Tell Us Of Your Protagonist

It’s funny — I worked in pen and paper roleplaying games for a long time, and one of the hallmarks of that industry is people coming up to you and telling you about their characters. “I HAVE A LEVEL 14 SPACE JANITOR WITH THE SPECIAL FEAT: DEADLY JAZZ HANDS.” And you nod and smile and say, yes, that’s nice, but you learn to fear those not uncommon moments where someone wants to fix you to a spot and unload their entire character sheet into your brain.

But in fiction, people don’t do that. (Whew.) We’re trained to give a log line, a short elevator pitch (IT’S ALIENS MEETS GOOD WILL HUNTING AS A SPACE JANITOR PLAYS HOST TO A PARASITE NAMED ‘CUPID’ AND HE FINDS LOVE AND…). But really, we still need to be thinking about — and talking about — characters. Character is our entry point into a story. Characters are why we stick around. They’re how we relate. They’re why we give a shit.

So.

Whatever you’re writing right now? Tell us about the protagonist.

Don’t go on too long about it — a paragraph or two, no more — but tell us who they are. What they want. What drives them. What opposes them. Open that character up for discussion and critique. Think about whether or not the character works, or if there’s more you could do — and if there is, ask us. Let’s crowdsource it. COMMAND THE HIVEMIND TO WORK IN YOUR FAVOR.

Or something like that.

Note: if you post about your character, you should endeavor to talk to someone else about their character, too. Quid pro quo, Clarice.

(Extra credit reading: The Zero-Fuckery Quick-Create Guide to Kick-Ass Characters.)

460 comments

  • In my current WIP, my protag is Whisper, a super-successful Hollywood actress. But she’s young — what they deem an “ingénue.” Bear in mind, we are in the present day, so think of someone like, oh, I dunno, Jennifer Lawrence.

    Whisper is a big box-office draw and she’s about to start production on a film based on a hot script and her co-star Jodi, is an “aging” actress who used to be as big a draw about 15 or so years ago.

    She wants nothing but to make a great film with someone she considers a legend. But Jodi is actually very resentful and more than a bit nasty. And when Whisper finds herself caught up in a minor controversy, Jodi will stop at nothing to exacerbate the situation in a misguided attempt to regain some of her former glory.

    Shit, Chuck, I’ve said too much already about my characters and WIP. Ah, well. That’s what I’m currently working on. And I’m very excited about it. *shmoney dances*

    • What’s Whisper like? How does she handle people who are cruel to her? Useful to her? Precious to her? Unnecessary to her?

      How does she handle those who are a danger to her? How does she handle those whom she knows can’t hold her accountable for her actions?

      When the shit hits the fan, badly enough that it’s not obvious to Whisper how to handle/fix things, what does she do?

    • I am more interested in Jodi. Her story could show just how cruel showbiz can be. Her back story could reveal the sacrifices she made to become a legend then after all that, she is relegated to second place the moment a younger face and body comes on stage. She does have a right to be resentful! But she could be Whisper’s cautionary tale, maybe even her mentor – in a backhanded sort of way 🙂

  • Ethel’s a retired actress. She’s a grandma. She’s a geek and a gamer. She’s not a SCAdian, but she knows a bunch of them. She’s trans, and she transitioned when she was very young. She’s Canadian, of mixed Chinese and English descent.

    She’s also the Governor General of Canada – essentially Canada’s ceremonial head of state, on behalf of the Queen. The problem is, the world is under invasion by fairyfolk, the Queen is missing, and Parliament has completely dropped the ball on defending the country. Ceremonial? Not so much anymore. Now Ethel gets to (“gets to”) lead the country for real – including commanding the armed forces, and even leading the army in the field. (In high-tech powered armour.)

    Ethel is reckless with herself. She takes chances with her own well-being to accomplish goals; she’s much more conservative when the good of others is at stake. She’s both coldly logical and fiercely compassionate – she’ll approve the plan with the terrible cost in lives, but only after making damn sure there are no other options. And even then she grapples with her conscience – this whole “life or death decisions” thing is new to her. She tucks her feelings in a corner during a crisis, and lets them overtake her when it’s over.

  • The story is about wracked up cuddly toys in a metro tunnel. It’s about drug dealing, kidnappping and unfullfilled dreams.

