Backstory, Characters, Writing Process

What trauma to give your characters…

Nobody wants to read about happy characters. Sorry, but it’s true. Misery loves company…and stories need conflict. And once you resolve your conflict, your story is over.

So, what is the best way to create conflict that is significant enough to keep going for the full duration of your story (usually anywhere between 300 and 100,000 words)?

Ah…yes…trauma. I am currently re-working the character profile for the antagonist of my YA fantasy novel ‘Fearful Magic’ which I am planning to self-publish at the end of 2021.

The main reason being that I am slowly catching up on my world-building and character profiling deficits and there are certain aspects of John which simply no longer work.

One of those aspects is the deep-set childhood trauma which I didn’t appreciate enough in my initial outline. I did note that he is bitter about his mother leaving him when he is still young but…does this really warrant him turning into a mage-hating, relentless bounty hunter without mercy?

No, I don’t think so either. So back to the drawing board it is.

Whilst I am still sticking with the original trauma, I am going to introduce a second traumatic factor: John is a halfblood (half mage on his mother’s side, half human on his father’s).

I imagine John’s mother leaving when he was young is a first point of trauma…exacerbated by his experience of having to hide his halfblood nature from others throughout his childhood and adolescence which has made him isolated.

Finally, there is a third trauma factor – a necessity because of the environment in which the story takes place – John has been through a long and terrible war as a common soldier and now works for the Brotherhood (a human religious organisation that pretty much drives the mage-hating in the story).

John can’t trust anybody…he has never learned to empathize and grows to hate mages (going all the way back to his mother leaving him among humans to fend for himself).

Now, that sounds much more plausible already…don’t you agree?

So, in a nutshell, the most common considerations to go through when you are thinking about what trauma to give your character are as follows:

  1. Make it specific to the story – choose something that really hurts. Otherwise, you don’t end up creating a strong enough driver for the characters’ flaws and behaviour.
  2. Align the trauma with the world-building. Same as real people, characters are a product of their environment and traumatic events beyond their control. Don’t forget to traumatise your characters accordingly.
  3. Choose the right trauma for each character. They can’t all have been abandoned by their mother in their childhood. Think about how you want your characters to act and then work out what trauma would cause them to act that way.
  4. Be consistent. Once you have decided the trauma and the impact it has on your character, stick to that impact and ensure that you reference it consistently – it needs to drive your characters’ decisions and actions.

Now, go away and be horrible to your characters…I am certainly going to twist the knife on the trauma side as I continue to write my novel.

See ya next time 😉

If you have found even the slightest nugget of wisdom in this post, let me know if the comments below. Maybe you have a good method or rule of thumb to make decisions about your characters’ trauma that you would like to share?

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Characters, Fiction, Story, Writing Process

How to write a compelling protagonist?

Writing your protagonist into being is much harder than you think…or at least that’s what I found out when I started writing down my stories about twenty years ago. A lot of new writers get caught up in the description trap.

You might be tempted to think: how can my readers connect to the main character in my story if they don’t know what this character look like? I totally get that! Of course it is possible to make your protagonist relatable by giving him/ her/ them specific attributes that hint towards a certain demographic (BAME, LGBTQ+, disability, working class, upper class etc.)

Nothing wrong with that! Diversity is an important issue to address and I am glad that more writers are championing underrepresented communities in their fiction these days.

BUT the description of the character alone does not necessarily guarantee that your readers will find them compelling. I would go so far as to say that your protagonist’s physical description can be entirely omitted from your story without negatively impacting how compelling your character is.

Shock, horror! I said it! If you don’t believe me, go read my short story ‘Original Magic’ (free to read on Wattpad) and tell me whether or not the characters are compelling. My current readers suggest they are. And none of those characters (including the protagonist) are physically described.

So, what makes a protagonist compelling? Contrary to what most people think, compelling characters don’t have to be likable. Compelling characters are characters about whom we care – for whatever reason.

Could it be that your protagonist is a victim? If so, then it’s likely that your readers will feel for him/ her/ them and want to find out if they are going to get out of their bad situation – whether they like them or not.

Or maybe your protagonist is a charming troublemaker who annoys everybody around him/ her/ them but your readers might secretly hope he/ she/ they get away with their next prank…because such characters are just too charming for jail.

Also, I imagine your protagonist could very well be a miserable old witch or wizard who doesn’t like people approaching their domain? In this case, the reader might find it hard to see any redeeming qualities in your protagonist but how compelling would this character be if an innocent child got lost and somehow ended up at this protagonist’s door…?

Wouldn’t you want to read on to find out what such an unlikeable protagonist would do to the child? Wouldn’t you want to know whether he/ she/ they live up to your expectations?

And there is one last thing that I would also caution you against: make sure your protagonist is NOT perfect! Who wants to read about a beautiful. skinny, popular, talented individual with no flaws? Nobody! If your protagonist has no flaws, you picked the wrong protagonist for your story.

See ya next time 😉

If you ever had trouble making your protagonist compelling but just couldn’t put your finger on the problem, I hope this post provides some clues. Comment below if you know this struggle is real and let me know if these tips brought you any value … or even if you think I am barking up the wrong tree. I am interested in your views.

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