Written by Sarah Yoon
When you begin a story, your protagonist starts out like Frankenstein’s monster. He’s clumpy. He’s clunky. You’ve obviously harvested raw chunks of inspiration and sewn them together with thick, black surgeon’s thread. We know where Frankenstein got his limbs and we shiver at the thought, but where do we gather material for our story?
Protagonist Basics: Presence and Contrast
You decide that your character is a mid-twenties male named Henry. He’s a stranger so far, but he won’t be for long. You begin by giving Henry a distinct presence. Think about the people you love and the people you hate. What traits trigger those emotional reactions? If it’s engaging enough to keep you tossing and turning at night—jaunty self-confidence or cringe-worthy self-deprecation—they’ll probably be interesting enough to build off of.
So, you’ve decided Henry is jaunty and self-confident? Interesting choice. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of examples amongst your peers, so you’ll be able to flesh that trait out later. For now, give him some physical features to match his basic personality cue–a few pictures out of magazines (Vogue, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, etc.) or off of Pinterest will give you a solid visual reference. Build him bit by bit, stabbing guesses at his character as you pull him together.
You grab each chunk of inspiration and sew it into his skin. But remember to create dynamic juxtapositions. People shouldn’t be flat—even bad taxidermy has some shape to it. Even though he’s supposedly so confident, he has fears. You just have to find them. Maybe he acts confidently because he’s afraid that others will pop his ego only to find an insecure poser. Tweak the nose of a stereotype and sew it onto Henry’s face to humanize your monster. Maybe he has a sporty attitude and physique, but he never joins any games because he’s terrified of getting tackled or hit in the face–poor man.
Going Deeper: Humanizing your Monster
After you’ve gathered more detail on likes and dislikes, goals and desires, moods and beliefs, bring poor Henry to life. Prop him up in a familiar space, and write a few pages about what happens. If Henry went to a museum, who would he take with him and what would he look at first? Does he pay more attention to the paintings, the girls, or the security guards? Or maybe he’s distracted by the way his shoes squeak on the marble floor.
Tailor this test to your story as necessary, but give your character freedom. Don’t try to force traits and don’t worry about getting it wrong—just see where Henry naturally goes. He walks toward the wall of Van Gogh paintings—you push him toward the mulberry tree, but you feel him shake his head. Why? Because he’d rather linger with Degas’ ballet dancers, who move with grace and athleticism. And wham. You’ve learned another facet of his character.
By the end of your test run, you may discover that the rough seams of your Frankenstein-esque creation have smoothed. He feels more human by the paragraph, making his own decisions, rejecting your original transplants, and replacing your rough work with a richer backstory. Don’t be afraid to alter your ideas when something better comes along. Henry will continue to grow as you create your story, if you let him surprise you. Maybe your plot needs him to lurk in the museum parking lot after hours, but make sure that the narrator doesn’t force him there. He needs to make his own decisions and become a rounded entity. The process of character making is a balance between your scientific experimentation and Henry’s free will.
“The Doctor,” “Wendy Collins,” and “Bizarre Bazaar Character Lineup” illustrations were graciously provided by Katie Lawter. Discover her ingenious macabre works on DeviantART or at her personal website.