    Rain’ calls himself a philosopher. He is proud to be a misanthrope and avoids society. He likes hanging around with his two guys at a siding in a metro tunnel. He used to be an announcer at a cabaret in town. His greatest love died in an assault before he managed to propose to her. He flees into a dream, where he has everything he loves. He bought the subscription for this special dream from a dubious dealer called ‘Candy’ and is now addicted. One day, he finds a girl, lost between the metalsrails and falls in love with her. The girl is then kidnapped. He is not a fighter, nor is he a hero. He stays hidden during the kidnapping. He resigns himself and considers her lost beyond recall. Candy makes him an offer: if he rescues the girl and brings her to Candy, he will receive a nearly infinite subscription to his dream. Frightened by bad dreams, he signs the deal. His first attempt to rescue her fails badly. He feels guilty to have brought his friend into danger, to be helpless and just an announcer. He is advised to “follow his dreams” and realises that he is in love with the girl. With the help of his friends from the cabaret, he tries to rescue her again. Brought into a terrifying situation with the kidnapper, he reminds himself of what he is best at: announcing! He talks his friends and himself through the danger. He finds courage in his talents. They rescue the girl and Rain declares his love. He sacrifices his subscription dream to get the girl out of his contract with the dealer, even if he doesn’t know if she will stay with him.

    • I love a world where you can buy your dreams, and I love this antihero. I like how his own natural talents end up getting him out of bad situations and his own natural instincts lead to lots of failures. What is his relationship with his two guy friends?

      • Oh thank you for the kind words! They made me beam with joy!
        Those two guys are his companion in misfortune. ‘Panther’ is an old guy whose friend all passed away. He believes he is a burden. In his younger ages he rescued imprisoned cuddly toys and was kind of a hero. He awaits his last journey every moment. The second guy ‘Brown’ is very grumpy. He was a fighter, a well known doorman at the cabaret. Some rumors said he was in the Foreign Legion even. During the assault (were ‘Rain’ lost his Love) Brown lost his arm and his pride. He feels useless and wallows in self-pitty.

  • Hazen Finch is barely passing her community college courses. Hazen Finch has lost two waitressing jobs in the last month. Hazen Finch is living in a rundown apartment in a sketchy part of a sketchy town. Hazen Finch has spent the last eight years fighting hand over fist for this life, and she refuses to give it up.

    Since her mother’s epic mental breakdown that landed Hazen in foster care at age 10, Hazen has been the responsible adult in her family. Angeline pulled herself together long enough for Hazen to return home, but then the delusions came back, full force, and Hazen spent the rest of her childhood hiding her mother’s illness from anyone who could send her back to the foster care system. Hazen begs rides to doctors appointments, manages her mother’s anti psychotic medications, and in general projects the appearance of a normal life, all while her schizophrenic mother tells her what a disgusting waste she is for not allowing Angeline to return to her position as ruler of the fantasy kingdom of Tavelonia.

    Right.

    Hazen is just barely holding things together when her mother goes missing, leaving only a note saying she has returned home and would like Hazen to follow her. With the help of her best friend, Charlie, Hazen begins to search for her mother, and is startled to start experiencing some of the same hallucinations her mother has been raving about for years. Is Hazen finally beginning to inherit her mother’s mental illness? Or has there been some truth to her mother’s stories all this time?

    (Hazen is sullen towards authority figures, especially teachers and police. Between work, school, and caring for her mother, she has a limited social life, so she relies HEAVILY on her friend Charlie for comfort/help/entertainment. Her mother’s constant verbal abuse wears on her, but she tries not to show it. Hazen is fiercely proud of the way she has kept her mother at home over the years, never allowing her to be admitted, even when her mother’s psychiatrist suggests it. As the story progresses and Hazen begins to find out that maybe her mother was more a prisoner of the external world than of her mind, the idea that she contributed to her mother’s jailing is very difficult for Hazen to accept. Hazen is reactive at the opening of the novel, fighting hard to keep the status quo. By the end, she has to train herself to move forward boldly, even when her decisions will effect more than just her own future.)

    • Wow this is a tough women. She seems like a tumbler. Where does she gets her strength from? What happend to her father? I’m curious about what will happen next!

  • Miriam is a trained scientist who has never worked as one, having made her career as a special projects coordinator between scientists and laypeople. She is quietly intelligent, incisive, and sees into the bigger picture and the nuances. She’s intellectually strong, emotionally stable, has a good sense of self, and is flexible but not a pushover. Like many, she accepted the status quo and rarely questioned it in any meaningful manner. Her discovery of a hidden and mechanically sophisticated steampunk civilisation poised for attack eventually leads Miria, as they call her, to rise with them as a half human – half steampunk interface who tries to lead both sides away from war.

    She’s a strong and not-broken character who is forced to consider many of the big questions and act on them as best she can when every answer is a conflicting one. Miriam has to rise above the clan mentality and tribalism of both sides, while trying to produce a genuine and workable solution. She isn’t a speech-maker, a politician, or a pacifist, and she’s willing to stand her ground until she’s heard convincing and not self-serving argument. She’s not a man in a woman’s body, she isn’t gorgeous, and she isn’t an angst-driven harpy or a hero or anti-hero. She’s an ordinary person that extraordinary things have happened to.

