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4 Steps for Writing Realistic Protagonists Who Are Nothing Like You

4 Steps for Writing Realistic Protagonists Who Are Nothing Like You

Writing your protagonist all the time requires deep thought and consideration, however crafting plausible, sensible protagonists who’re nothing such as you presents distinctive challenges. Writer Donna Levin provides 4 important ideas that will help you work by way of these challenges.


Most of us, once we begin writing fiction, begin with a most important character who’s very similar to ourselves. It’s pure: the impulse to write down typically comes from our want to channel our personal experiences and feelings right into a story so that everybody can understand how we really feel.

It’s not solely pure, it’s straightforward. I’ve heard it stated, in reality, that each one the essential characters in a novel characterize some a part of the novelist herself.

As they are saying in appellate courtroom selections, although, “we need not reach that question.” We’re gathered right here to debate how it’s one creates a plausible character who’s nothing such as you. As a result of we need to transcend what’s straightforward.

Listed here are 4 important steps for making a protagonist who’s nothing such as you, however nonetheless very actual.

45 Grasp Characters: Mythic Fashions for Creating Unique Characters

1. Acknowledge That “Nothing Human is Alien to Me”

This assertion is variously attributed, however because of the Web, All-Figuring out and All-Clever, we all know that it was first stated by Publius Terentius Afer, generally generally known as Terence, a Roman playwright. After 2,000 years the assertion is safely within the public area, however he does deserve the credit score. Extra to the purpose, it’s true. And it’s one thing that we all know intuitively. We’ve all felt rage, guilt, pity, adoration, disgrace.

There’s a paradox right here: I’ve stated you need to create a personality who’s nothing such as you, and now I’m saying that everybody is such as you. We will resolve this by postulating that our acutely aware minds symbolize solely a small a part of who we’re. As socialized animals we’ve spent our lives coaching ourselves to disregard the impulse to stroll out of a retailer with a brand new iPhone tucked into the waistband of our denims.

But there stay huge, unexplored territories inside us whereby lie our understanding of how a mom abandons her youngsters or a person turns into a serial killer. (What I’d actually wish to know is why individuals wish to examine serial killers a lot, however that goes past the scope of this essay.)

I lately overheard somebody say that she couldn’t perceive why individuals turned homeless. However a novelist wants to have the ability to droop the judgment she makes use of in day by day life. A author wants to know why.

Who believes that Zeus is in command of thunderbolts? Properly, any person did as soon as upon a time and in case your protagonist is an historic Greek warrior you’d higher get out of judgment mode and into his (let’s face it, it was in all probability a “he”) head. Put your self within the thoughts of an individual who doesn’t know what we do about how frozen raindrops bump up towards one another to create an electrical cost. You then see a lightning strike. What’s a very good rationalization?

Be courageous within the service of your fiction. Writing a few shoplifter gained’t make you a shoplifter. Enterprise to the very fringe of the abyss: It’s simpler to tug again on an excessive character than to make a personality extra excessive. You may additionally be stunned on how little it is advisable to pull again.

Understanding different people isn’t nearly going over to the darkish aspect. It may be equally troublesome (particularly for a few of us) to get in contact with our nobler impulses. What evokes a lady turn into a nun, a person turn out to be a monk? A lawyer to work professional bono?

The Notion Hole: Utilizing Character Perspective to Propel Your Plot

I hate drama in my private life. I like routine; I keep away from arguments; I don’t spend time with individuals I don’t like. However in a novel, these qualities make for a very uninteresting character. Fictional characters have to be extra pushed, obsessed, and passionate than actual individuals. Assume Captain Ahab. Would you need him to hitch your chapter of the PTA? Assume Dmitri Karamazov. Would you swipe proper for those who noticed his Tinder profile?

Once you’re up towards the wall of your personal judgment, and what Terence stated isn’t sufficient, keep in mind that the best device a author of fiction has is her creativeness. Do you’re keen on chocolate? Think about why you won’t like chocolate: It’s sticky. It provides you a sugar rush, however then a sugar crash. Are you afraid to fly? Think about the thrill somebody feels when 100 tons of metallic leaves the runway and ascends into the sky.

2. Develop Your Character Via Backstory

I discover backstory essential to the event of any character, however when you’re creating a personality who’s considerably totally different from you, it performs a double position. Not solely will you uncover the important thing occasions and conditions of this character’s life that formed her, however that backstory will launch you in a path away from your self.

Clearly, you need to give your protagonist a really totally different historical past from your personal. If possible, let him develop up in one other a part of the nation, or one other a part of the world. The values of our milieus have an effect on us greater than we need to know: That was why Scarlett O’Hara didn’t assume that proudly owning slaves was the abomination that it was. Or why a Jane Austen heroine needed to get married on the finish. Why Anna Karenina needed to throw herself in entrance of a practice. In case your character had an overprotective mom, or an alcoholic father, how would that have an effect on her or him? Did she get a regulation diploma at Harvard or drop out of highschool?

