For many writers, their main character is the center of their writing world. The setting, world around them, and even the plot take back seats to the exploration of their protagonist. By taking a careful look at who you are writing about, you can allow your character’s strengths and weaknesses to steer you to a more compelling story.
This is part 3 of a 6-part blog series based on writing workshops called Chasing Your Tale: Building Your Writer’s Toolkit offered through the SheHive. “The SheHive exists to facilitate connection and growth for women seeking to live a life on the other side of should.” You can find out more about the workshop and sign up to attend here.
“The job [of building characters in fiction] boils down to two things: paying attention to how the real people around you behave and then telling the truth about what you see.”Steven King, On Writing
Who’s Telling Whose Story?
Before looking at whose story you are writing, let’s take a minute to define the terms:
- Main Character: The person your story’s narrative centers around
- Protagonist: The person your readers are rooting for
- Point of View Character: The person whose perspective the story is told through (whether in first or third person)
Many writers use “main character” and “protagonist” interchangeably, and in many stories they are the same. But sometimes, separating your main character or point of view character from your protagonist is the best way to tell your story. For example, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the lawyer Atticus Fitch is the protagonist of the story. However, the narrative centers on his daughter, Scout, making her the main character, and the point of view character.
Separating your protagonist from your narrative is especially helpful if you have:
- An unreliable narrator
- An unsympathetic protagonist
- An anti-hero
- A protagonist whose thoughts are exceptional or difficult to understand
- A protagonist who is unaware of their own changes
For example, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, are told from Dr. Watson’s perspective, Holmes’s sidekick. This is so effective because no one (except perhaps Moriarty) can understand the logical workings of Sherlock’s mind. The readers need someone whose thoughts are relatable to tell them the story.
Who Are You Writing? – The Jungian Archetypes
Having a clear understanding of who your protagonist is, and what they are seeking, before you start writing is a good way to let your character’s development guide your story. In the mid-1900s, philosopher Carl Jung, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, explained that all human cultures are comprised of archetypes – images and themes that have universal meanings which show up in art, religion, dreams, and literature. Over time, these personality themes have been crystalized into the 12 Jungian archetypes:
Each archetype has a unique goal, and a corresponding fear. These goals and fears are what drive them and their stories. If your character is the most important part of your story, then it should focus on them facing their fear in an effort to reach their goal.
Getting Help and Facing Obstacles: Supporting Characters
With the possible exception of Tom Hanks’s Cast Away, no story has only one character. It is the supporting cast of characters who move the protagonist through their story and onward toward their goal. As Victoria Lynn Schmidt (no relation) said in her book, 45 Master Characters, supporting characters can be friendly to the protagonist’s mission, or they can oppose it. Either way, they help move the plot forward.
|Jester||Fun & Levity||Boredom|
|Magician||Alter Reality||Unintended Results|
Friendly Supporting Characters
Friendly supporting characters are rooting for the protagonist to succeed. They include the:
- Mentor (i.e. Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: A New Hope) – He or she has been where the protagonist is and has important information about how they should proceed.
- Best Friend or Sidekick (i.e. Bucky Barnes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) – He or she is standing by the protagonist’s side physically or emotionally, offering aid and support when they need it most.
- Lover (i.e. Wesley, the Dread Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride) – He or she is the protagonist’s romantic interest, pushing them to be more than they were at the start of the story, often to earn or reciprocate their love.
Adversarial Supporting Characters
Adversarial supporting characters intentionally or unintentionally get in the protagonist’s way. They may be actively working against the protagonist, or they may simply be an accidental stumbling block. They include the:
- Antagonist (i.e. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs) – He or she wants something in direct conflict to the protagonist’s goal. For one to succeed, the other must fail.
- Joker (i.e. Dori in Finding Nemo) – His or her antics, klutziness, or hedonistic attitude distract or interfere with the protagonist reaching their goal. They may have to detour from their path to rescue the Joker from themselves, or be distracted by their carefree lifestyle.
- Critic (i.e. Statler and Waldorf in The Muppet Show) – He or she doesn’t believe the protagonist can reach their goal, or thinks they are doing it the wrong way. They may also be an investigator or parent (in a Young Adult story) seeking to find out what the protagonist is doing and why.
By choosing support characters that compliment your protagonist’s archetype and complicate their path to their goal, you can create a compelling story based on authentic human interactions that your readers will empathize with and enjoy.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a writer, owner of Your Law Geek, and facilitator of Chasing Your Tale: Building Your Writer’s Toolkit hosted by the SheHive in Ferndale, Michigan. If you need help developing your next idea, sign up for her next workshop or contact Lisa directly here.