Character Development,  Craft

Questions To Ask Your Protagonist You May Not Have Thought Of

Well-defined characters are a must for an engaging story. Your characters’ motivations, preferences, and style all play an important role in their three-dimensionality. If you’ve done your job well, you’ve considered every detail.

But just in case you haven’t, here are a handful of questions you could ask your protagonist that could help or hinder them as they face each choice or obstacle on their journey.

1. Will the choices your protagonist makes keep them stuck in the past, or will the choices propel them into change? Your protagonist may remember the good ol’ days when everything was great. They may fondly remember an old relationship or that former job or last week’s opportunity. They may consider going back there, or even quitting any forward momentum to return to the “good old days” . This is a good conflict. Have them weigh the pros and cons, talk it over with other characters. To add even more conflict, have one friend pull them one way and another friend pull the other. This conflict will force your main character to make a decision, which can move your story forward. 

2. Is your protagonist more likely to choose a short-term gain or a long-term gain? We’ve all been there: cheat on a test just to pass the class or study to master the material? Take the dead in job to pay some bills, or shoot for the dream situation? This is good conflict, especially if there are consequences for the short term gain. To add even more conflict, make it harder for your protagonist to correct themselves. Make their regret damage a few relationships. This conflict will resonate with your readers (we all have regrets) and change your character for the better, which moves your story forward. 

3. Is your protagonist tempted to please others, and not please themselves? If your protagonist is insecure, or has a history of abuse, or anxiety, it would be very easy to have them sacrifice their own needs for the sake of approval of others. This is good conflict, because pleasing others brings little satisfaction. To add even more conflict, make the rejection from the others painful. The protagonist feels how hard it is to live for themselves and this will make him all the more reluctant to do it again. But of course he has to, if he’s going to achieve his goal. This is a fully relatable conflict and your readers will love this. 

4. Does your protagonist focus on the negative? Your protagonist’s attitude colors everything that they set out to do. This is a problem for the progress of your goals, because there could be something that is keeping your main character from even trying. But, for the sake of story, you need them to see how their bad attitude is hindering them. You need them to deliberately grow. This is a believable and relatable story arc and can add depth to the entire story. Many of your readers identify with it, but make sure that you allow this character arc to grow naturally. Nobody likes it a when Debbie Downer throws a switch and can handle everything. 

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5. Does your protagonist return to self-destructive habits when they fail?What if they have a history of addictive behaviors or unhealthy habits?Consider this when developing your character’s weaknesses. Research addictive behaviors thoroughly, interview friends, and do your best to understand where someone is coming from when they choose their bad habit. Remember, destructive behaviors aren’t always substances — they can also include gambling, shopping, sex, self-harm, thrills, and violence. 

6. What does your character say to themselves when they fail? Do they see failure as an opportunity to grow or do they see failure as their identity? This is a huge question to ask as they journey through the story that you have written for them. If they deal with failure more positively, then they will become someone that the readers can identify with them. Even if they never reach their final goal, the fact that they keep trying and growing is enough to cheer them on. However, if your character is the type to give up, or believe that their goals are impossible, or they aren’t worth the effort, your reader will give up on them too. 

7. Does your character give up their agency easily? Throughout their life, your protagonist may have leaned toward either actively pursuing their interests, or passively waiting for something to happen. With each conflict, consider how your protagonist seizes power. Do they go after it or not? Do they take responsibility for their lives or depend on circumstances? And why do they choose what they choose? Are they afraid? Controlling? Overcoming? Anxious? And what do they tell themselves — even if it’s not necessarily true — to justify their actions.

8. Do they make choices out of self-love or out of self-loathing? If your protagonist has a healthy self-image, they are more likely to make positive choices that benefit themselves. They seek health and success in everything they do. But if they have a poor self-image, even if they don’t realize it, they will gravitate toward more negative habits. Health and success are not pursued and they will have conscious and sub-conscious reasons for not loving themselves more.

These could be hard questions to answer. But take your time with them. Your story and your protagonist is worth it.

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.