There’s no components for how circumstances will form somebody’s character in actual life, not to mention in fiction. You gained’t be judged by a workforce of psychologists should you determine that rising up wealthy gave your heroine the liberty to pursue her music, as an alternative of creating her spoiled and lazy. Both method, figuring out about her previous will provide help to each distance your self from and 0 in on who your protagonist is.

Typically backstory will develop into an important a part of your present story. Within the film Monster, the biopic of Aileen Wuornos, the screenwriter dramatized an assault on Aileen, who then has to kill in self-defense. I gained’t converse to the accuracy of this depiction, however within the context of the film it makes Aileen surprisingly sympathetic, at the least till she kills a person who solely needs to assist her.

Nevertheless, more often than not this backstory is simply for you. It may be tempting, after you’ve written fascinating particulars a few character’s earlier life, to justify its inclusion in your novel. It’s so onerous to throw away good writing. Do it anyway.

three. Give attention to Distinctive Bodily Traits

Wouldn’t it’s good to stay in a world the place our look didn’t matter?

We don’t.

Research present that the taller a person is, the extra money he’s more likely to earn. I don’t like to offer speedy credence to any research I see, however it’s plausible sufficient as a basic rule. Go searching any café: what assumptions are you making concerning the individuals you see—the lady with the walker, vs the lady with a terrier poking its head out of her purse? After which, how may you problem these assumptions?

Peak, construct, and coloring are the straightforward and apparent elements of bodily description. However don’t cease there. God is within the particulars: the tattoo; the French manicure; the brief higher lip; the one ear that’s barely greater than the opposite. Massive ft.

From this description, as soon as clear in your head, you possibly can think about a lot extra of your protagonist’s internal life. A brief, plump lady goes to have a harder time turning into a ballerina. (Doesn’t imply that she gained’t attempt, and there’s a narrative there.) And the way may Cyrano de Bergerac’s life have been totally different had he had entry to a superb plastic surgeon? A lot of what’s bodily isn’t instantly seen. Allergic reactions? The type of hand-eye coordination that makes a great tennis participant?

Don’t overlook age. Not solely is the looks of a 25-year-old totally different from that of a 40-year-old or a 60-year-old, however their objectives, hopes and fears are very totally different as properly.


On-line Course: 12 Weeks to a First Draft


4. Have a Pal Learn an Interim Draft

Which will appear a tad apparent, as a result of all of us want suggestions on our work. However there’s an important distinction right here.

I strongly discourage writers from sharing their work with family and friends till it’s completed. Even probably the most well-meaning of these potential readers can’t offer you a lot assist, just because they do know you too properly. And even when they’re avid readers, until they’re additionally writers and/or editors themselves, they will’t offer you technical help, reminiscent of figuring out lapses in viewpoint or (sadly, all too typically) distinguishing between the right use of “lie” and “lay.”

Relatively, though they is probably not acutely aware of it, these good individuals need to learn your work as a result of they’re interested in this “writing a novel” factor you’ve been speaking about (and that they could have been eager about, however haven’t but tried).

Additionally they need to see for those who’ve based mostly a personality on them. This can be a no-win state of affairs. In the event that they don’t see themselves, they’ll be disillusioned. In the event that they do, they’ll nonetheless be disillusioned, since you gained’t have described that character because the sensible and beneficiant mentor, or always-there-for-you pal they see themselves as, however fairly as a cranky boss or a self-absorbed good friend.

Having stated all that, if you need suggestions on this one facet of your work—that you simply’ve created a protagonist who’s nothing such as you—present a draft to somebody who is aware of you and say, “I only want feedback on whether my main character is different from me.” Or be somewhat disingenuous and say, “I based this character on myself,” and see what their response is. I do know a number of writers who say that their companions are their most astute and dependable critics. So, no hate mail on this situation, please.

I’ve thrown loads of concepts at you. You don’t want to make use of all of them. Use what’s useful; ignore the remaining. Which is an effective rule to comply with relating to something you learn on the craft of writing.

If I do say so myself.


Donna Levin is the writer of There’s Extra Than One Method House, a best-selling “autism lit” novel that Booklist gave a starred evaluation, California Road and Extraordinary Means, in addition to two non-fiction writing recommendation books. She taught fiction writing for 20 years, most notably on the College of California Extension at Berkeley. Donna has additionally been a frequent visitor at writers’ conferences, together with the San Francisco Writers’ Convention and the Squaw Valley Group of Writers. For a few years she was a contract ebook reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle and a columnist for the San Francisco Unbiased.  Donna’s work is included in Boston College’s 20th Century Archives and within the California State Library’s assortment of California novels. She lives in San Francisco. Discover her books on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.


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