Writing a main character: Definitions, tips and examples

Writing a main character: Definitions, tips and examples

Writing main characters | Now Novel

The main characters in a story drive plot, attract readers’ empathy (or loathing) and carry your story along. Knowing how to write a lovable, loathsome, or otherwise engaging main character is a vital skill for authors. Read on for definitions, examples and tips to make your primary characters memorable:

First, defining a main character

Why do we distinguish ‘main’ from ‘secondary’ or ‘minor’ characters?

Firstly, they serve different functions in a story. A main character is the focus – the story’s about them. Their goals, desires, fears and worst case scenarios drive core events.

Secondary characters, on the other hand, may be important too. Yet secondary characters are like the ‘best supporting’ category at the Oscars. They may steal scenes, but ultimately it’s not their story. Even so, good secondary characters (like ‘Trabb’s boy’ in the example from Great Expectations further in this article) can be just as interesting, funny or memorable.

TV Tropes defines a main character thus:

‘Any character who has a major purpose or role in the plot and/or interacts regularly with main characters.’

Although ‘protagonist’ is sometimes used as a synonym for main character, a protagonist is specifically the ‘lead’ character. They’re the ‘main-est’ of all.

You may have multiple main characters, with no single clear protagonist.

In a crime thriller that alternates between a detective and killer’s POV, for example, you could weight each character’s arc equally. That way it becomes less a matter of ‘good guys’ vs ‘bad guys’ and more a study of how and why lead characters choose different paths.

Whoever you choose as the primary character for your story, here are tips to write main characters who matter:

1. Know desires and goals driving your main characters

Brainstorm your main character’s story arc when you don’t know exactly what motivates their actions yet. You could discover backstory or beliefs that add extra dimension and help to explain the underlying purpose or direction in your character’s actions.

You can do so using the ‘Characters’ section of the Now Novel dashboard, and create a convenient summary card for each character profile you can refer to as you draft.

Example of a main character’s desire and goal

Imagine a standard detective story where a lead detective is called in to solve a murder. We already know the main character’s main goal – solving a crime. Character goals here are supplied in part by the standard features of the genre. The detective’s key goal is driven partially by professional duty.

Yet the detective may also desire any number of additional things.

For example, they might be roped into the victim’s widow’s distress and thus wish to solve the case even more strongly. On the other hand, they might feel apprehensive as the case is closely linked to an underground crime ring with eyes and ears all over the city. Thus their goal may be to solve the crime while they hold a conflicting desire to avoid inevitable personal threat and intimidation.

2. Use secondary characters to add urgency, complications and motivations

Secondary characters serve many useful roles. They may supply stakes (for example, a loved one a main character in a dangerous position doesn’t want to lose). Their wants and desires can add urgency (or complications) to your main characters’ tasks.

Main characters’ complications and motivations involving secondary characters may involve:

  • Fearful situations: E.g. A secondary character goes missing (in a mystery)
  • Backstory: Experiences with others in your character’s past that shape how they act now. For example, Charles Dickens’ Miss Havisham meddles in young love between main characters, having been jilted at the altar on her wedding day
  • Societal pressures: A character’s milieu (the social world and period they live in) can also place a secondary pressure on their goals, desires and actions

Connect your main characters’ current lives to background events that shape their actions. Even if you don’t include backstory explicitly, knowing your characters’ pasts will help you bring them to life fully.

Main characters and backstories | Now Novel

3. Give main characters suspense-creating challenges

Suspense is more crucial in some genres than others. A thriller novel wouldn’t seem like much of a thriller without uncertain dangers and tensions.

Even in a romance, however, there is narrative tension; the ‘will they? won’t they?’ that accompanies the sparks of attraction.

A main character needs challenges standing between them and their goals, whether big or small, because:

  • Challenges create exciting rising and falling action: Take two lovers separated by long distance, for example. Not knowing how they’ll overcome their mutual frustrations, we turn the page
  • Challenges help you develop characterization: An obstacle is a useful plot point to show what your main character is made of. Do they freak out or take new developments in stride?

