What is one of the truly important elements in fiction?
Create these, and the reader will follow you anywhere. So long as the reader sincerely cares about your protagonist, that’s all you need.
I know. You’re saying, “It’s not the protagonist the reader cares about. It’s the story. It’s the quality of the writing. It’s the genre that this reader loves.”
But think about it.
Does anybody really mind the inexplicable plot twist that Elizabeth Bennet only falls for Darcy after she learns she could be mistress of that massive display of Georgian pomp, Pemberley? Do we object to Pip’s adventures careening across genres, confusingly and apparently randomly, from graveyard terror to tragic romance to comic young adult shenanigans? Are we bothered at all by Romeo and Juliet’s drastic (and tragically mistaken) teenage assumption that a passing crush is deathless love?
Because Elizabeth is witty, intelligent, charming, and—in the hands of her brilliant creator—simply great fun to be with. Pip is scrappy and sensitive, tough and vulnerable, always and forever irrepressibly curious about his world. And Romeo and Juliet speak of their hormonal agonies from fascinating perspectives, the way we all wish we could speak of our hormonal agonies.
We don’t really mind where Elizabeth or Pip or Romeo and Juliet go, so long as we get to go along with them.
These characters are unforgettable. Because we care about them.
So how do you make your reader care?
Secret #1: Give Your Character Two Mutually-Exclusive Needs
An unforgettable character needs two things that are mutually-incompatible.
And they need them desperately. In fact, they absolutely believe they could not live without them. Both of them. Always and forever. This makes it impossible to choose between them, because the protagonist simply can’t give up either one.
Almost all character needs can fall into one of three categories: love, survival and justice.
In the romance genre, the protagonist needs some sort of survival—usually a job, friendship, home or family—and also romantic sexual love.
In the thriller genre, the protagonist needs justice—usually social justice, what society considers just—and also to survive the villain.
This is why romance and thriller are the top-selling genres: easy math.
All other stories
In all other stories, the protagonist needs their love for something—what we want-–and also justice—what we know is right.
Secret #2: Force Your Character to Choose
This makes the climax of your story the point at which your character must choose between their two conflicting needs.
Romeo and Juliet must choose between their families and their passion. Pip must choose between his loyalty to the convict who spared his life as a child and death at the hands of that very convict. Elizabeth must, when confronted by the terrifying aunt Catherine, choose between Darcy (what she wants) and honesty (what she knows is right).
This impossible choice makes your character unforgettable.
The more you plug into the impossibility of choosing between these needs, the more powerful your story becomes. And the more unforgettable your character.
Why Readers Read
We readers love these impossible choices because we all live—every single day—our own lives of impossible choice.
Every single day we are forced to choose between survival and love (do we get up and go to work, or do we stay cuddled asleep with our loved one?), justice and survival (do we ram the road hog who swerves belligerently into our lane, or do we grit our teeth and hit the brakes?), what we want (do we snatch whatever we want from the hands of others?) and what we know is right (or do we live a life of honesty and honor?).
These are often impossible choices. And yet life never spares us.
So we turn to stories to teach us how to make such choices, how to deal with the impossible. Without stories, we would all be quickly overwhelmed by life in a world dominated by the wrenching conflicts between our needs.
However, so long as we have stories. . .we can live.
Creating an Unforgettable Character for a Series.
But what about a series? How do you create a character who chooses between their needs at the climax to each novel, but still must always go on to choose again?
Create a character with intensely powerful needs.
Then build into each novel, through the events that the protagonist must navigate, the reader’s investment in those needs. Force a choice between those needs on your character at every turn. Make the reader live again in each new novel the pressures that convince the protagonist that this time (this time!) they will finally never be able to choose.
In thriller—the most common genre series—protagonists always have the same pair of needs: they need to see justice done, but they also need to survive the villain.
In mystery—another common genre series—detectives always have the same pair of needs: they need to solve the puzzle and see justice done, but they also need (depending upon whether they’re professional or amateur) their career, friends, family or even their standing in their community.
In fantasy and sci-fi—yet other common genre series—characters always have the same pair of needs: they need to explore their fantasy or sci-fi world (seeking what they want) but they also need to follow their conscience (standing by what they know is right.)
Whenever you mix genres (sci-fi or fantasy thriller, thriller with romance, romantic mystery), you choose the conflicting needs of the thriller that dominates. In fact, you can often tell which genre dominates by asking yourself which pair of needs best fit the character you envision.
The trick to a series is to create a character who can never be at peace. Because we humans can’t. Truly. After every event we survive in our own lives, we keep living, and things keep happening to us.
We are always and forever faced with impossible choices.
Now please join me with Joanna Penn of the Creative Penn for a video discussion of character needs, along with advice on creating a series protagonist: Unforgettable Character.
What are your protagonist’s two mutually-exclusive needs? What will be their impossible choice?