So there’s this guy. He’s tall. Bit of a loner. Okay, a lot of a loner, even when he’s with people. I know what he drives. I know what he drinks. I know he’s getting mixed up with a woman who may not be who she says she is.
But I don’t know what makes him tick. Not really. And I really have to know.
After all, he’s my protagonist.
The internet, library, and book stores are full of advice on creating characters. Some have you listing everything in your character’s bedroom, diving into minutia from their kindergarten days, discovering what they like on their pizza, and making up names for their fictional childhood pets. While I find that such details can help round out a character (like accessories), they are inept at defining them (like accessories).
Another piece of advice I see a lot is to make your characters flawed. Give them a dark secret, or an addiction, or a broken past. Or give them a funny or disturbing habit, obsession, or hobby to make them “real.” Again, this can help make the character a little more 3-D in our mind, but a funny quirk or awful disease alone does not define a character. I’ve read too many stories where the female protagonist smokes cigars for no apparent reason, or the male protagonist is an alcoholic, but neither trait seems particularly essential to those characters. It feels like the author read “Give your protagonist a unique trait,” and suddenly a cigar appeared in the heroine’s hand. These personality aspects may be interesting, and they may even be helpful to the storyline (the bad guy smokes cigars, too, so our heroine identifies him by the smoke on his clothes), but they still aren’t the thing that defines the character. After all, line up 100 alcoholics, and you will have 100 remarkably different personalities. All of them are dealing with alcoholism in unique ways, but even with the alcoholism, they are still 100 profoundly different people.
Defining the person beneath the alcoholism is what we’re after.
That’s where I am right now with my protagonist. So I’ve been playing with writing exercises, I’ve been rifling through the writing books on my shelf, I’ve been thinking about him while I drive to the grocery store, I’ve been looking for his motivations while I’m washing dishes.
But there’s no easy way to learn about my guy, until I learn two simple things about him: 1) what does he truly want in life, even though he might not know it, and 2) what is the thing inside him that prevents him from reaching that goal—in other words, what is his fear that is holding him back, again even if he doesn’t know it?
It looks deceptively simple: Goal + Fear = Conflict. And there we have it. The basis for a real character in a real story.
So I’m wallowing around inside my hero’s head and history, looking for his innermost wants/needs and his biggest fears/obstacles. And I find that it’s the same process I use a lot when trying to figure out what makes my twenty-year-old son tick. Yep, it’s that hard. And that worth it.
If you’re interested in exploring character development more deeply, two books I’m finding particularly helpful right now as I delve into my protagonist’s inner goals and darkest fears are Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere) by Lisa Cron, and the slightly more succinctly titled The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby.
Good luck in your own quest to learn who your characters are, really.