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How to know your protagonists?

One of the more interesting aspects of writing is getting to know your characters, learning what they like and how they behave in certain situations. For those who plan their story arcs, character analysis is part of that planning – not that having a plan stops the characters from putting their own spin on the storyline when they choose to – but for pantsers, who prefer to let the story unfold as they write, characters often reveal themselves only when they are ready.

It is not an uncommon discussion amongst authors about when and how their characters appear to them. Sometimes, we are woken in the middle of the night, forced to listen to a character in our heads insisting on a scene change, often to their benefit or to escape from what the author has planned for them. Other times, they appear under your fingertips and the words appearing on the screen are not those the author intended but those of the protagonist. Either way, yes, we do hear voices in our heads. And no, we are not imagining these voices.

Until it happened to me, I certainly didn’t understand what more experienced authors at the time had described. That was then… now, with each book, I tentatively put down a starting point, move to a connecting point and another and wait until the character reveals her true self. It’s usually a she… but not always and not consistently.

I know it’s going to happen – like the sun coming up in the morning – so I try not to describe my protagonist too early. I let her do what I’d call normal domesticated life-style things like cooking, her favourite hobby, choosing what to wear, or going about her job while the action goes on around her. About the time I really need to get away from the mundane and make something happen, out she pops to tell me what she really thinks.

That often means I have to go back and rewrite the start, but that’s a good thing, because by then I know who she is, what she wants, and what she is prepared to do or sacrifice to get what she wants. That’s when I know I have a story to tell.

Does it always work out? No. Sometimes, the story arc cuts her choices to shreds and she has to start again. Sometimes, she meets barriers and has to change direction, and sometimes she simply falls in love and decides her original goal wasn’t what she wanted after all.

Whatever decision is made, it is made with the help of the characters, so next time you are reading and wonder why a character does something or says something, don’t ask the author, ask the character directly. I’m sure she will tell you.

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