Written by Songdog-StrayFang
Originally I was asked to write an article on characters; what makes them good, bad, and what makes them balanced. However the more I thought about it, the more I realized that doing an article on “characters” was flat impossible. The reason for this is like writing a complete article on fiction. Fiction contains many genres, each with their own personality, purpose, and tropes. Characters are of the same merit. Usually when you hear people talk about characters, their focus is on the main character. But that’s not where the character cast ends. So instead, I’ve decided to write three articles on the main ‘types’ of characters: Protagonists, Antagonists, and Supporting Cast.
Since most of what people care and talk about is the protagonist, that’s where we’ll begin. Usually when people discuss whether a character is well done or not, the word that gets tossed around is “Mary Sue”. But there’s little talk on what defines a “Mary Sue”, what makes them bad, and why people create them. However, because the definition for what a “Mary Sue” is varies from person to person, I feel it’s a little bit of a cop-out to point to a single concept when you want to call something bad. Let’s be clear, there’s a dozen variations of how to write a character poorly. Calling all of them one thing is just lazy. Therefore, the term will not be used any further in this article.
One of the things that everyone can agree on as far as what makes a good protagonist is that they must have flaws. We, as human beings, are imperfect creatures. Therefore our characters should reflect this, regardless of their species. We want to see our characters struggle and make mistakes. There is often some misunderstanding of what qualifies for a flaw. Physical flaws are physical ailments that affect the character and how they interact with the world. For example, being asthmatic or having a broken leg. These sort of flaws hinder the character and make their daily life more difficult. Physical flaws are necessary limitations, otherwise our protagonist would be able to accomplish their goal without trouble.
However, even more important than physical flaws are personality flaws. These are what build a character, and should be integrated into their personality. Some characters may be liars, have an arrogant personality, or be complete jerks. It’s important to balance these characteristics without falling back on archetypes and clichés. Avoid using character types that you are familiar with, such as the arrogant but good hearted protagonist, or the stoic and brooding loner. Generally, the more unfamiliar you are with your initial protagonist prototype, the more successful you are in building them. The reason for this is if you use familiar models you generally shortcut your way through the development process. But having to build a character from scratch forces you to understand all of their individual complexities. Plus you’re more likely to stay invested in writing for a character that is unlike any of your existing ones.
Personality flaws can be tricky. They are generally what drives the story and its interactions. A good writer should know how their character will react to any situation given their personality. It would be boring if your character always knew the right answer to get the optimum outcome for every situation. Therefore in order for conflict to exist (and therein story progression/conflict) your character’s personality flaws must inhibit them. Perhaps they are too stubborn to listen to reason, or too cowardly to meet their challenges. Negative personality traits are necessary and required for making believable, engaging characters. Be cautious, however, as sometimes writers overload their protagonist with too many flaws, making them unrelatable and unlikeable. But it should be worth saying that the exact opposite is possible; by not giving them enough personality flaws the same outcome awaits you.
One of the most difficult and common problems that writers face is the self-insert dilemma. This is quite common with new writers. Although saying so comes with a bit of a sting, in short self-insert characters are the mark of poor writers without creativity. If anything, these are the true bane of stories above all else. A self-insert character is a shortcut that cheats out character building all together, and results in essentially an ego trip for the writer. Furthermore, it also makes the writer incredibly sensitive to feedback and criticism, stunting the writer’s own growth. It is not only bad for their story, but bad for themselves.
The problems with self-inserts are numerous. For starters, these characters are not realistic interpretations of the writer’s own self, but instead glorified, romanticized versions of what they either see themselves as, or wish to be. These characters generally are flawless, always know the right answer, and anything bad that happens to them is the work of a two-dimensional antagonist. These characters generally face no real struggles, and what struggles they do face are entirely external (meaning that outside forces inflict themselves on the character). Therefore, it goes without saying that these characters are bland to say the least.
Furthermore, it also cuts out any actual effort on the part of the writer. When a character faces a situation, the writer only asks themselves “what would I do in this situation?” Or more accurately, “what would I believe that I would do in this situation”? Most people like to believe that in any bad situation they would ultimately remain calm and choose the noble answer; ie making a sacrifice in the heat of the moment for the benefit of someone else. Realistically, our actions are probably more selfish. Either way, the writer gives no true identity to the character. Each character should react to a situation differently, as all characters should be treated as individuals with their own will and motivation. Not as idealized glorifications of our egos.
On a related note, another common problem writers face is that their protagonists inevitably end up, in short, without a real personality. When describing their characters, they use vague words you could use on any person. For example, saying a character is cheerful but gets angry when betrayed and is protective of friends, says absolutely nothing about the character. These are common characteristics for any individual. Readers want characters that have tangible personalities, traits that stick out. You do not want your protagonist to be made of cardboard. If you could switch out your character for any other random stand-in, without it affecting your story, than you have a serious problem.
Equally as important is character development. A character should not be the same at the beginning and end of the story. An often mistake is having all character development happen in the character’s past. We want to see the events that lead to them being the individual they currently are. Characters that do not change are static, and these do not work as protagonists in almost all situations. Conflicts should affect your character, make them question who they are, and change their decisions. We want to see the cheerful, positive guy get smashed and broken and turned into a jaded, cynical brooder. We want to see them struggle and suffer, and then emerge as something new. Don’t hide it from us by explaining that all of that happened before the story started and giving us a quick word-wall summary.
If you do have to make events important in the past, then be cautious of your use of backstory. Backstories are useful tools when you consider building your character, but they are often abused tools. Too many people want to tell you their character’s life story right in the beginning, which ruins the surprise. Don’t give it all away. Backstories should be revealed gradually as it becomes relevant. Depending on when you reveal parts of a character’s backstory impacts what kind of effect it has. Telling us that your character is infertile from page one means nothing to us, but telling us fifty pages in once their love interest mentions wanting children, does.
However, doing so requires incorporating foreshadowing into your work. If you reveal something about your character suddenly, it will feel as if you made it up on the fly. You need to drop subtle hints as you go, sometimes hints that only become obvious once the hidden secret is revealed. Subtlety is a refined art that takes much practice, but first and foremost it takes planning. In order to foreshadow something, you need to know what your reveal is in advance.
But really, that’s the common theme. The true secret to creating a good protagonist is planning. You need to build your character from scratch, understand their personality, know what challenges you intend for them to face, know what their backstory is, and know when to foreshadow. Character creation is not an instantaneous event. You may get a sudden spark of inspiration or an idea, but unless you thoroughly plan them out, you’ll end up with a character that either you don’t enjoy writing for, or your audience won’t enjoy reading about. Both of which are important things when writing your story, if you intend to actually finish it.