Fictional characters are human beings too, even the trolls and aliens, and they deserve to have fully rounded personalities. Yes, I know you make them up (more or less), but readers want your characters to be like real people. They want to root for them, fear for them, hate them and miss them. Your readers want to know your characters as intimately as they know themselves.
There’s a lot you can do to make your characters real, especially the ones who have center stage privileges. But there’s also a lot you can do wrong, and knowing what to steer clear of can be a big help.
Here’s a list of deficits your protagonist should be protected from:
1. No clear goal
It’s not only important for you as a writer to know exactly what you want in order to succeed, it’s also important for you to know what your protagonist wants. And “saving the world” or “getting the girl” do not count as goals, because they’re too vague. You can’t hit the bullseye if the whole target is a blur. Having your protagonist wander around with hopes to achieve something, anything, whatever, is not going to cut it.
Your protagonist doesn’t have to know his ultimate goal straight away, but you do, and you must make everything lead up to it. Don’t underestimate your readers, they can tell what’s up pretty quickly. If you’re a good writer—which I’m sure you are—then your initially goalless protagonist finding out he must save the world makes for a captivating story, while a protagonist that wants whatever’s glittering brighter in the current chapter makes for an abrupt ending to your reader’s interest.
2. No inner conflict
Aren’t you ticked off by people who are always happy and bubbly and bursting with energy? You don’t want your protagonist to be that “ever-happy” innocent creature, who only suffers for a blink when you order him to, but is never deeply affected by the gruesome trials you put him through. Your protagonist should have some inner conflict, a tiny bit of a dark side that gnaws at his perfection, or a flaw that bursts to the surface at the worst possible moment. You want to have a protagonist that knows real conflict—the kind of conflict that tears him apart from the inside. Your readers will tremble and weep for him, instead of wanting to wash off his happy face with their steaming morning coffee.
3. No personal evolution
You know how I feel when a character I follow through hell and back remains exactly the same as he was on page one? I feel cheated.
As human beings, we learn from every experience, and everything we encounter changes us, even if we don’t realize it immediately. Think back a couple of years… No, think back a couple of months. Are you exactly the same person you were then? Did you learn something new? Did you experience something? Did you draw one useful conclusion that expanded your thinking?
4. No distinction
If any of your other characters could step in to replace the protagonist, and do just as good a job as him (or even better)—then you’re doing something wrong. Your protagonist must be irreplaceable. He must stand out due to something that’s inherent to his personality, that makes him unique.
Before every major plot point where your protagonist is the key, ask yourself if he can be replaced. If your answer is yes, rethink the situation until he’s the only one who can ever get through it. If this happens often, you must rethink your protagonist.
5. No background
You can’t just drop your hero into action as if you willed him out of the sky with a full set of skills and a sexy scar. I know you basically do just that, it’s how creativity works, but your readers shouldn’t see it between the lines of your story.
Like any real person, your protagonist needs to have a full history, a childhood, and long lost friends. He needs to have had his teeth pulled, his homework eaten by the neighbor’s dog, and his high-school crush laugh at him. We all have. Well, in my case the homework had inexplicably fallen out of my backpack on the way to school, but that’s another story.
Never forget to give your protagonist a meaningful background, and mention it bit by bit, otherwise he’ll tip over like a cardboard saloon front in an old Western movie.
These are just the most awful omissions your protagonist should never have to deal with.
Come back to this thread to read about some of the most interesting things you could consider when making your protagonist an unforgettable person. There’s no limit to what you can use as inspiration!