    • Hi, PD! This one I want to hear more about. It always seems like not-broken characters are few and far between, that oftentimes it is the knowledge that they are not whole that drives them. I want to know what’s holding her back from working as a scientist–is it the glass curtain, is it that her scientific knowledge makes her the liaison best fitted to enable the work to progress, or something else? I’ve always loved the “ordinary person that extraordinary things have happened to” stories because that is what happens in the real world–we’re all just Average Joes trying to do the best we can with what we know, and hoping that whatever our special knowledge is will be enough to keep us going and make it through. You say she has accepted the status quo and rarely questioned it; I want to see who she becomes when the status quo is challenged by her new knowledge!

      • Heehee! I knew ‘steampunk’ would drag you out. Welcome to CogWorld. I’ll email you the character notes and overview. Here’s a teaser, though. Miria doesn’t ‘become’; she sheds all the bullshit, so she’s a stripped-down rather than built-up version of herself, and she’s the better for it.

    • I like it all! One question though: thus far, Miriam has not questioned the status quo. What makes her change her character to make her more proactive and become an interface? In your description, she seems like she likes to play it safe. Being an interface seems like dangerous work. What makes her change? I feel there ought to be a hint at the beginning that she is an adventurer at heart. Maybe she has just kept that side of her hidden for some reason. Plant-payoff. If a character is going to turn into a butterfly we should see her as a caterpillar at the beginning 🙂

      • Miss Mildred! Hang about, I only posted a 2 paragraph intro to Miri. Your questions will be answered in the fullness of time, like when I’ve actually finished the other 3,469,678.003 paragraphs that make up the story. Oh, and you asked two questions. 😀

        Miri will question the status quo, and she’ll find it devastatingly wanting. Much like we do when we know a thing is wrong but feel powerless or too lethargic or distracted to battle it unless we have to. I don’t think she will ‘change’ as much as ‘reveal’ a part of herself that was dormant until the need arose.

        Miri’s career was as an intermediary so she’s competent in playing in the middle of opposing or misunderstanding sides. Now she’s doing the same thing, but doing it with a bunch of rather upset steampunks on one side. Same skill set; different application.

        To understand Miri you really need to accept that she is as previously described, and not damaged goods trying to pass herself off as complete. I get the confusion. People often want characters who are weak but grow, but I want my kid to have already grown and to fully use what she already has.

        I hope this helps lubricate the grinding gears. 😀

        • I hear you 🙂 But all good stories require characters to grow, either negatively or positively. And interesting characters usually have a flaw. Even Superman has Kryptonite 🙂 My question(s) are not a criticism. It’s just my way of trying to get to know the character better. But I must admit, I do gravitate towards characters with weaknesses rather than those who have it all together 🙂

          • ” … all good stories require characters to grow …” Guess I’ll be writing a bad one, then. It wouldn’t be the first time. 😀

            For myself, I’m ready for a character who isn’t a dingbat, a weakling-with-promise, or a stereotypical anything. I’ve read so many stories that start from those that it feels like reading the same story with different names a thousand times. I also chose a female lead because I’m rebelling at the whole ‘gorgeous but disturbed but might surprise you’ female leads in so many stories. Miri is the one who isn’t any of that, and she isn’t a street-savvy chick with attitude from the Bronx, a sexless Borg, or in need of male or female approval.

            I’d love to see more less-stylised, less-stereotypical females leading stories whether they’re heroes or villains. Women hold up half the sky. *cough* So they can sweep dust bunnies under it. *cough* 😀

            Ummm … Miri’s not too fond of that slop called Philly Cheese Steak. I see that as a strength but it might dim the lights and be considered a weakness in the American market. Does that count? 😉

            Thanks for your comments, Miss Mildred. All are sincerely appreciated.

          • Hi, Mildred! I know what you mean about growth. But there’s no reason the starting point has to be less than a complete person. Think of Ellen Ripley in Alien–she was a competent officer on the Nostromo, happily doing her job . Then they come upon the alien vessel and all hell breaks loose. She uses her skills in different ways, and shows the metal (and mettle) that underlay (underlies? I never can figure that) her competence. She is also my yardstick for a hero; male or female, if they can measure up even at the beginning by just *trying* their best, I’m in. Miriam/Miria feels very much like that to me.
            I’m also sure she has weaknesses that PD hasn’t laid out for us–she is, after all, human, despite steampunk mods! I really want to see this one in print.

  • I am more interested in Jodi. Her story could show just how cruel showbiz can be. Her back story could reveal the sacrifices she made to become a legend then after all that, she is relegated to second place the moment a younger face and body comes on stage. She does have a right to be resentful! But she could be Whisper’s cautionary tale, maybe even her mentor – in a backhanded sort of way 🙂

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