Friday, January 26, 2018

Discovering My Protagonist

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

Happy Friday, you guys!

I'm learning so much from our Grow An Author series and I hope you are too. The truth is, when you set out to write a novel, you're doing so much more than just telling a story. You're growing an author.

Last Friday, I talked about The Value of First Thoughts. I broke down how I select my story's narrator and protagonist. Today, I'd like to talk about my protagonist's character development and how I approach this very important aspect of storytelling.

protagonist: the leading character, the main character, the hero

In my heart of hearts, I am a discovery writer. I write to discover everything from my setting to my characters, and over the next few Fridays, we'll discuss what I look for as I discovery draft my way through the story. I do take time to plot, but it's not something I do separate from my discovery writing. There is a lot of back and forth that happens between my notebook and my computer. My notebook, where I list questions and ideas, and my computer where I do my writing.

Now that I've selected my narrator and zeroed in on my hero, it's time to breathe some life into this girl. Based on my story idea, I know a few things about her, but I don't know much. I know what her BIG FAT story problem is going to be because this particular story idea came to me as a character and a problem, but I don't know how she talks to people or what she eats for breakfast. I don't know who her best friend is or what she wears to do her chores. I have no idea at all about her family life or her role in the community. And to be honest, I've been going back and forth about how old she will be when the story opens. There is a lot for me to discover about my hero.

Some people fill out character worksheets or charts. I do use Stephanie's story workbook (which you can get for free if you sign up for Go Teen Writers Notes), but not at this point. I don't know enough about my character to fill anything out just yet and I won't know near enough until I write a bit.

The first thing I do is decide which scene I want to use as my opening--this isn't a life or death decision, friends. I can change my mind later. But I do need a starting point. When I've got that selected, I make a chronological list of scenes that should follow the opening. Not every scene I've considered, but five or six. I do this so that I'm not writing blind. So that I have something to work toward.

Next, I climb inside my hero's head and I begin to write. As I do, my main character begins to take shape and the writing itself digs her from the dark, often muddy cave of my imagination.

Things I need to find out about my protagonist include:  

What does my hero want? This is a loaded question of course, because at any given time you and I want several things. But while I may discover some interesting tidbits as I write, there are two very important wants that I am keeping an eye out for.

What does my hero want more than anything? And, what does my hero want in relation to the story problem?

These two things will drive my hero and my readers from the very beginning of my story to the end. If I want to carry them all with me, it's important that I discover the answer to these two questions fairly early on in my drafting process.

Why isn't my hero equal to the task? The problem facing my main character must be large. Insurmountable even. Not only should the problem be a doozy, but my main character must somehow be unequal to the challenge.

I watched a video the other day featuring an inspiring little boy. He was at the park with his mother and sister and he wanted to climb up the stairs of a jungle gym and go down the slide. And, no, he didn't want his mama's help. Not a huge goal, not even all that admirable. Until you realize this little boy was born with no arms and no legs.

I'm a weeper and I had no desire to cry off my makeup that morning, but two things kept me watching the computer screen: the boy's determination and the impossibility of the task. I watched as this beautiful little boy used his entire body, face-included, to inch his way up the stairs and then roll to the slide where he victoriously slid down.

What an accomplishment! If we can pair a compelling hero with overwhelming odds, we just might have a story worth writing.

Is my hero relatable? Note that I didn't say likeable. Likeable isn't a must, but I certainly want a hero the reader will willingly root for. Some of the best protagonists are prickly characters, but they have attributes that we can all identify with and understand. I want my hero to be someone that is welcomed, not only into my head, but into the reader's. Her internal struggles, her words, her actions--they need to be authentic.

Where does my hero fit in the world around her? As I'm noodling away at scenes, other characters will inevitably crop up. Some of them aren't surprises; they're characters I've chewed on a bit, but many of them are new. With my current work in progress, I recently discovered that my hero has three brothers. Two of them are older and one is the baby of the family. I didn't plan that, but it begins to define my hero's place in her family and it gives me a dynamic I can work with. Similar developments will arrive when I place my hero into her friend group and into her classroom. Each scene that unfolds teaches me about my lead, and with every word I discovery write, I learn more and more about who my character is and who she isn't.

There are all sorts of details I'll pick up as I engage in these early writing sessions, but I'm not big on charting them just yet. Her favorite color may or may not matter, but I've no reason to commit myself one way or another until it does. There will come a time when I'll pull out my story workbook and mark some of these details down, but not yet. Not until my hero has some air in her lungs and a mission to accomplish. Not until I'm convinced my character is here to stay.

It'll happen. The more I write, the more I'll discover about the story as a whole and the closer I'll get to creating a hero worth following.

How about you? How does your hero take shape on the page?


  1. I love your process. It seems so freeing. :)

    1. It works for me! And maybe that is the reason. I don't do well when a writing tool makes me feel claustrophobic.

  2. These are some great questions to ask. I'm going to start developing a story idea I have here soon, so I think I'll definitely use these! I usually go through the OYAN workbook that I have for outlining and developing the basics of my characters. Then I usually let them go and discover a lot about them through writing.

    1. Hooray for discovery writing! I wish you so much luck.

  3. Your process sounds a bit like mine. With my characters, I've discovered most of what I know about them through writing the story.

    However, with each of the major characters, I've set aside time to just think about them, slip into their minds for a bit, take down notes as I learn more about them, etc. This extra thinking has helped me especially to understand the non-POV characters.

    1. Absolutely. So much happens inside our own heads. The thinking time cannot be discounted.

  4. That's a very enlightening process, Mrs. Dittemore, especially since I am a plotter, not a discovery writer, and it can be hard for me to understand how other writers can put words on the page without knowing their character's circumstances first! I definitely agree that little things like favorite color shouldn't be implemented unless it pertains to the story.
    By the way, is there a reason you refer to your female protagonist as a hero instead of a heroine? I realize that the word "heroine" can be tricky in a world where the drug name is more commonly used, but I'm the kind of obstinate person who will reeducate the world one person at a time rather than budge on my writer lingo.

    1. I go back and forth on this. Not making any kind of statement or anything, but I think it's a lot like the word 'actor'. I don't mind seeing it used for either male or female. Hero reads much easier than heroine.

  5. YAY!!! Discovery writers!!! Sorry, I cannot write any other way. ;)
    The hero of my story has definitely come gradually. Everything from age to his background to what makes him do what he does has evolved as I wrote the story. Great questions to wrestle through, especially for important back characters I haven't had as long.