Tag: Protagonist

#Amwriting October 11: Character Development 2.0

If you are following along with our series to prepare for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), you should have already started working on your protagonist, plus other characters. Now is the time to fill in more details.




How do you go from a rough sketch to a fully-rounded character? You can add goals, motivations, character arcs, secrets, lies the character believes, faults, and behavioral quirks, among other things.

Character’s Goal

The character’s goal is what they want to happen (in the future). It is imperative to have a strong goal because it will drive your entire story. Goals can be positive, like wanting to stop a killer or save the town or find a husband. Goals can also be negative, like keeping something secret.

If you are struggling with your character’s goals, K.M. Weiland has a good article about how to clarify your character’s goals.  If you don’t have any ideas at all, try one of a number of character goal generators.


The character’s motivation is why he/she/they want the goal.

I recently started playing around with idea for a novel about an amateur sleuth who is called to a crime scene because of his expertise. He is reluctant to get involved in the investigation and in fact, has good reasons not to get involved, but the lead investigator keeps drawing him in. The conflict between the two carried the story for about four chapters or so. Then I got stuck. After trying a few different things, I realized my main character wasn’t motivated enough to see the problem through. He could easily walk away and there would be no consequences.

The bottom line is you want to have your character highly motivated to struggle with all the problems you are going to throw at her. There has to be a compelling reason why she doesn’t just forget about it and take a long bath instead.

Character Arcs

How is your character going to change through the story? Is your character going to discover some inner strength or superpower and become more confident (a positive character arc)? Is she going to be traumatized and spiral into addiction (a negative character arc)?

When I started writing, I read article after article that suggested a character absolutely, positively must change through the course of the story. It was a rule. Change or there is no story. That is law.

Except, as many things you learn about writing, it really isn’t true. If you have a pretty cool, together character, it might be that she changes the world rather being changed by it. Some people call this a “flat character arc” or a “static character,” both of which sound a bit negative. In truth, this is a great character to have (think Sherlock Holmes). Caveat:  It is likely some of your other characters are going to have to change.

Which arcs do you like better?

A: A somewhat immature character gains confidence and matures.

When Character A’s friends dismiss her suspicions about the accidental death of a local artist, she is driven to investigate. After uncovering more mysterious deaths, Character A must find the link and prove they are murders before someone else — possibly herself — is silenced.

B: A mature character reacts to life’s circumstances.

When a car crashes off the side of a mountain and kills his boss’s daughter, Character B must prove it wasn’t his fault before he’s sent to jail and loses everything.


Having secrets can add tension and conflict to a story. Characters may behave weirdly if they have a deep secret to hide.

Make sure your character’s secrets add to the story and aren’t dead ends. Remember my reluctant amateur sleuth above? He had a really good reason for not getting involved in an investigation. It turned out he was in witness protection and needed to keep out of the spotlight to protect his identity. It was a great secret, but killed the story.

Self-Delusion (Lies the Character Believes)

We all protect ourselves by denying truths. Scour those mistaken beliefs for conflict and tension. For example, a character may believe she wants justice, but what she’s really seeking is revenge. Another character believes his friend will come through for him in his time of need, but in reality the friend is selfish and lazy.

Katherine Grubb at 10 Minute Novelists has a whole article of how to develop mistaken beliefs into story gems.

Quirks and Inconsistencies

Although we rarely notice it, real humans are inconsistent. For example, when I was in college a group of friends and I used to go to a vigorous aerobics class, then afterwards meet at the ice cream shop for desert and consume a bunch of calories. My husband regulates the thermostat with an iron fist, then leaves the refrigerator door open for 15 minutes while he makes a sandwich.

Develop those quirks and inconsistencies. A perfect character without any inconsistencies is boring to read about.


Construct lists of your character’s faults, quirks, and mistaken beliefs. Try to mix them up and think outside of the box. When you have a few different ones, brainstorm how they will improve your story. Cross out the ones that reduce tension or take your character out of the story.

  • Is she afraid of butterflies?
  • Does he get hiccups when he has to lie?
  • Do they secretly love cats even though they have a dog?
  • Does she never clean out her email and has 16000 messages?
  • Does he write notes on pizza boxes, then throw them out?
  • Do they think their kids are terrible, when they are really pretty great?



Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

#Amwriting October 2: Protagonist

Are you going to participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year? If so,  now is the time to start developing your protagonist.


Characters are the “who” of the story. For today’s exercise you should decide who your protagonist is. You might also want to start thinking about who the narrator of the story will be (protagonist or not), and if you will need additional roles such as love interest, sidekick, antagonist, contagonist, etc. Not familiar with these terms? Hop on over to Dramatica for a full discussion of archetypal characters.

Keep your genre in mind while you start to develop your protagonist. For example, if you love speculative fiction, your protagonist may be a non-human animal, or perhaps a robot.

By the way, if your idea started with a setting — the where– rather than from a character, that is okay. Jot down all your ideas/feelings about your setting and we will develop those tomorrow.

The Goal:  A Memorable Protagonist

Let’s look at an example from Rex Stout’s classic Nero Wolfe detective series.

Nero Wolfe stands out as a memorable protagonist. Even though I haven’t read the books in some time, I can still describe him. He is a big man, overweight, which adds to his commanding physical presence. He is a genius, but also has quirks. For example, he’s lazy. He refuses to leave his house, and is able to make the witnesses and villains alike come to his office. He spends his afternoons tending orchids in the greenhouse on the roof. He has a private chef who cooks gourmet meals and a full time caretaker for the orchids, as well as an office assistant/detective named Archie Goodwin.

Although I’ll bet you don’t know a single person who lives like that, he’s still believable and so fascinating that we want to read more.

As an aside, Rex Stout’s series have an additional detail that makes them worthy of study.  While arguably the protagonist, Nero Wolfe is not the narrator. Instead his sidekick Archie Goodwin tells the story and acts as a stand in for the reader.


Your protagonist will likely start out as an archetype or trope, like the drawing of a stick figure. Next you can use certain techniques to add depth, eventually making her closer to a doll or mannequin. By the time you start your novel, your protagonist should give the impression of a real, complex person whose unique personality and quirks will guide you through the story.

There are probably as many techniques for getting to know your protagonist as there are writers. A popular one is to do an “character interview” or “character questionnaire,” essentially long lists of facts about your character, like what his favorite drink is or what her dog’s name is. Another touted technique for adding depth is using psychological tools to learn about personality, such as the enneagram, which can help find your hero’s fatal flaw(s).

Recently, a webinar speaker mentioned the Onion Theory of Character, which makes a lot of sense. The idea is that what is revealed about a person varies with who they interact with, like layers of an onion. For example, a causal observer, say a fellow passenger on a train, might only notice the character’s appearance (and the character would only notice their appearance). A first date will learn about slightly deeper things, like where a person went to school or what their job is. A husband or mother will know and can reveal much more intimate details.

Today we’re going to explore some of those surface details:  your protagonist’s name, age, appearance, and occupation. Later we’ll delve more deeply.

Name and Age

You should actually decide on your protagonist’s age first because that will determine their name. Names go in and out of popularity over the years. You wouldn’t expect an 18 year old to be named Mabel, for example.

In addition to age, you should consider country of origin and back story when picking a name. Some people agonize over name selection, but the truth is that you aren’t stuck with the first name you choose. With modern word processing, you can use the find/replace feature and change a character’s name throughout your entire manuscript in seconds.

If you want to get through this exercise quickly, you can even use a random name generator like Behind the Name. There are many others, some of which are genre specific.

Years ago a writing instructor of mine suggested using the obituaries for name ideas. Although it seems a bit weird, one advantage is that you can pick names appropriate for the generation your character comes from based on the age of the person who died. Also, the names reflect real world diversity.

If the obituaries aren’t for you, lists of baby names can also be a good resource.. They tend to include information about origins and meanings. Social Security has lists of popular baby names by decade.


Realistically you shouldn’t go on and on about your character’s appearance in the text because you need to give your reader some leeway for imagination. On the other hand, when you are writing, it can be helpful to have a basic description, and a photograph or two of the person you have in mind to refer back to so your protagonist’s hair or eye color don’t accidentally change half way through the novel. If your main character is a robot, then draw a detailed version or even consider building a 3D model.

Tip:   Do image searches and save the images that fit your idea of your protagonist. If you have Scrivener, you can load the images directly into your file. Otherwise, keep a folder on your computer.  Some people also create Pinterest boards, which can be kept secret if you want.


What your protagonist does for a living will reveal things about their character. Their profession will also dictate how much free time they have, their economic status, etc. Spend some time picking their employment. Also consider whether they are suited for the job or do they hate it? Is it holding them back from reaching their goal?

Try to think beyond the typical jobs, too. It is probably not a coincidence that Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum character is a bounty hunter. It was in the “seriously cool” category in this  list of 24 unique jobs.

Tomorrow:  Choosing a Setting


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