When I first started writing, I always had a difficult time determining how I wanted my main character to appear in each and every scene. Though your protagonist will always be an extension of yourself, we feature a wide variety of selves –
For instance, you may be a fearless rock climber who grits his teeth and laughs at the face of physical danger, but the thought of saying hello to a girl you like makes your throat dry and your feet heavy. Or maybe you consider drag racing an exhilarating experience, but every time you try to parallel park you wind up freaking the f’ out then cursing the owner of that parked BMW you just hit three times.
Point is, no person is static – we change from situation to situation, person to person, and place to place. You are not cardboard, and neither are good protagonists.
But don’t we all love the bad-asses?
When you think back to your favorite moments in films and books, surely you think of the climax when your character does something ball-sy to save the day. But I’ll tell you something you may not have noticed – the reason your favorite characters impact you emotionally during the climax of a story is because you related to them in the beginning of it.
Every good story features a character arc. That’s the change in character your protagonists undergoes throughout the course of the story, and it should move hand-in-hand with the progress they make toward their external goal. The reason we all love that montage in Rocky so much is because in the beginning of the film he strikes a chord with our own lives – washed up, unloved, thrown out and spit up by society.
But when Rocky gets a second chance – when he trains for that boxing match, when he lifts his arms high after racing up those stairs – we see ourselves, and his sense of accomplishment becomes our own.
Once we see ourselves in the shoes of a main character, we become emotionally invested in their journey. That’s why we all love happy endings and stories in general – they fill us with hope for our own lives.
Before you can craft an emotionally-charged climax where your protagonist completes their transformation and fills your readers with hope, you must make your character someone your readers can empathize with from the start. This does not mean that your main character must be generalized, ordinary or even likable. It means that the reader must be able to empathize with them.
We don’t immediately gel with “the one”, a jedi, or a gladiator. We empathize with Mr. Anderson, the always-late office worker. We empathize with Luke, the simple farm boy. We empathize with Maximus, the betrayed general who was sold into slavery and has an emperor to kill. It is the rise of these characters that make them worth rooting for – it’s not about who your character is, it’s about who they once were and who they gradually become.
In “A New Kingdom,” James starts out as a passive aggressive teenager with a dead-beat dad, no social life, and the fashion sense of a homeless person. Throughout the course of the story, however, he becomes the leader of a rebellion and humanities greatest chance at being free once more.
Here’s an excerpt from the beginning. See if you can relate:
* * *
In a classroom packed with like-minded adolescents, who dressed with the same flashy t-shirts and flat converse shoes, sat an oddball who wore a faded grey t-shirt along with dirty, knee-high shorts.
His name was James O’keefe. His face looked like it had been sculpted by Michelangelo, but his figure was tall, lanky, and altogether bony. Yet with even the most marvelous of faces, a wardrobe better suited for a homeless person made it difficult for him to achieve even a half-decent social ranking. After all, a gold coin covered in feces rarely gets picked up.
James exhaled through his nostrils and looked to see the fat red “F” marked at the top. He was hoping for a C or at least a D, but once again he’d flunked a test he’d wasted hours studying for.
Chris Hackle, the kid with the overgrown fo-hawk, turned to his buddy and whispered something. James caught a glimpse of his quiz – It boasted a sweet-looking “A”.
While James tried to convince himself not to get bitter, Hackle started working on his own project. He wrote something down on a piece of paper, something which made his buddies laugh. Hackle’s buddy, who wore a tie over his a normal T-shirt, dug a plastic cup out from his backpack. The two of them laughed then passed the paper and cup along with the scribbled note.
Whatever they were up to, it had something to do with James – he was sure of it. One by one, each student would read the paper, hide a laugh, then look over at him.
The poorly dressed teen tried to ignore it. He desperately hoped that the bell would just ring. He sensed the dampness under his armpits, and so he crossed his arms to hide any sweat-marks. Class had to be over soon. More than anything else, all he wanted to do was read that stupid piece of paper, but every school kid knows not to show a kid something that they really, really wanted to see.
The bell rang. James got out from his chair, picked up his oversized back-pack, and jetted to the door. He was already outside of class when Hackle grabbed him by the back of his shirt and stopped him.
“Donation!” Hackle pushed the paper into James’ chest and put a cup full of crunchy dollar bills and change in his hand. James read the paper.
Fund for the Homeless
As you can clearly see by his terrible wardrobe, James is a hobo (and a bitch) and his dad is too drunk to notice. Please make a small donation to help this sorry student (bitch) out.
* * *
– Thomas M. Watt
I had a friend beta-read a short story I just wrote. He commented how he loved a secondary character but that the main character was like a cardboard cut-out. I re-wrote the piece, using many of the principles you’ve identified here, and he said it was vastly improved.
That’s really cool. I’m interested in getting a beta reader for a novel I’m going to release soon. I’d like to read the updated piece if you ever want to send it over.
I’d like to take you up on that, only on another story I hope to complete this week. My goal is to trim the first draft in half, so I’d like to know how it holds up to the editing. Perhaps I could send you both drafts.
I’d love to take a look. Would you have any interest in checking out my novel? You’d have to purchase it for $3 through amazon, but I’d love to hear your opinion of it, especially since God is a major source of interior conflict for the main character, and I know spirituality is important to you.
If it’s already published, what feedback are you looking for?
I’m always trying to get better as a writer. I want to know what you like about it, and what you don’t like about it – but specifics. i.e., character, plot, dialogue, and especially the spiritually-related theme. And if you stop 50 pages in or sooner, I want to know what bored you and why you lost interest. Whatever feedback you are willing to give me I am willing to take, and incorporate it and make necessary improvements in the next novel I write.
I suppose I could do that. Is this “A New Kingdom”? Also, I will need an e-mail address where I can send my story. You can either leave it as a reply or send it to me at — email@example.com
That would be great. I just emailed you, so include it whenever you reply. Yes, that’s the book. The link is posted in this blog post, or else if you search “A New Kingdom” on amazon it should be near or at the top. If you see my name as the author, that’s the one. Looking forward to reading your story!