Your story’s central idea should supply plenty of ideas for suspenseful challenges. For example, take Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed post-apocalyptic novel The Road (2006). In this novel, a father and son journey and avoid starvation and marauding cannibals after an unnamed extinction event.

The idea naturally suggests possible challenges – skirmishes with other survivors or cannibals, or simply the anxious situation of having to survive in a damaged, uncertain landscape.

4. Brainstorm stakes for each protagonist or antagonist

‘Stakes’ are a useful concept when developing a main character such as a protagonist or antagonist.

The simple question ‘what does this character have to lose?’ helps you keep the ‘worst case scenario’ in mind so that it remains a real, present threat. [You can also brainstorm your main character’s best and worst case scenarios in the ‘Core Plot’ section of Now Novel’s story dashboard.]

The higher the stakes, the stronger characters’ motivation to act.

To take The Road as an example again, the stakes are high – the father must survive to protect his more vulnerable young son, for example.

The tension between the father’s own vulnerability is what led many critics to call McCarthy’s novel ‘heartbreaking’ and ‘shattering’. Stakes – and the dance your character does to avoid losing to them – supply a lot of emotional investment for readers.

When thinking about what could happen to main characters, ask:

  1. What do they have to lose? For example: The love of the object of their affection, citizenship to a country where they desperately want to stay
  2. How are they vulnerable if the worst comes to pass? For example, a spy who is caught by the enemy is at their mercy

Knowing what each main character has to lose – whether they’re a ‘goody’ or ‘baddie’ – will help you make their actions driven by believable psychology.

Main characters - behaviour - Plato quote | Now Novel

5. Give main characters (and secondary characters) clear descriptions

Stories truly spring to life when each character feels vivid. Often, in beginners’ writing, we read eye colour, hair colour, and lots of grinning.

Yet your main characters can reveal a lot more through their appearance. For example, details of dress can tell your reader about the time period (tightly-laced bodices suggesting the stiff discomfort of Victorian England, for example).

The beauty of character description is that if you do a good job the first time your reader meets a character, on repeat meetings all you need is a token description here, a small, familiar gesture there, to sustain the effect.

Here, for example, Dickens describes how a secondary character, ‘Trabb’s boy’, mocks his main character Pip, after pip becomes wealthy due to a mystery benefactor. The boy’s words and actions clearly show the boy’s perception that Pip now thinks he’s better than others:

‘I had not got as much further down the street as the post-office, when I again beheld Trabb’s boy shooting round by a back way. This time, he was entirely changed. He wore the blue bag in the manner of my great-coat, and was strutting along the pavement towards me on the opposite side of the street, attended by a company of delighted young friends to whom he from time to time exclaimed, with a wave of his hand, “Don’t know yah!’

From the way the character walks (his ‘strutting’) to how he pretends the blue bag is a fancy coat, these small details show his opinion of Pip and also add humour to the scene. Via a secondary character we see the main character from another, interesting angle.

6. Develop main characters via minor character interactions

This tip follows on from the previous example from Dickens. What is so good about Dickens’ incident between Pip and Trabb’s boy is it highlights Pip’s change of fortune as well as the cons that come with it (his estrangement from his humbler roots).

In a single interaction, in Pip’s irritation with the boy imitating his apparent pomp, we see the gaps between how we see ourselves and how others see us.

These gaps and differences can enrich main characters. A character might not see themselves as particularly beautiful, for example, but when we see every shopkeeper or stranger on the bus try to flirt with them earnestly (rather than just catcalling), we begin to realize they’re more attractive than even they might realise.

When you’re drafting scenes involving minor characters, ask:

  • What can how they speak to my main character(s) reveal about how they come across to others? Are they more often kind by default? Hostile? Why?
  • How does your main character treat others who aren’t particularly important to them? What does their behaviour or manners say about them? Are they arrogant, dismissive, friendly?
  • Think about the various roles secondary characters can serve in developing main characters. How can this character bring your main character closer to or further from their immediate goals?

Develop detailed character profiles in the Now Novel story dashboard and save them to your outline. Or get How to Write Real Characters, a workbook with exercises on the craft of character creation.

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