same place, you wouldn’t feel like the plot actually went anywhere. Protagonists need to grow to push the plot forward.

Give your protagonist something to struggle with. Something to fight against. Someone to clash heads with. Supportive friends or family to encourage them to keep going.

As long as your main character ends your story in a different place than they started, you’ll have a more compelling short story or novel.

Learn How to Create a Protagonist

You’re one writing session away from creating your next great main character. Now that you know how to create a protagonist, imagine who’s going to be the big headliner for your upcoming story. As long as they have a goal, a few flaws, and grow throughout the plot, you’ll have a treasure on your hands.

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