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Posted Friday, June 3, 2011, at 11:47 AM

Now that you've created the skeleton for your creature - you've developed an outline using the 3-Act structure - it's time to move on to the internal organs. At the heart of your story is the protagonist - your main character. Your protagonist is the center around which all the activity in the story revolves. In "Gone with the Wind," the protagonist is Scarlett, and even though I wouldn't really categorize Rhett as a secondary character, given his importance, he still takes a back seat to our feisty southern belle.

As you develop the characters for your book, consider keeping a "character worksheet" in which to list such details as eye and hair color, age, family dynamics, etc. Keep this worksheet handy so you can refer back to it as needed. Start an Information File for your book. The Information File is different from your Ideas File in that it pertains to a given project. It's where you put your character worksheet, all the research you've done for your story and other pertinent details. If you keep all of this information in one place - a 3-ring binder works well - you can access it quickly when you need to look up something. You can access the character worksheet that I use, and feel free to make as many copies as you wish.

How do you create compelling, real-life characters that jump off the page? You give them a personality. Your characters have flaws - even your hero/heroine - just like real people. No one is perfect, and, frankly, perfection is boring. In addition, your reader must be able to identify with the protagonist. The reader steps into the story, feels like he's become a part of it, and if he can't feel some sympathy for the main characters, he won't care what happens to them.

So, even though your hero may be deeply flawed, he must also be seen as sympathetic. How do you do that? By using an old trick called "Save the Cat." In recent years a book with that title has emerged, and though the book is about screenwriting, it applies just as well to fiction.

I'll give you an example: Your main character wakes up, hung over, in a strange apartment. He doesn't know where he is, but this isn't a new occurrence for him and the two-day stubble on his face tells him he's been out for some time. He gathers his clothes, sneaks out of the apartment and heads out in search of his car. Not a terrific beginning. Your reader wonders, who is this guy? But then, as your character is leaving the apartment building, he stops and takes the time to help a meowing cat out of a tree (thus the expression). Or he helps an old woman carry her heavy packages up the steps of the building, or pats the head of a small child... you get the idea. At that point your reader realizes that, though he's dirty and hung over, this is a good guy! So it's easy for your reader, from that point on, to care about what happens to him.

Of course your characters' flaws can be more subtle than a tendency for alcoholic blackouts. Scarlett's main flaw (she actually had many) was her selfishness, which, by the end of the book, she was taking steps to overcome. Your characters can be selfish or self-centered, short-tempered, even prone to shoplifting - just make sure the negative qualities don't outweigh the good. And, if possible, have him at least try to become a better person by the end of the book.

"If you will practice being fictional for a while, you will understand that fictional characters are sometimes more real than people with bodies and heartbeats"
Richard Bach

Showing comments in chronological order
[Show most recent comments first]

I really like the character worksheet. What I wonder is should I fill it out for every character in my book? Some of the minor characters only appear once.

-- Posted by farmergirl.sp on Fri, Jun 3, 2011, at 12:37 PM

Every screenwriter needs to see 510+ stage hero's journey over at http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html

-- Posted by DaveTo on Sat, Jun 4, 2011, at 10:08 AM

Is it always clear who the progaonist is? I just finished a book, So Much Pretty by Clara Hoffman. Very good. But I'm still not sure who the main character was. There were so many, with different chapters told from different point of views.

-- Posted by JohnG1964 on Sun, Jun 5, 2011, at 8:49 AM

Use the Character Worksheet in full for your main characters, but for your secondary characters there's no need to fill out every detail. If you are adding a very minor character (a "walk on") I would fill out only the basic info - name, description, etc. Even if the character only appears once, it's still a good idea to have that information on file in case you need to refer to it again later.

There's nothing worse (okay, maybe some things are worse) than rifling through a 300 page manuscript looking for a character's one appearance because you decide to refer to him again at a later date.

Remember, even working from an outline, surprises do happen, and you might find a use later for a character you thought was going to appear only once. They have a way of doing that.

-- Posted by JTennant on Mon, Jun 6, 2011, at 10:13 AM

I read that book, "So Much Pretty" by Cara Hoffman. It was creepy, well done, and I couldn't put it down.

Your confusion about the protagonist is understandable. There are several characters, a couple of which receive almost equal time. But I'd say the protagonist is Stacy Flynn, the reporter. Even though Alice is the catalyst around which the climax of the story revolves, Stacy is the observer of everything that's going on and the outsider who is obsessed with the small town's refusal to investigate a terrible crime.

-- Posted by JTennant on Mon, Jun 6, 2011, at 10:25 AM

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Jean Tennant has been writing professionally for more than 30 years. Beginning with short stories, newspaper and magazine articles, she eventually branched out to full-length work, with several novels published by Warner Books, Kensington and Silhouette. Now the owner of Shapato Publishing, LLC, in Everly, Iowa, she teaches writers' workshops throughout the Midwest, for which her schedule can be seen at: www.jeantennant.com. Jean lives in Everly with her husband, Grover Reiser, and their dogs, Kirby and Dakota. Favorite quote: "Outside of a dog, man's best friend is a book. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read." Groucho Marx.
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