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What Does Your Protagonist Want?
by Paula Fleming

Return to Speculative Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

If, on page one, our hero is attacked by a gigantic squid, what he wants is pretty clear: he wants to stay alive. Motivation is likewise clear if Faerie folk snatch our character's infant daughter: she wants her back. If a pair of space-station cops are assigned a murder case, they want to solve it.

Straightforward, so far. However, the very strength of SF -- that it can put characters through extreme circumstances -- can lead to a weakness, that we create characters who have no other reason for living other than to endure our plot. When shallow characters fight squids, set out for the world of Faerie, and pursue killers, they do just fine. However, when they have to make complicated choices, their motives are a cipher.

What if gigantic squids are near extinction? Does our hero kill the squid to save his life, or when escape proves futile, does he allow the squid to kill him so it can live and make baby squids someday? That's quite a choice, and he'll be making it in the middle of a life-and-death combat, and to understand what he does and how he feels about it, we need to know something about his life goals before he met the squid.

The Faerie folk are likely to drive a hard bargain for the return of the infant. What promises will our new mother make to get her daughter back? Will she steal another infant from her village every year and give it to the Fey? Will she give her next two children to them? Will she offer herself in her daughter's place? What if the only person available to raise her daughter, if mom goes away, is an evil uncle who regularly tortures his own children -- would she still exchange herself for her daughter, or would she leave her daughter with the Fey? We need to know the fine points of this woman's moral compass to make sense of her choice.

Maybe the only way to solve the murder is to go to the alien side of the station, but going there is strictly forbidden and could cause an intergalactic diplomatic crisis. Do our law enforcement officers go anyway? Or do they stamp the case "unsolved" and move on to another? Or does one cop do one thing and the other do something else?

Stories start on page one. Characters start long before that.

To give our characters a running start on the story, it can help to write a "page zero" for them. This goes beyond the "character checklist" -- though that's a good tool, too -- and uses a more narrative approach. What should we write about on page zero? Answering the following questions can give us a good start:

  • What would they want said at their funeral or sung at their wake?

  • If they could marry/partner/hook up with the entity of their dreams, who would that entity be?

  • How did they end up in their current job? If they were born into their occupation (e.g., Gilfa was born a peasant in a village that raises goats, so she works with goats), then if they'd been given other options, what would they really have liked to do? What would they be best at (may be different from what they like most)?

  • Why would they be excited to get up in the morning?

  • What, in their mind, is the worst thing they've ever done? What's the best?

Draw a picture (no drawing skills required -- you can use dots and lines). Put your character in the middle. Put the people they feel closest to close to them in the picture, the people who are less close farther away, etc. Use circles to signify groups of people, such as "the villagers" or "the guild members." When everyone with a significant relationship is in the picture, draw lines of various thicknesses to show the strength of the relationships, both with the character and with every other person on the page. Use arrows to show different connection strengths; e.g., Jareem loves Alyssa, but Alyssa barely knows Jareem exists: use a strong line with an arrow pointing toward Alyssa.

Use these questions or make up your own. Either way, make sure that your character's life begins well before your story does. This helps with the end of your story, too, because your character's life doesn't end there but continues. Even if the character dies, their decisions should have had ramifications for their life's context, so their life continues in that sense. By fully fleshing out our characters, we can write stories that end full of inevitabilities and possibilities -- the kind of stories that deeply engage and move our readers.

Find Out More...

Motivation - Hank Quense

Raising the Stakes - Victoria Grossack

What Do Your Characters Want? (Part One) - Victoria Grossack

What Do Your Characters Want? (Part Two): How to Use Characters' Goals to Move the Plot - Victoria Grossack

Copyright © 2004 Paula Fleming
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Paula L. Fleming's science fiction and fantasy have appeared in a variety of publications, including gothic.net; Tales of the Unanticipated #20, #22, and #24; Meisha Merlin's Such a Pretty Face anthology; and Lone Wolf Publishing's Extremes 3: Terror on the High Seas anthology. By day, she's a human resources generalist at the Wedge Community Co-op. To help her, she has three big dogs, two cats, and one husband. Visit her home page at http://home.comcast.net/~paulafleming/index.html or her blog at http://paulaleafleming.blogspot.com/.


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