How to Create a Protagonist Who is Very Different From You

How does a writer create a character unlike themselves and give it a living, breathing personality? I’ll walk through these six steps that worked for me--and perhaps they’ll work for you.
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How does a writer create a character unlike themselves and give it a living, breathing personality? Simple. Kind of. OK, not really. The main character in my debut novel is a 24-year-old professional surfer, a young woman named Mafuri Long. Now, look at the author picture. Yep, I’m a guy. And not a young guy. So, how did I get into a frame of mind to write a first-person female character? After I stopped asking myself, do you really want to climb that mountain, several practical steps helped make Mafuri come alive on the page. So, if you’ll be kind enough to take a minute, I’ll walk through these steps, and perhaps they’ll work for you.

This guest post is by Michael Mazza. Mazza is a fiction writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. His stories have appeared in Other Voices, WORDS, Blue Mesa Review, TINGE, and ZYZZYVA. He is best known as an internationally acclaimed art and creative director working in the advertising industry. Along with being named National Creative All-Star by Adweek, his work appears in the Permanent Collection of the Library of Congress. He has lectured throughout the country and abroad, most notably at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. He has attended the Iowa Summer Writers’ Workshop, the Stanford Creative Writing workshop, and the Wharton School Executive Education MBA program. That Crazy Perfect Someday is his first novel. Connect with Michael at his website: mazzastory.com or on Twitter and Instagram: @mazzastory.

1. Start with the character, not the plot.

While it’s good to have a sense of plot, a storyline without a fully realized leading character will fall flat. Most writers have one character knocking at our brains, a persistent voice other than our own, bouncing around our neural pathways dying to land on the page. As one trusts the blink for a creative idea, trusting a voice other than your own may be the beginning of an interesting central figure. Follow it, even if it begins on the page as dialogue. You’ll be surprised what you’ll find out about your protagonist. Or as William Faulkner puts it, “It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.” 

2. Get out of your head and into your protagonist’s.

Don’t write at arm’s length. Become the character and write from the inside out.

Relate the world from their point of view. Do what great character actors do—assume the part. There are more than a few performers who’ve taken on roles playing the opposite gender. To pull it off believably, they had to create a backstory and transform themselves into that persona.

[The 7 Rules of Picking Names for Fictional Characters]

3. Study the characters all around you.

I’ve had a long career in advertising, a business that attracts dynamic, brilliant, talented, and funny young women. Working with many of them, I became privy to their quirks, ambitions, disappointments, idioms, and happiness—and of course, anything to do with stupid men. All of it is channeled into my main character, Mafuri Long. So, find others unlike you at work, social gatherings, the local coffee place, wherever—study them, combine their personalities, and a real, living, breathing protagonist will begin to emerge.

4. Put your protagonist in action.

Set the stakes high. Put your character in peril. Face him or her off with an antagonist. You’ll begin to see how your protagonist reacts to the situation. If you force onto your leading character what you would do in that situation, you’re off track. Follow your protagonist. Their motivations will become clear, and you’ll be along for the ride. Their reactions may also take your story in an unexpected and more interesting direction.

[The 5 Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes (& How to Fix Them)]

5. Research, research, research.

If your protagonist is, say, a scientist, a ballerina, or a cop, and you’re not, talk to people who are. They’ll give you insights and nuances into their world that will help form your protagonist into a believable character. I surfed recreationally and knew something of the sport, but I didn’t understand it from a female perspective until I picked the brains of women surfers. But what if the protagonist is a robot or a dog? You’ll most likely anthropomorphize the character in some way. Garth Stein did a great job in The Art of Racing in the Rain, a bestseller told from a dog’s point of view.

6. Listen to other opinions.

The challenge of writing a fully realized first-person female character was daunting. An all-women cast of advance readers giving me feedback along the way, as well as Ruth Greenstein, my editor and publisher, who gave me her stamp of approval, provided a unique perspective. Expose your protagonist to others. Essentially you’re creating a focus group that will help you fill in the blanks, uncover insights, and will judge whether or not your protagonist rings true.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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