From story to story, from novel to novel, protagonists vary widely in psychological make-up, goals and dreams, in the types of conflicts they face and in the way they resolve these conflicts. Among all these differences, compelling characters may have some common qualities as well.
Catherine Ryan Hyde, author of Pay It Forward and 24 other novels, believes compelling protagonists share two chief traits. “I think he or she needs to be someone with a strong will to move through adversity, and someone readers can relate to,” she says, adding that relatable characters also require vulnerability. “We’re all vulnerable on the inside, so our hearts go out to anyone enduring struggles we understand.”
Authors are often told that readers must be able to root for their characters, yet Hyde believes that protagonists don’t necessarily have to be likable or sympathetic. They do need to be human, or readers won’t be able to relate to them. To accomplish that, says Hyde, you have to get inside your character’s head, and thats when the “humanity will begin to shine through.”
Here’s how Ishmael Reed gets inside of Paul Blessings, a character in his 10th novel, Juice!
I’m a survivor all right. After generations of ancestors working in the fields, factories, cleaning homes and offices, my generation had a chance to go to school, read books, attend plays, and do desk work just like W.E. B. wanted it. Like an old time Talented Tenther, I even had a season ticket to the opera. Only falling asleep once. During Wagners’s Die Meistersinger, I think it was the droning, lumbering trombone score that did it. Besides, like millions of my contemporaries, I’m fond of gazing and staring. This “sedentary” lifestyle got me in trouble with glucose, which one geneticist has said we should avoid more than the snakes we were originally programmed to fear. A bakery display of cake, muffins, and cookies is like a nest of cobras to me. They should invent a candy bar for diabetics called the Grim Reaper. How did I know that sugar had a dark side.
Blessings comes fully alive for readers with his open, frank self-revelation: regarding his roots, his generation’s opportunities, his drifting off during the Wagner opera, his sedentary style and his health crisis. Wryly, Reed situates diabetes in a framework that surprises us by an utterly bizarre comparison: snakes and sugar. We want to learn more about this intriguing character.
Of course, it’s one thing to know what a compelling protagonist and still another to create one. Should you begin with notes for a fully fleshed out character, or should you discover your protagonist as you write. Virgil Suarez, author of several novels and short story collection, plans out his protagonist in advance of writing. “I love to create an entire biography and history for a character,” he says, even though only 10 percent of what I imagine about a character actually makes it into the story or chapter.”
While Suarez does a lot of initial planning, much of his characterization happens as he writes. Intutive discovery of character may be key to solid character development. Instead of engineering or controlling characters, let their own voices take action. “I’m on the lookout for a fictinal person with a good story to tell me,” says Hyde. “After I make that connection, it feels more like a process of sitting back and listening.” This act of listening worked well fro Grissom, who says her two first-person narrators spoke clearly to her. “I wrote down what they were saying.” She had to edit later, but through attentive listening, she came to know her characters well.
Excerpt from Returning To The Elements by Jack Smith