As someone who writes quite a bit, I always find that there’s a great disconnect between the great epics in my head, and what I put down on paper. Many writers feel this way, I’m sure I’m not alone. The main reason for that disconnect though, is that the great epics that go on in my head are vague sketches. When it comes down to fleshing everything out, and putting it on paper, things can get difficult and very frustrating. So I sat down today to think things through, and I believe I emerged with advice to give to people who have the same problems as me. Today I answer two common questions specifically about creating characters and how they relate to plot.

1: How do you come up with your character’s internal goals/motivations and their personality traits?

2: Should the protagonist direct your plot? Or should your plot direct the protagonist?



1: How do you come up with your character’s internal goals/motivations and their personality traits?

Creating your character’s internal goals/motivations and their personality traits can be daunting, though usually, if you have the premise (however loose) of a story, you also typically have the premise (however loose) of your protagonist. To some people, fleshing out those foreign characters comes easily to them, and they can just sit down at a computer and start improvising a deep and complex cast. For those that can’t do that (me included) I have tried and true advice.


An old English teacher I had told me that you should never commit to a long writing project without before having written 5 short stories involving your characters and your plot. This advice has been closer to my heart than any advice my parents have given me.

Writing these short stories is helpful for a number of reasons. The first one is that since a short story is short, it forces you to create a plot that your protagonist can easily react to. Instead of, “How would my protagonist react to being left alone on Saturn with hostile aliens and a hologram of his wife that the aliens are keeping hostage and that he’s determined to save because his real wife is dead and that’s all he has?” now all you have to think about is, “How would my protagonist react to being dumped on prom night?” “How would my protagonist react to being trapped in a cell? Would he just sit there and hope someone rescues him? If so, then what is his thought process? Would he take action? If so, how? Would he cleverly try to sneak out? Or would he just try to brute force his way to the exit?” How your protagonist reacts to being dumped on prom night says a lot about their patience, their emotional stability, their perception of love. How they react to being trapped in a cell tells you a lot about their confidence, their intelligence, their fears, and with that knowledge, you’re definitely better armed to tackle how your protagonist reacts to your complex and multi-layered main plot.

The second reason is that since these are short stories completely independent from your main work (though you can incorporate them into your main work if you want) there’s no pressure to be perfect. You don’t have to over-think every single choice your protagonist makes, you can feel free to make mistakes, to look at aspects of your protagonist’s personality and think, “That’s not right. I don’t like that. I made a mistake. I think I’m going to make him a little more patient/cowardly/cynical.” The overwhelming pressure to not make mistakes that exists when making larger projects doesn’t exist in this little short story realm. Experiment as much as you want, tweak and turn and pinch and twist, here in this short story realm, there’s no wrong answers. The writing doesn’t even have to be Grade A (though you should always hold yourself to a certain standard) as long as you learned new things about your protagonist, you did a great job.

The third is my favorite (for a rather dark reason). Since in writing your short stories, you will inevitably get to know your protagonist better, you might realize that you didn’t like him as much as you thought, or that he’s not exactly what you wanted, and that neither is the plot of your story. And so, at around short story 3, you might sigh, and decide that this isn’t for you, and that you should try to work with a new protagonist, or a new plot, or even a new everything. If that’s the case, then trust me, you’ll be glad you did this exercise, since it’s infinitely less soul-crushing and guilt-inducing to quit at short story 3 than it is to quit at “Chapter 3.”

Special note: Many people have the knee-jerk reaction to cast themselves as the protagonist. While I do think that this has some value, for more advanced writers, I would advise against it. Creating characters is a necessary skill to have, and casting yourself as the protagonist can stunt your growth as a writer if you’re past the need to use your own personality and traits as a sort of crutch. For beginning writers that’s okay, and I might even recommend it, since the familiarity of the self is comforting, and a solid base from which to draw upon, but it’s not something that I think that people should get in the habit of doing, especially not if they want to improve.


2: Should the protagonist direct your plot? Or should your plot direct the protagonist?

The answer is a mix of both. I believe that too much of the first, and too much of the second will create an unbalance in the story, causing it to either be boring, or to have a hollow protagonist, along with a frustratingly implausible story.

If your protagonist directs your plot, that means that your plot is being built exclusively around your protagonist’s decisions, without the chaotic influence of the other characters. While secondary characters should remain secondary, that doesn’t mean that their influence shouldn’t be felt throughout the story. The tensest scenes can occur from something that happened completely unbeknownst to the protagonist because of the actions of the secondary characters.

For instance: Bo and his two friends, Michael and Mick, are going to a party later that night. When they get to the party it turns out to be wilder than expected, with a lot of heavy drug and alcohol use. Bo and Michael are fine with this, but Mick is not, and he decides to call the cops.

Now your protagonist is no longer in control of the scene, and since he is no longer in control of the scene, things just got interesting.

In the majority of the stories that I’ve read where the protagonist is in direct control of the plot, since the plot revolves entirely around the protagonist, there are no surprises, there are no difficulties, and the protagonist never has to evolve. The result is a flat 2-D protagonist, and a story that is perhaps the worst thing a story can be: boring.

However if your plot controls your protagonists, you run the risks of your protagonist seeming hollow and unbelievable, and that people will see your story as contrived.

For instance: I want to write a story about a handsome and capable captain who gets lost at sea and is later shipwrecked on an undiscovered island of beautiful mermaids, where he meets his true love. So I create Misha. An intelligent and capable captain with over 40 years of sailing experience (so far so good) who forgets his compass at home, and without it, is unable to orient himself. Now he and his handpicked crew of seasoned sailors are lost at sea. While they are lost at sea, they stumble upon an island of beautiful mermaids, where the captain finds his true love.

While the plot did get where it needed to go, the most believable thing in that example is the island of mermaids. It is entirely unbelievable that a captain who is intelligent and capable would leave his compass at home, and also that he wouldn’t have a spare, or any other orienting devices in his office. It is also entirely unbelievable that after 40 years of sailing experience, he wouldn’t know how to (at the very least) guide himself in a particular direction in order to reach land. Because of this, the captain isn’t a believable character, and by association, neither is his story.

Plot is a complicated machine, many different things factor in to make it credible and interesting. But out of the many factors, an absolute necessity is that it needs to move along your character’s personality traits. If the plot forces your character to do something that is out of sync with their personality, your readers will notice, and they’ll think that you didn’t bother to properly plan out your story, your characters, or both.



To recap:

Before you sit down to write the main project that you’re so excited to get working on, take the time to really get to know your characters. Whether you choose to follow my advice to write 5 short stories involving them, or whether you have methods of your own, having a well thought-out protagonist as well as a well thought-out supporting cast is a crucial part of any long endeavor, and even many short ones.

When you finally figure out your protagonists, make sure that the plot doesn’t revolve too closely around them, but also that it stays close enough so that all the actions that your characters take make sense, and are in character for them.

That’s all for now!