Your Main Character is the life-blood of your story. Without an engaging, unique MC nobody’s going to give a gopher’s fart about your tale, no matter how great the setting. You may have a fantastic concept (“tarantula-gophers invade a New Mexican hospice), but it don’t mean a thang without a great protagonist.
But how do you get there?
It starts with knowing your character. A great MC doesnt emerge from the writer spigot all sparkly and clean; it’s birthed in blood and placenta and it’s your job to clean that kid up, teach it some manners, and find it a respectable job. Along the way you’ll learn what the kid likes. What it wants, needs, and most importantly–desires.
But just to be clear, the following are nine things you, the writer should know about your MC–not necessarily the reader. It’s ok to have a little mystery. The relationship between the reader and your MC is like a great marriage: learn a little each day, love a little each month, and don’t forget to take out the trash.
So, here are nine things you should know about your MC:
Oxford or Cambridge? Vocational or secondary school? Preschool or Daycare? In other words, how did your character get their smarts. Someone who went k-12 in a private academy and matriculated at Harvard is going display different characteristics than a character who spent their adolescence in an inner-city public school. Same goes for home-schooling and appreticeships. Did your MC grow up on a farm? How about in the mountains? They probably attended a school with a graduating class of 10-20, and you’d better believe that’s going to influence the way they interact with the rest of the world. People judge you on your education, whether you like it or not. Your MC is no different.
2. What the F They Look Like
“Well of course we’re going to describe our MC’s appearance. Come on Nic, we’re not idiots. My MC is brown-haired, green-eyed, about medium height and has an easy smile. Sometimes her hair is golden in the sunlight.”
Ok, that’s…nice. Now I’m picturing a faceless girl-shaped blob with a brown head. Guess what? I’m picturing your story the same way.
Everyone has red, black, brown, or blonde hair. Same with eye color. That’s not helping me picture your unique, interesting, gopher-fighting MC. You know what does? Her over-bite. The chipped finger-nail polish. The pristine part in her bangs. Little things that immediately make your MC jumped off the page. Those small details will make your protagonist stand out in a sea of faceless brunettes, and they give you more bang for your buck. Chipped fingernail polish? Well, she cares enough about appearance to apply it in the first place, but something’s stopped her upkeep. Is she lazy? Perhaps that’s her style. Or maybe something is distracting her (like tarantula-gophers)…
3. Pet Peeves
What does your character hate? No, not rude people, everybody hates that. There’s something odd, something strange your MC doesn’t care for. Something that doesn’t bother other people (at least not the majority). Maybe it’s bleu cheese (how can you hate bleu cheese? It’s so TANGY!), or people who don’t remove their shoes before entering the house. My MC hates foreign flicks because he’s a slow-reader. He doesn’t like to admit it because he thinks it makes him look provincial, uneducated, a rube–but he still hates them.
Knowing what drives your protagonist up the wall will inform their interactions with others. Maybe he refuses to shake someone’s hand because they didn’t wash in the lavatory. Maybe he hates people who call the bathroom “lavatory.” Who knows?
4. Social Standing
Is your MC popular? Do people instinctively like her (this probably relates to #2, how they look)? Or is your protagonist one of the bullied? It doesn’t matter if it’s the playground or the boardroom, social standing counts and it will affect the way your character acts. Friends make a difference in this world. Does your MC have a huge social network, a Rolodex the size of a phone book? If she does I’d be willing to bet there aren’t many she considers true friends. Or perhaps she’s shy, with only one or two acquaintances. In both cases your protagonist is probably lonely, but she’ll show it in different ways.
There’s room in the middle, of course, with a character who is well-adjusted and full of self-confidence. She has a group of close, supportive friends and a broader circle of acquaintances and coworkers she feezzzzzz….zzzzzz….huh? Oh, yeah. Sorry, your MC put me to sleep.
But maybe that’s me.
5. Their D&D Alignment
I’m talking 3.5 here.
Is your MC a good person? He is! Great, how good? Would he risk his life to save someone he knew? How about someone he didn’t know (really think about this)? At some point your protagonist needs to draw the line, but whether it’s in the sand or cement will vary based on circumstances and good, old-fashioned, will.
Characters need to act like real people, and real people are a mix of good and evil. Great instincts and poor instincts. Chaotic neutral and Lawful Good.
6. Hopes and Dreams and Fluffy Unicorns
Go into any community theater and you’ll hear the following:
Director: I want MORE!
Actor: But what’s my motivation?
Dreams make the world go round. Human culture doesn’t exist without hope. We all want to catch that fluffy unicorn. If your MC doesn’t want anything that’s going to make for a boring story, and I have network TV for that. We’re not talking hierarchy of needs, here–we’re discussing the deep, personal, character-specific dreams that fuel your MC. Does your protagonist long for the stage? Maybe they want to open the largest gopher museum the world has ever seen! There is something your MC longs for beyond a room over his head and three squares. Find it, use it, abuse it (don’t abuse it…I just like to rhyme).
7. Flight or Fight
Quick! Your MC is in a room with five methed-up bodybuilders toting semiautomatics and mommy issues. Does he decide to fight, to face his fears head on, to boldly go where only kung-fu masters and self-deluded protagonists have gone before? Or does he run. Flee. Turn tail and live to run another day?
This isn’t as simple as courage vs. cowardice. Or delusion vs. survival. At some point every character will run, and at some point every character will decide, odds be damned—lets light this candle! What will it take to force your MC into conflict?
And please, please, don’t be one of those writers who makes your MC fight every time. That’s not realistic, and if I’m reading your story I will root for your character to die. It’s more interesting to watch your MC run, feel guilty, wear a hair-shirt for a couple of days, and maybe, maybe, fight next time.
8. Day Job
We’ve already discussed what your character wants to do, now you have to determine what she has to do. In other words, how does she pay the bills?
No, it’s not sexy, but it’s necessary. Your character is a person, and people have financial responsibilities (even kids have to mow the lawn…unless your MC is one of those kids). Nothing drives me crazier than an MC who goes off on a two-week adventure and there’s no mention of their job. How are they paying for this adventure? Did they tell their boss? Are they going to have a job when they come back? If not, that should freak them the hell out. People get like that when they suddenly unemployed.
And if your character hates his job (come on, you know he does) that’s going to affect his demeanor. He’s going to yell at his wife when he gets home. He’s going to kick his dog. He’s going to complain. And that’s going to make him relatable (kind of hate-able if he kicks his dog, but sometimes people got to hate).
Yup. You should know your MC’s allergies. Seriously.
Allergic to pollen? Cool, let’s see a little sneezing when he’s running through the field chasing tarantula-gophers. Peanuts? Then she’s probably carrying an epipen (you don’t mess around with peanuts). Allergies are great because allergies are human. They’re solid, real things that readers understand because pretty much everyone is allergic to something. I’m allergic to grass. It’s a crappy allergy, and I know if I had to fight an ax-wielding maniac in a barn I’d probably come out the other end with some serious hives.
It’s a little thing but it matters. And it will make your MC a real, live, human-being (albeit, one who spends a boat-load on Benadryl).