Making the protagonist interesting

Haven’t updated this blog in a while! Haven’t written any significant amount of fiction in a while either, for that matter.

As I recently wrote on my other blog:

I haven’t done any significant writing in a good long while. I’ve completely plotted several stories, and I’ve written several opening chapters, but I keep getting bored and abandoning projects. One could easily chide, “You’re supposed to stick with it, even if it’s boring!” Pshaw, I say unto you! In my opinion, if writing something is boring, then it’s a good sign you shouldn’t be writing it in the first place. Being bored completely defeats the purpose of such a creative act. If you’re bored writing it, why should a reader have any interest in it?

I kept thinking my getting bored had something to do with finding the right personal balance between plotting and pantsing, but as I reflect on why writing SON OF A DARK WIZARD managed to work for me, I believe it has more to do with how interesting I find the characters. Sorren in SON OF A DARK WIZARD, who was an arrogant brat wizard, was just insanely fun to write. So with whatever I write next, I really need to focus on making the character as interesting (for me) as possible. Of course, it’s not necessarily easy to do that. It managed to fall into place quite well for Sorren, but it isn’t obvious to me how to make a more virtuous character deeper than cardboard. Anyway, it’s something I’ll have to think more about before beginning a new draft. I have several more story ideas that I’m eager to get working on, but I want to make sure the main character really comes alive for me before I dive in.

So I’ve been trying to think about what makes a character interesting, at least for me as a writer. There are probably multiple factors, but I realized that, for me, the most important factor is probably whatever it is that makes the character special. And what could that be? The three main types of character specialness that come to my mind are:

  1. Special ability – This could be a unique magical super power, or a unique talent. Examples would include almost any super hero. Talent-wise, perhaps Mozart in Amadeus or the chess prodigy in Searching for Bobby Fischer.
  2. Special social status – Perhaps the character is famous, or related to someone famous, or the leader of a lot of people, or is part of a royal family. The idea is merely that he holds some social status that is not widely shared among the rest of the population. Typically this will be a higher status, though it could be lower as well. Or it could be neither higher nor lower, just unique. For example, Frodo in Lord of the Rings becomes the Ringbearer, a position no one else can have. Also, I think a special status implies some sort of special ability along with it, an ability that comes from the status, such as the power to command an army in the case of a king. (And certainly the ability to make world-changing decisions in the case of Frodo.)
  3. Special circumstances – This is when it’s the circumstances surrounding the character, which aren’t in his direct control, that effectively make his decisions meaningful. For instance, Frodo’s special circumstance is his uncle Bilbo having the One Ring before he passes it on to Frodo. Had some other Hobbit in some other hole in the ground had the One Ring, Frodo would remain a nobody. Another example might be Emmet from The Lego Movie. His finding “the piece of resistance” is merely a happy accident, yet it’s what earns him his unique social status and makes his decisions matter. If Wyldstyle had managed to find it before him, he’d be a nobody. And just as a special social status often implies a special ability, special circumstances usually imply a special social status and/or a special ability that go along with it. (After all, why else would the circumstances be all that special?)

Of course, characters can be special in all three ways for a special trifecta. Take Harry Potter for instance. Special circumstances: Voldemort couldn’t kill him, and in fact inadvertently damaged himself in the process of trying. His parents also leave him a lot of money. Special social status: Because the most powerful evil wizard ever couldn’t kill him, Harry Potter becomes famous in the wizarding world. And he’s rich! Special ability: None, except flying on a broomstick and playing Quidditch, which was likely thrown in there so he’d have claim to something ability-wise.

Three things to keep in mind about implementing one or more “specialness” traits:

  1. The specialness should create unique conflicts that only this character can face. This is probably obvious. Why would being special be all that interesting if the conflicts one has to then face are not also special?
  2. The specialness should create unique suffering for the character. Although I’ve been guilty of it myself, one of my pet peeves is characters who lament that they “just want to be normal” or “just want to fit in”. I find it to be very cliche, and often not very realistic or interesting. (Who the heck wants to read a book to imagine being normal?) And something like “oh, being the king is sooo tiring!” is not likely to elicit much empathy either. Perhaps better examples would be Harry Potter having his scar hurt and missing his parents, or Frodo feeling the fire and lure of the One Ring, or the pressure of having everyone depend on you, or whatever… just as their conflicts are unique to their specialness, so is their suffering. This also makes their suffering more meaningful (assuming it fits the context of the story… Harry Potter feeling Voldemort’s toothaches, for example, probably wouldn’t fit the tone of the rest of the story).
  3. The character should know how and why he’s special, regardless of his feelings about it. Again, this is probably obvious. He will hardly be able to make interesting and important decisions if he has no comprehension of why he has a unique ability to make them in the first place. (The only counter-examples I can think of include The Man Who Knew Too Little, in which Bill Murray plays a man who gets wrapped up in some high-stakes international spy warfare or something and thinks it’s all fake the entire time; he thinks it’s all an elaborate party game. Another example might be Don Quixote, depending on how it’s interpreted, as his decisions are made in response to delusions. But even in these examples, the characters think they’re special, they’re just mistaken about how or why.)

So after thinking a bit about this issue of character specialness, I can look back on some of the stories I’ve plotted over the last year and see why have little interest in working them into novels; I haven’t given enough attention to making characters feel interesting and special to me. There’s something to be said about personality as well, but I hope thinking about specialness will at least help me get started on making some of my plot ideas come a little more alive through characters.