5 Ways to Make Your Characters Not Suck

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  1. Make Him/Her Flawed

Nobody’s perfect. I’m not. You’re not. Like it or not, we all have our little vices and imperfections.

And so it is with your protagonist. A protagonist who has no flaws whatsoever is not a protagonist, but merely a cardboard cutout of one—and a poor one, at that. Like a waxwork model at Madame Tussauds; yeah, he or she may look like the real thing, but they’re not. So quit groping them already. Perv

Make your protagonist believable. Give her something to work through aside from the obvious external element of the story.

Let us see her grow.

  1. Give Him/Her Something to Fight For

It’s hard to really empathize with a character without knowing what he or she has at stake. Without stakes, there’s no story. Simple as that.

Give your protagonist something to lose. It doesn’t have to be huge. It could be something as simple as the respect of a friend, or an object of intense personal value—but whatever it is, it has to mean something to your protagonist.

Make sure your readers know what cards are on the table.

Only then will they care.

  1. Humanize Him/Her

Just like in the real world, fictional people have their little habits, too. A good way to add believability to your protagonist is by imbuing him or her with a tic. Maybe your heroine sucks her thumb when she’s nervous or intimidated; maybe your hero can’t stop picking his nose. Point this out. Maybe even make it into a running joke.

Make them human.

And remember, whatever tic you decide to give them, it has to make sense within the context of the story. What a character chooses to keep near them can tell us a lot about who they are. For example, a recovering alcoholic may keep a bottle of gin around the house as a reminder. Or a devout church-goer may grip the cross around their neck in moments of strife or turmoil.

Show us them holding it.

  1. Save the Cat

Even a character who’s a dick can’t be a dick all the time. Not even the central antagonist. In fact, as a means to fully round-off your antagonist, it’s important to give him or her at least one redeeming quality. To truly hate someone, you have to care about them at least a little bit. Take The Governor from ABC’s The Walking Dead. Yes, he was a mean, psychopathic sadist with a penchant for mass murder. But he was also a devout family man—which made it all the more impactful when he started slaughtering people by the dozens.

The same is true for protagonists. Even if your protagonist is a bit of an asshole—and they might be—they still need to have some sort of redeeming quality in order for us to get onside with them. Blake Snyder called this a ‘saving the cat’ moment, and goddamn if he wasn’t onto something.

So remember: it’s okay to be an asshole.

Just don’t hurt the fucking cat.

  1. Give Him or Her a Challenge

As with giving your protagonist something significant to fight for, it’s equally important you give him or her something significant to fight against. Overcoming a sprained ankle isn’t much of a hurdle—unless it’s the eleventh hour at the Olympic finals and your protagonist is a hurdler, that is, in which case, yeah, it probably is. But you get my point.

Make sure the odds are well and truly stacked against your protagonist.

Then let us marvel at their courage as they rise to the challenge anyway.

-Rich.

Categories: Home, On Writing

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