I’ve talked about Genre and Worldbuilding, and now we’re onto the good stuff – characters. As this is such a big topic, I’m breaking it into two posts covering protagonists this part and antagonists next.
Protagonists are the “good” guys and who tell the story, 99% of the time. The number of protagonists your story has depends on the genre and your focus – sci-fi and fantasy tend to have large casts of characters, while romance tends to have a small one. However, all genres usually have the same “type” of characters.
This is the hero/ine of your story. It’s Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Luke Skywalker. The story is told from their POV, meaning the reader sees their thoughts but no one else’s (unless your story is being told from an omniscience POV.)
Your main character requires three elements – an immediate need/desire, a wound, and an overall need/desire.
The immediate need is where the story starts, with your main character in a situation they want to escape. Harry’s cupboard. Luke’s moisture farm. They want something more, but often want they get isn’t exactly what they had in mind. So when change comes, they have second thoughts. Something needs to happen that catapults them into the action of the story (Owen and Baru being killed by Storm Troopers.)
Next your character need a wound. This can be a physical limitation or a fear/phobia; something that when the going gets tough, they feel challenged. They might back down. Chicken out. Maybe more than once, but then you need a twist where what your character has to lose if greater than the wound. Part of your final battle ought to be them overcoming what’s been holding them back.
Lastly, they want something that they might not even recognise themselves needing. In A New Hope, Luke’s spent a lot of his life waiting to grow up, but Owen’s fears about him being like Anakin are an unknown and unseen albatross around Luke’s neck. When he makes the shot that destroys the Death Star, he returns not just a hero, but as an adult. He’s finally thrown off everything that was holding him back.
Likewise, your character needs to get to a place where they’re transformed inwardly. Where they’ve not just defeated the antagonist(s) but the demons within. This doesn’t necessarily have to be near the end of your story – Harry grows up in Order Of The Phoenix, and this maturity is what pushes him on to defeat Voldemort.
The Other Half
If you’re writing a romance novel, you’ll have two central characters – the hero and the heroine. Most romance authors write from both POVs, alternating between chapter or by scene. So everything that I’ve written above is needed for both characters.
You might, depending on genre, have a second POV for your antagonist. This could work well for a murder mystery/crime story where your hero/ine is pursuing the bad guy.
Even in a novel containing multitudes, you’ll have a smaller group who interacts directly with your main character. Ron and Hermione. Han and Leia. (Obi Wan also counts, but his role is as Mentor to get Luke to a point, at which he’s no longer required.) Secondary characters don’t have their own POV in the story, but it’s as important to know as much about them so they can react to the events and the main character’s actions.
Though they should support the main character on the whole, secondary characters can – and maybe should – challenge the main on occasion. They can even fall out and, perhaps, change allegiance.
After your main and secondary characters are those more in the background. They are family and extended friends of the main cast, who pop up to offer advice or a clue – something that moves the story on.
Though minor, you might want to develop some of your supporting cast, to give them background that makes their ability to assist your characters make sense. If we go back to Harry Potter, the ghosts of Hogwarts are privy to certain information – some times due to their omniscience and some times due to their pasts.
A supporting character can be a sleeping giant – where the reader believes them to be mostly unimportant, but then there’s a twist that pushes them into the secondary character role. Rowling does this several times over the course of the Potter books, and Eddings does it in his Malloreon series by “promoting” Errand from minor character to major player. To do this, you need to know the character’s background, and to drop enough hints about it so when your character awakens, it’s not a complete shock.
So that’s you main character and friends. Next time, I’ll be talking about their opponent and why a good villain is just as important as a good hero.