6 Things You Need to Know About Your Protagonist

Header image for a post about getting to know your protagonist. A woman writing on a laptop

“Plot springs from character.”

– Anne Lamott

Are you writing fiction? If so, you need to know your protagonist(s) inside out and back to front. You need to know them as if they were your best friend – as well as you know yourself, if not better. But what do you need to know about your main character? I’ve compiled a handy checklist to help you out!

What do they look like?

This sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how often we have a clear picture of a character in our heads and then never translate that picture to the paper! Remember that a well-placed metaphor or an unusual image can go a lot further than “she had blonde hair and wore a size 12.” (“Eyes like smudged charcoal” was a description I wrote about the main antagonist in my novel, and I’m still particularly proud of that one.)

This is harder if your main character is also your point-of-view character. Do not, (please, I beg you) write a scene with the character looking in the mirror and decribing what they look like. Especially if they’re lamenting about how plain and unattractive they are. Get creative with it and weave in details organically.

What do they do for a living?

Work may or may not feature in your story. If it does, this one is taken care of. If not, you need to at least know what the answer is even if it never directly features in your story. Why? Because if your main character has endless free time and money but never seems to go to work, people are going to wonder why and your story will ring less true as a result. If your character doesn’t or can’t work for some reason, you’ll probably need to explain that, too.

Our work also affects how we see the world. My main character is an artist, and she views her experiences through that lens. Someone in a different profession might see things very differently. (Most) people spend upwards of 40 hours a week at work and have to work in order to survive, so if it’s completely absent, your readers will wonder why.

(This obviously does not apply if your character is a child, a talking dog, or from a Star Trek-style future where money no longer exists.)

What is their family like?

Our families have a profound impact on our lives. This can be positive, negative, or a mixture, and it’s invariably complex and multi-faceted. Your protagonist’s family may or may not feature prominently (or at all) in your story. But even if they don’t, it’s good to have a sense of who they are and what your character’s relationship with them is like.

Who raised your character? Was their childhood happy, sad, carefree, complex? Did they live in one place or move around? Do they have siblings and if so, where are they in the birth order? Was their family open and communicative, or closed off and secretive? All these factors will impact who your character is and the ways they interact with the world around them.

What does their home look like?

A person’s home can tell us a lot about them. What does your protagonist’s living space look like? Is it tidy or untidy? Cluttered or minimalist? Big or small, luxurious or simple? Who do they live with and what are those relationships like? And so on.

Again, well-placed details matter here. You don’t need to give a room-by-room rundown of their home (and if you do, you’ll probably end up sounding like you’re writing an estate agent’s advertising copy rather than a piece of fiction!) Instead, tell us about the growing damp spot on the kitchen wall that they can’t afford to have fixed, or the antique rug they inherited from their grandfather, or the picture of their friend who passed away, or the haphazard bookshelves. All these things show us something about the life and personality of the character whose home we have been invited into.

What do they want the most?

Big and small things matter here. Your main character should have an overarching “want” that underpins the whole plot. They want to solve the crime, or leave their abusive husband, or have a baby, or get a new job, or win their love interest. But small, scene-to-scene wants matter as well.

This is really a motivation question. When your character does something, ask yourself why. What are they hoping to gain from it? If it doesn’t ring true or the motivation doesn’t make sense, the story is trying to tell you that something isn’t quite right. Revisit the scene and make some changes.

What are they afraid of?

Fear is a powerful driving force, and people take all kinds of actions – good and bad – to avoid or quell it. What is your character afraid of? More importantly, how do they handle that fear and what steps will they take to avoid that thing? This is a particularly important question for antagonists, because fear can be a factor that often underpins poor behaviour and bad decisions.

Tell me something cool about your protagonist!

I’d love to know something unexpected and interesting about the characters you’re writing about. Share with me in the comments or on social media!

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