One of the best ways to build a remarkable protagonist isn’t by focusing on your protagonist at all.
It’s by focusing on the adversarial forces.
These are the forces working against your character achieving their story goal and, in a romance, their Happily Ever After.
Focusing on what’s stopping your character is not only a great way to build character, but it’s the best way to build conflict, which builds tension. No tension…no story.
FOCUS ON THE OPPOSITION
Focus your storyteller’s attention on the strength of the adversity they’re up against, and you’ll have a stronger story.
Over the course of a manuscript, page-by-page, you’re going to have dozens and dozens opportunities to build in ‘adversaries’ and antagonistic forces getting in your character’s way.
They’re going to be active and malicious and conscious.
They’re going to be passive, unintentional—or even well intentioned!–and impersonal.
But they’re all going to get in the way of your protagonist achieving their scene & story goals.
Put things in your character’s path, and force them to adapt & respond.
It’s going to be hard to overdo this in a story.
The stronger the forces of adversity, the stronger the protagonist, and more dramatic the story. Why?
Well, the most obvious reason is it ramps up conflict.
And as a result of that, your protagonist has to fight harder.
But it’s also powerful because it reveals—and creates—motivation. A highly motivated character is far more compelling to watch. Someone who’s been battered and shaken up is much more interesting to watch. We care more. We’re rooting for them.
The best way to get the reader on your character’s side is to put them in a big, rough fight. To have them be, apparently, outmatched.
And then, they have to dig deeper to get the win.
It reveals them as remarkable.
Make whatever is standing in your character’s way, scene by scene, be strong—always befitting the tone & scope of your story—and you’ll have stronger tension.
Robert McKee says it this way: “All other factors of talent, craft, and knowledge being equal, greatness is found in the writer’s treatment of the negative side…. When a story is weak, the inevitable cause is that the forces of antagonism are weak.”
Your characters are only going to be as strong as they are forced to be. As Donald Maass says, no one takes the hard road if there’s an easier one. So you’ve got to force them onto the difficult road.
You do that by building strong stakes, and then strong adversity.
VILLAINS & BAD GUYS
So about those villains…
Make them bad. And really, really good.
Really good at being bad.
My writing buddy Sacha Black has a great book called “How To Craft Superbad Villains,” and one of the keys she breaks out is that you have to make your bad guy a worthy opponent.
Don’t make your adversaries weak, straw men, or forced. Don’t let your protagonist be obviously more clever than them.
Make sure they’re more clever than your protagonist…until they’re not. Let them be one step ahead. Have your protagonist think they’ve got it all figured out…then have the bad guy’s plans upend everything.
What if you don’t have a ‘villain’ per sé? Many books, especially in the romance genre, often don’t have a clear, identified opponent or villain.
What do you do then?
EXTERNAL, NON-VILLAINOUS ANTGONISTIC FORCES
Not every adversary will be maliciously intent on stopping your protagonist. Sometimes they’re simply in the way rather than actively opposed.
Sometimes they’re actually supportive, loving secondary characters.
Sometimes they’re not even human.
- Other characters with competing goals
- Otherwise supportive secondary characters who inadvertently (or actively) discourage pursuit of story goals, romance, or inner change
- Bad bosses
- A million+1 other things
Seriously, anything can be an antagonistic force.
If the drama & forward momentum of your story are dropping off, consider throwing in some adversity to ramp up conflict, reveal motivation, and get your character to show up on the page more vividly.
Are they late for a meeting?
Well heck…put them in a traffic jam.
Are they thinking of moving? Make someone in their life be Very Unhappy about it because…reasons.
Anything can work against your character’s goals. Make sure you have them facing something in their way, every scene.
INTERNAL NON-VILLAINOUS ANTGONISTIC FORCES
But often, near the end of the story, the biggest obstacle your protagonist faces is almost always inside their own heart. A lesson they have to relearn. An opinion or worldview or self-view that’s faulty. A goal pursed for the wrong reason. Something avoided that must be faced.
Our biggest enemy often lies within ourselves. Be sure to mine your character’s inner world to get the biggest dramatic bang.
Think things like:
- Errors In judgment.
- Inner doubt.
- Fault belief systems.
- Warded-off emotions.
In strong fiction, the adversities are both internal and external.
THE GOOD IN THE BAD; THE BAD IN THE GOOD
Rarely is someone—or something—all good or all bad. There are shadows and light. Light and shadow.
Build in more layers. Make your character certain about something…then throw it into question.
Reveal the ‘good’ thing to have sharp edges that can cut. Have the great job develop a sinister feel.
Show the ‘bad’ thing as maybe not all bad. The opponent for a coveted job is actually a really great person. The corporation polluting the river? Well, maybe it’s also run single-handedly by an older woman who’s employing almost the entire town on living wage jobs.
It doesn’t have to change your character’s goal—it has to make it harder, because of internal & external reasons. That’s all you’re doing—making it harder.
Making them suffer.
It’s just what we do as authors.
Do your job! 🙂
And trust yourself. Don’t hold back on the angles & shadows & light because you don’t know how to reconcile them, or how you’ll dig your character out, or how you’ll ever move them forward. Try it. Push your character and yourself harder. See what happens. If you get stuck, you can hit “Select All > Delete.’
But you might give your story a shot of dramatic adrenaline that will push it—and you—forward.
ADVERSITY: PEBBLES VS BOULDERS
What would you do if you walked into work and your desk was covered with small pebbles? Maybe some dust, a few sticks.
You’d probably stare, look around, maybe laugh a bit, and think, “Jeez, what’s this?” Maybe you’d call Maintenance, or your supervisor. You’d ask around, see if you could find out what’s up.
But in the end, you’d brush it off and get to work. Literally.
Now…what if you if you walk into work and there was BOULDER on your desk?
How long would it take you to get back to work? A whole lot longer. For lots of reasons. First, you can’t actually *get* to your work, as it’s sitting under the boulder. Then, there’s the mystery of it, the amazement. Maybe the sinister nature of it. Definitely the confusing nature.
Don’t bother your characters—or your reader—with pebbles. Drop a boulder on their desk. Then let them figure out how to get around it, to achieve their goal.
That’s how you build a remarkable character.
That’s how you turn a protagonist into a hero (all genders).
Kris is teaching starting Monday: