Vicki's Book News and Articles

Creating Unforgettable Protagonists

Written by Vicki Hinze

On December 27, 2010

Here’s a simple formula for Creating an Unforgettable Protagonist:

Find the character’s Achilles’ heel–their greatest fear or weakness or vulnerability.
That’s the character’s internal conflict.
Stomp it.
That’s external conflict in the book.
The stomping is your plot.

WARNING:  Do not develop a perfect protagonist.  Perfect people are boring and boring is deadly–especially in lead characters.

An Important reminder on Protagonists:

Protagonists are our heroes.  The people we WANT to be.  So it’s important to remember why we want to be like them.

Being a hero is not about what a man does.
It’s about who a man is–his character.
A man’s character governs what he does, to whom, and how.
His character is what makes us deem him heroic.

To hammer that reminder, I’m going to use hero.  Know that’s a synonym for protagonist and not gender-bias. 🙂

The method used to create novel elements, including an unforgettable hero, is insignificant.  What is significant to developing an unforgettable hero, is incorporating specific and universal character traits that appeal to the majority of us and are perceived by us as heroic.  We craft the remaining novel elements–plot, structure, tone, theme–to support and prove the hero is worthy of the name.

A character wants something. If no one, or nothing stands in the way of getting it, then you have no conflict, no story. So the writer needs an antagonist–a villain.

Who most wants to stop the protagonist, and why? What motivates the villain? What does s/he have at risk? Are the actions s/he will take in this novel worthy of a respectable villain? And are both the protagonist and antagonist likely to be found in this setting?

Story people emulate real people, though they are actually just the creative genius of the writer who develops them. Creating something or someone from nothing and convincing others the creation is real IS creative genius.  As writers, our key responsibility in the creation process is to craft specific characters for specific story roles. Every character has to grow and change by the events encountered in the novel. Not as a reaction to what happens–reactionary characters are victims–but as a direct result of his or her choices made by experiencing novel events. This is where the angelic gems of simultaneous development of story people becomes evident.

Readers’ most beloved characters are ones they most strongly identify with–people like them. Admirable people who entertain them.

Writers, remember that readers’ are armchair adventurers who want to explore interesting places, dynamic events, and hard issues–but they want to do it from the safety of their recliners. Our characters give them the opportunity. Story people aren’t truly like readers, but they are like the people readers want to be. They’re admirable, heroic, logical. They have common sense, worthy goals, and they are tough opponents. Strong qualities–and that goes for villains, too. The main characters are all, in a word, competent.

Competent characters can carry a lot of weight–face more complex challenges that are worthy of our admiration.  No unforgettable hero is incompetent.  If a geek, he has other amazing qualities.  If an Alpha guy, he has heightened sensitivity.  If somewhere in between, he has other female-potent qualities that make women admire, respect, trust and adore him.  His obstacles are credible, difficult and his motivations are ones women consider heroic.


Heroic men are three dimensional:  physical, emotional and spiritual.  Writers cue readers on all three with details.  Everything about a hero–speech patterns, body language, job, interactions with others; internal and external, physical and emotional actions and responses to others’ actions–identify him as heroic.  No hero without clearly depicted universal and unique traits is unforgettable.

Universal Traits

Universal traits are those most of us, as human beings, identify with and feel empathetic toward, and are typically tied to emotions.

Core-level universal feelings. Emotional reactions that many of us human beings share.

Not all of us have had the same experience in which the character is currently engaged in our book, but we understand what the character is feeling. We all can associate love, hate, shame, embarrassment, humiliation, fear, grief, and/or guilt. We understand the feelings even if the event itself is alien to us. These are our common bonds with most other human beings. These are our universal traits.

Unique traits are those applicable to us. Convictions, ethics, beliefs, social mores–all of those traits that come as a result of our personal histories, backgrounds, and experiences. Those traits that mold our unique characters. Force us to take a stand, to see where on the fence we sit. We choose what we emphasize in our character, and that makes us unique.

An unforgettable hero reacts as the majority of us do to these emotional triggers.

Unique Individual Traits

The unforgettable hero, defined on all three levels, holds significant universal appeal and yet must be highly specific to the individual to set him apart from every other male in the novel.

Giving the reader the physical attributes provides a photograph of the hero, but even when amazingly attractive, it’s flat and dull.

At times, we all have to pick ourselves up and press on, just as we know that at times we need to kick ourselves in the butt and remember: “We are not the person we were. We are the person we’ve become.”  That’s critical insight into an unforgettable hero.

Our experiences and insights gained from those unique individuals experiences, make us grow and change, providing us with the tools–emotional and spiritual–needed to meet challenges constructively.  Heroes meet challenges constructively.

These are the insights I can share on crafting your protagonist into an unforgettable character.




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