Finding Your Protagonist

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When you look for a character, you are committing to the most elusive hunt in the world. The hunt to understand another person. To truly be able to figure out how they would feel, how they would act, what they would do. In such a daunting situation, most of us writers end up writing people that are just like us. At least, in the manner of their worldview. We write what we know. But it’s a fine line between channeling past experiences to empathize with a character and writing a contrived cast with no life.

So, how do you ensure life in your characters? I’ve often found myself in moments, trying to find a character. I start trying to think one up. You run it through some charts and profiles and identify fears and motivations and think to yourself, I’ve got a really well developed character. But then you go to write them, and there’s no magic. Did we take the magic out of them by planning them too much? And so then you start trying to write without overplanning, but you just find yourself staring at a blank page.

Both of these situations come from not letting yourself find a character. Not create one. Discover one. You need to preserve the magic. If you don’t believe in them as magic, you’ll never be able to create that feeling in your readers. And when you “create” a character, you’re plugging them into formulas and charts and making it a science. Writing needs magic, not formulas. But I’m rambling. You’ll find me doing that here and there. Back to the subject.

How do we create this mysterious magic, this life, in our characters and writing? I can only say what it’s like for me. It starts with listening. Closing your eyes, or staring at the ceiling, and just listening. Think of places. I call this part “seeing vague shapes”. Like ships on a foggy sea, just lights and impressions in the mist. Finding a protagonist is like being stranded on the open seas, floating on a raft. It’s dark, and foggy, and you’re just hoping that one of the shapes in the mist comes close enough for you to see each other. Then you just see where the ship takes you.

I spend the time on this boat getting to know the crew. Our story won’t begin until we reach the port, but we have plenty of time to get to know each other before then. A month on the open sea, with the captain and his crew. Thirty days to get to know your protagonist and supporting cast.

I like to use a sketchpad for the whole concept stage. Blank white paper, with no lines. This time around I only got to see my character here and there. I knew she had a very good memory. She had memorized every word she ever read. I knew that her being able to read was a fact she had to keep secret, but I didn’t know why. I found out her name was Lilian, and that only her brother called her Lily. I found out that she bites her nails when she reads. That she’s torn between her dreams and her fears. The dream to write her own story (and to be worthy of one), and the fear of separating her family. I’ve been able to catch glimpses of her strong bond with her brother, the deep love she has for her father, and yesterday I finally got her to talk to me. After days of listening, I finally heard her speak. To answer the questions I had for her. Hopefully today I’ll be able to heard her think. I just need to remember to keep listening.

I recommend listening to good music and looking at fantasy environmental art. There’s tons of boards on Pinterest that are great for that and I’ve started developing my own references board on the site to track my inspirations. Let me know about how you develop and discover your characters. I’m interested to hear how other people create characters. There is no right or wrong way, and what works for one person might not work for another. And what works for you now, might not work for you later. It’s always good to hear about as many methods and techniques as possible. So let me know, do you prefer to plan it all out, just come up with it as you go, or something in-between?

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