In an article this month, I talked about how to create vibrant characters by using conflicting traits. We looked at the Map of Tiny Perfect Things, and how the writers put together unusual traits to create a protagonist that was unforgettable.
We don’t just want to create protagonists that make our readers laugh, or cry, or feel their pain — we also want to craft characters that readers want to be around. We want to create characters that have such an interesting personality that readers enjoy just exploring who they are as a person, and never forget what that journey was like. Goal, desire, and fear are all very important — but if a reader has seen this character a hundred times before, they aren’t going to stick around long enough to finish your book
In this workshop, I am going to walk you through exactly how I would craft a protagonist with such conflicting traits in five simple steps.
Step 1: Pick a Defining Trait
For a first step, figure out what you know about your protagonist. Hopefully you already have a general idea of some core pieces of who they are (their gender, age, country of origin, etc.) based on what role they fit in your story, but you should also have a defining trait that you can start off with. This trait can be almost anything, from a career path to an emotion, a hobby or a habit. Pick something that you’d like to show your readers in their first introduction — something that captures a big part of your protagonist’s personality right off the bat.
If you don’t have any idea what this trait could be, brain dump a list of character traits that you love — just make a list of ideas on a piece of paper or a white board..
For this workshop, I decided to pick a fairly young woman in modern-day America. To find out more about her personality, I wrote down a list of (sometimes conflicting) traits, hobbies, and careers that would be interesting to write about.
Then, simply pick a trait that especially stands out to you — something with enough freedom that you can still make an interesting character, without being so general that you don’t have much to go off of.
And now you have your character’s defining trait. When you introduce them, make sure that their very first scene highlights this quality about them. Whatever it is, manipulate the plot and setting to showcase your character’s defining trait.
Step 2: Identify the Troupes
For the second step, identify what tropes you don’t want your character to fall into. You can make a list or just think through archetypes and cliches that most characters with this trait fall into. For example, I do not want my free-spirited character to become an irrational character who is highly emotional. I wanted her to be fairly practical and down-to-earth, while also being free-spirited and creative. Basically, I want to make sure that just because she is a free spirit doesn’t mean she has to turn into another version of Ariel from The Little Mermaid.
Step 3: Pick a Conflicting Trait
Now start experimenting by combining traits that will ensure that your character doesn’t fall right into the tropes and archetypes you identified. You can even use your original list of traits to help you find one.
I noticed that there aren’t a whole lot of free-spirited characters who are hard working, and including that trait would definitely help me avoid creating another Disney-princess character, so I decided to stick with hard work as a secondary trait for my character.
Step 4: Put These Traits Together
Now you just have to find a few specific examples of how this character balances two conflicting traits. It can be important to make sure that both traits are fairly represented, so don’t let one trait take over while the other becomes an afterthought.
One way to do this is through two columns, both labeled with a different trait that you want to express, like this.
Then start coming up with specific, concrete examples of how this character expresses both characteristics. Write these examples down under the two categories. You can do as many or as few of these as you like. The only rule is that you have to keep the columns as even as possible. Don’t over-develop one trait while the other is forgotten.
For example, I thought a hard-working character would probably earn pretty high grades. But that doesn’t mean that outside of work and school she can’t have dozens of different hobbies that she impulsively jumps between. One week she could be playing the drums, the next learning pottery. One month all she can do when she gets home is practice archery, and the next thing you know she’s obsessed with welding.
That said, when she’s at work, she rarely procrastinates. She’s there to get the job done, and she’s well-known for not messing around when there’s work to be done. She gets it done as quickly as possible because she knows how much fun she’ll have kayaking, or painting her wall, or bowing glass later that day. See how these two seemingly conflicting traits can actually work well together?
On the board I put some more specific examples of what being both hard-working and a free spirit means for her — and how it affects her personality, relationships, and persona.
Step 5: Develop the Character
When you’re done, you should have a pretty good sketch of what kind of character you have, even if you are yet to determine their goal, desire, and fear. But this will give you not only a great starting point for figuring that out, but also some inspiration for plot points, character development, and changes that your protagonist could undergo throughout the plot. For example, what if my incredibly busy character is forced to do nothing for long periods of time? How would she react? Would she treat those around her badly as a way of coping? Could that help teach her patience and the value of slowing down while still enjoying her many varied tastes?
On the other hand, she seems to be pretty self-centered. She could still be a fairly kind and generous person, but most of her choices are wrapped up in what she would enjoy the most. Perhaps she could learn to think more of others throughout the book? Maybe she realizes the value of spending time doing her hobbies with other people? Maybe she learns to work hard even when she doesn’t have to just to get the chance to be kind to someone else?
Already solutions to these problems offer several choices of plot points, themes, and side characters that could help this character along whatever journey she’s on. And if even after this process you’re still struggling to come up with what your character needs to work on, where they could grow, and how the plot could change them for the better, you still have an outer persona for your character that is interesting and multi-layered. You’ve already crafted the kind of character that readers want to know more about — the kind that they will keep turning pages just to spend time with them.
And those sorts of characters are unforgettable.