Writing Tip: The Protagonist of Your Novel Isn’t You

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Just a quick PSA today on protagonists…

In my very first manuscript, my protagonist was at her very first dinner of the novel, and announced to the other characters that she was a vegetarian.

This prompted some questions (she was living in France, where it’s less common) which turned into a totally off-topic discussion on the benefits of vegetarianism and the French meat industry.

Which had nothing to do with my plot, themes, or characters really at all.

When I went back to revise, I realized that I’d made her a vegetarian for the same reasons I made her introverted, red-haired, book-loving, Catholic, from the East Coast of the US, and female: because I am all these things.

They say “write what you know”, and for the most part I’ve found that to be helpful advice; my beta readers often praise my realistic settings, because I’ve set them all in places I’ve lived. But there’s a difference between basing your setting on a real place, and basing your characters on real people.

Namely that it’s fine to do one; not so fine to do another. 

When writing characters, I think it’s only natural to base a lot of their traits on your own, especially when it’s your protagonist, especially when it’s your first manuscript. It’s easy. But easy does not always equate to good.

Your characters can’t all be you. That would be boring. And oftentimes the more interesting story will come from their doing certain things and acting certain ways that you would never act or do. And other times, you’ll give them totally unnecessary character traits (like vegetarianism) that serve very little in your story. Remember that every detail of your story must be there for a reason.

In my updated version of my manuscript, my protagonist is not vegetarian, because she has no need to be, so the unnecessary sidebar has been cut. It makes the story much stronger this way. And now, with newer manuscripts, I’m relying less on the crutch of making my protagonists like me (though I still haven’t gotten away from making them straight, white, and female–I really hope to tackle all three of those challenges someday, but am just not there yet!) and it’s making my writing stronger and more interesting.

How about you? Are your protagonists like you? How far have you gone outside of your own experiences?

Image of a person who is also not me (wish I could dress like this!) found here

4 thoughts on “Writing Tip: The Protagonist of Your Novel Isn’t You

  1. These days my character’s aren’t much like me at all. I did write my first novel with a character who resembled me a bit if not completely. I was thirteen, blond, skinny and had a temper. She was twelve, blond, skinny and had a temper. She unlike me was rather funny though and had the guts to talk to anyone however she wished. She was also responsible while I was the polar opposite. I think in my own experience we also write characters to not only resemble ourselves but also to resemble what we want to be.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Now that you mention it, a very real part of my outlining process is taking a hacksaw to my character brainstorms before I turn them into my final character outlines to make sure they aren’t just a stand in for me. One thing I do is make sure to cut the random quirks/character traits we share that are completely gratuitous (so not at all plot relevant), and replace them with others that more accurately fit the character.

    Liked by 2 people

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