What Your Protagonist May Be Missing
Believe it or not, throughout many of the first drafts of The Heir of Ariad, I had a potent dislike for my protagonist, Kyrian of the Rain Realm. I felt he was weak, whiny, entitled, and generally? Just not that cool. Show-stopper. I couldn't connect to him at all, and what's worse, one of my early-draft readers really didn't resonate with him either. That more than anything is what showed me that something needed to change.
Going back to the drawing board on a character is more than just shuffling up some personality traits and eye/skin/hair colours. Those details are surface-level, and only considering them in creating a person will result in a surface-level character. I knew what Kyrian looked like; I knew the main personality points I needed him to have, and those that I wasn't in love with. But where do you start in peeling back a character's layers and reconstructing everything built in an initial draft?
If you feel a shallow connection with your protagonist, or maybe no connection at all, it may mean that your character is missing some key components that are the best places to start in reconstructing.
Everyone's identity is shaped at least in part by his or her past experiences, not only on a physical or mental level, but emotionally, subconsciously, fundamentally. In my first draft, I made the mistake of giving my protagonist a bullet-point history: a bunch of lousy breaks strung together with some self-pity, longing, and a dose of bitterness. But no one's backstory is ever as simple as a sequence of unfortunate events. There are complexities, ups and downs, people loved and people hated, bright memories and dark, all with an impact on who your character is and who their past has made them.
Don't just map out what happened to them in their history- think about how it affected them. Okay, so her mom ran away when she was six. What did that do to her? How did it change her? Does she have problems trusting people now? Is she cynical? Jaded? Distrustful of mothers in general? Beef up your backstory with emotions, scars, aftermath. Make sure at least some of the personality traits in your character can be traced back to the experiences that shaped them. Go deeper than anger- make it jaded, ingrained distrust. Move past regret to a crippling fear of what might have been. Turn fear into a chronic habit of nail-biting, foot-tapping, or chewing on the cuffs of her sleeves.
Think outside of a bullet-point backstory. Give your protagonist a history.
What drives your character? I don't mean "saving the world" or "rescuing the damsel in distress", but what really drives him, on a deep internal level, to keep living/fighting/hoping even in the darkest hour? Is he terrified of failure? Has he ever failed before? What happened the last time he gave up on something important?
Think about desire. Is there something he desperately wants? To succeed in life for once? To prove he's worth something, to others or to himself? Why doesn't he just give up? What's that deep, internal force that keeps him plowing forward against all odds?
No character does things without reason- not big things anyway, like saving the world. Make sure you know what your protagonist is hoping for, what they're hoping to gain. It doesn't necessarily make them selfish- maybe what they want is to protect the people they love, or to bring peace to their war-ravaged hometown. It can be virtuous, just make sure it's clear. Let it shine through in your character's journey.
Lots of readers like tough characters- from dragon-slayers to cowboys to strong-willed heroines. Aragorn, Robin Hood, and Princess Leia are a few of my personal favourites, but what makes each of these characters both personable and believable are not their rugged exteriors, but their vulnerabilities.
Everyone has fears. Even the toughest of the tough. Aragorn was afraid of failing in his quest and dooming both the world and the woman he loved; Robin Hood was always on the run from the law, dodging the authorities at every turn; Cinder was terrified of letting everyone down by not being the great heroine the world expected her to be. Without these fears, these characters would be impossible to connect with. I mean, I know I'd never have the guts to ride to battle against a sea of orcs, or rob from the rich to feed the poor, or launch a revolution against an evil queen. The fact that these characters aren't always sure they can do it either just makes them all the more believable.
So fundamental fears are important in your character; it keeps them real and builds a sense of doubt and suspense in the plot. But I also suggest throwing in a few extra little fears, as a way to remind the reader that your character is not made of stone. Maybe he's arachnophobic, or has a crippling fear of heights. My protagonist is haunted by a reoccurring nightmare that he hasn't had since he was a kid but has never really forgotten. Little fears break up the unattainable fortitude of the "tough guy" character, and make it a little easier for the reader to make a connection.
4. Human Tendencies
Okay, so your protagonist is a hunky, brooding warrior who survives off the lions he hunts with his bare hands and arm-wrestles gorillas in his spare time. But what's his favourite colour? Is he a salty or sweet kind of guy? Does he bite his nails? Have a twitch? Get weak-kneed at the sight of puke? We get that he's a beast, but what makes him human? What little tendencies will make us smile as we catch ourselves or someone we know doing the same things?
Some of my favourite parts in books are the scenes I can see playing in real life- like when Scarlet asks Wolf who would win in a fight, him or a pack of wolves, or when Thorne gets all squeamish whenever Dr. Erland says the word, "ganglion", or when Cinder's interface is water-damaged and Thorne suggests filling her head with rice....
Ahem. But I digress. I'll stop fangirling now.
The point is, don't get so hung up on making your character awesome that you forget to make him/her human. Those little quirks and tendencies are what will make it possible to connect and fall in love with the character you've created.
So, one of these points might just tip you off to that one, elusive something that your protagonist is missing. Maybe it's history, motivation, hidden fear, or maybe it's just that bad habit of rubbing her ears when she's nervous. Whatever it is, these subtle little layers have a huge impact on building an unforgettable character. I have one more suggestion for building a protagonist, and it's the one that I find the most fun.
Know your character.
After reconstructing Kyrian of the Rain Realm over the course of multiple drafts, I can finally say that I am totally and completely in love with my protagonist. Tough in his own right, but not indestructible. Confident, but still vulnerable in many ways. Driven by a deep and well-directed moral compass, but just reckless enough to follow his temper enough to get him in trouble. Part of my love for Kyrian comes from knowing him, from spending time with him and learning how he thinks/feels/works. I can drop him in a situation and know how he would react, and that comes from putting myself inside his head.
Have fun with it. Take personality tests on your character's behalf and find out what ice cream flavour they are. Imagine him/her sitting with you on the bus, and what they would think of a day in your life. If they're not from this time period, imagine what kind of street clothes they would choose to wear. It sounds like a joke, but it's all a part of understanding your character better. The better understanding you have of your protagonist, the richer and more complex that character will feel on the page. Even without knowing it, your knowledge of your protagonist is bound to seep through into your story, and make him/her all the more real.