The main characters in a story drive plot, attract readers’ empathy (or loathing) and carry your story along. Understanding how to write a lovable, loathsome, or otherwise engaging main character is a vital skill to develop. 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? For one, 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 events. Secondary characters may be important too, of course. Yet secondary characters would be nominated in the ‘best supporting’ category at the Oscars – they naturally have a smaller supporting role (though they can still steal the show, like ‘Trabb’s boy’ in the example from Great Expectations further on in this piece).
‘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 can, of course, have multiple lead characters, too. In a crime thriller that alternates between a detective and killer’s POV, you could give each character’s arc equal weight. Some series such as the TV show Hannibal make antagonists main characters in their own right, not only giving ‘good guys’ the narrative spotlight.
Whoever you choose as the primary character for your story, be it a villain-protagonist or a standard noble hero, here are tips to write main characters who matter:
1. Know the desires and goals driving your main characters
Brainstorming some of your main character’s story arc ensures there’s an underlying sense of purpose or direction in their actions.
In a detective story, for example, we already know the main character’s usual goal – solving a mystery. Character goals here are supplied in part by the standard features of the genre. Here, a main character’s desire is driven partially by professional duty.
Yet momentum is added via, for example, the distress of a lady who doesn’t know what happened to her husband. This is where secondary characters are useful. Their wants and desires can add urgency (or complications) to your main characters’ tasks.
Strong motivations for main characters may come from:
- Situations needing resolution: A main or secondary character going missing (in a mystery), for example
- Backstory: Events in your main character’s past that spur them to act (for example, Charles Dickens’ Miss Havisham meddles in young love between main characters, having been jilted at the altar herself)
- Environmental forces: A character’s society and its problems, or even the natural environment (for example, an impending meteor strike in a post-apocalyptic novel)
When you brainstorm characters, connect the current and background events that move them to act. Make these desires and histories the strings that move your characters’ arms and legs.
2. Give a main character 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 elicits readers’ curiosity.
A main character needs challenges standing between them and their goals, whether big or small, because:
- Challenges create exciting rising and falling action: Two lovers are separated by long distance, for example. Not knowing how they’ll overcome this obstacle, 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 it in their stride?
Your story’s central idea should supply plenty of ideas for challenges your main character faces. 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, along with the gruelling physical reality of surviving a blighted land.
3. 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.
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 sun, for example.
The way McCarthy juggles this desire and 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 engagement and investment for readers.
When you brainstorm a main character, ask:
- 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
- How are they vulnerable if the worst comes to pass? For example, a lover with low self-esteem might start to feel negatively about themselves if their love interest grows distant
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.
4. Give main characters (and secondary characters) clear descriptions
Stories truly spring to life when each main 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.
Add writers who excel at character portraits to your reading diet. Many classic authors were excellent at characterization, too. Charles Dickens, for example, is a master of giving characters small gestures or verbal tics that make their personalities and voices unmistakable.
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.
5. Develop main characters via secondary characters
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 person on the street try to flirt with them, we begin to realize they’re more attractive than even they realise.
Differences between primary and secondary characters help to differentiate characters clearly – through difference of perspective, personality, voice, each character becomes unique.
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?
Get How to Write Real Characters, a workbook including exercises that will help you make your characters intriguing and real.