How do we select the main characters? Often we speak in terms of heroes and villains, but what we mean is protagonists (heroes and anti-heroes) and antagonists (villains). These will be the first characters that spring to mind when you think up a plot and you have to make them follow a delicate balance. The #1 protagonist is the person narrating the story or the person the narrator follows, and the antagonist is the person or thing that sets the plot into motion.


Sometimes it's easy to tell protagonists from antagonists...on TV. Writers have to work for it.    Credit


Now, let's break things down to the simplest level: what function do they serve? In short the protagonist tells the story; the antagonist gives the protagonist a story to tell. This means it's always easier to craft your villain/antagonist because his/her very existence is tied to the plot. Both should follow an arc of development, however the antagonist will have followed his arc before the start of the story. The protagonists arc happens as we tell the story, the unfolding of it is called the hero's journey. However the first act of the antagonist after his completed arc is what sets the plot into motion.

Edgar Allen Poe wrote such great mysteries because as the inventor of the genre, he knew the trick: you write it backwards. In short, you write the crime from the antagonist's point-of-view (POV) which then gives a path of clues for the protagonist to unravel. Whether or not you're writing a mystery, this is a good technique; craft your antagonist first.

What's that you say? You have no antagonist? Well then shut up, because you're going to write one seriously boring story that critics will love and no one actually likes, and will likely be adapted into a film starring Tom Hanks. Also, if you say you have no antagonist, you obviously missed the fucking point of reading Lord of the Flies back in high school. Evil, chaos, temptation itself can be an antagonist. Your antagonist does not need to be a person, but if it's a monster or concept, it must still evolve and follow an arc like a person.

Sometimes it can be a machine, or a concept, such as random selection of destiny. Didn't know Toy Story was that deep, didja?    Credit


Now, for the rest of us who prefer movies with Liam Neeson and managed to pay attention in high school English, craft your antagonist first. Why? Because he/she they need to fit the story. If there's lots of action and violence, the antagonist should not be sympathetic. If it's slow and dramatic and about the human soul, they should be. If you can't figure this out, you do not yet know what genre you're writing, so remove your head from your ass, fix that, and come back. Seriously, at this point you should know if your antagonist is human, animal, monster, or concept. You should know if they will be sympathetic or unsympathetic.

You're going to want to use a character biography for your main characters. This is the template I use (and is also available in docx format for more up-to-date MS Word users). The questions pertain to personality, personal history, likes, dislikes, reactions, family background. I suggest using a picture rather than writing down a physical descriptions. Use a random picture, a celebrity, a drawing, or picture of a friend and base physical descriptions off the picture.

You can make your own template, and no matter what you want to use one. If you ever get stuck during writing you can refer to it, and it will help you to create three-dimensional characters. When crating the bio for your antagonist use this template and create a character that follows the story. For example if the plot is a hero going up against the worst terrorist ever, you know to make your villain an ex-Moussad counter-terrorism expert gone rogue. If your story is a comedic romance set in the cooking world you know to make your villain a Gordon Ramsay clone. If you're writing an epic journey of the human soul coming of age, you have to decide how much he/she/it will shape the hero. If not much, go the Sauron route and make a thing with no real personality whatsoever. If a lot, then create a tragic back story a la Dr. Horrible.

The most sympathetic villain ever. EVER.    Credit


Now if you want to make a truly complex antagonist, there's a good cheat: Take the 9-ish stages of being a hero and invert them. they follow the same path, but as every change brings the hero closer to greatness, every change for the villain should take him/her further from grace. Here are the 12 stages of a the hero's journey as they would apply to a protagonist as described by Chritopher Vogler in yellow, and as they apply to the antagonist in red.

Act One (Separation)
1. Ordinary World / Ordinary World
2. Call to Adventure / Imposing Disaster
3. Refusal Of the Call / Mental Breakdown

Act Two (Transformation)
4. Meeting the Mentor / Meeting the Dark Guide
5. Crossing the Threshold / Committing to Evil
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies / Struggling With the Conscience
7. Approach To the Inmost Cave / Killing the Conscience
8. Ordeal / First Capricious Act of Evil
9. Reward (Seizing the Sword) / Reward (Seizing the Gauntlet)

Act Three (Return)
10. The Road Back / The March Home
11. Resurrection (Final Battle & Cheating Death) / Battle With the Hero (Resulting In Grave Injuries)
12. Return with the Elixir / Rebirth With the Prize

Now the more stages you fill out, the more complex a protagonist is. Same with an antagonist. Sauron (let'suse the film version here for simplicity) got just the 3 acts: separation (going into battle), transformation (loses the ring), and return (becomes a giant eye). Give your antagonist just 3 and he's simple (works well for romance novels, young adult fiction, and horror), give them 6 or 9 and they will be pretty well fleshed out (6 is great for all unsympathethic villains with little to moderate page time, 9 is good for unsympathetic villains with lots of page time, or sympathetic villains with little to moderate page time). The full 12 should be reserved for sympathetic villains with lots of page time, and ideally ones who will live through to a sequel and likely change sides. 


A visual guide of the 12 step hero journey.     Credit

For clarification of the antagonists's 12 stages, please see Star wars Episodes 1-3 (sorry in advance) for the most ham-fisted but blatant villain's arc ever. Now the antagonist must have gone through 50%-66% of these stages before the story. What starts the story can be the remaining steps. If you want 12 total for your villain and they have done 9, let the last 3 follow the plot of the story. If you want 9 total you may give the antagonist 5 or 6 before the story start. if they have only 3 total, always give them 2 before the story and make the last step be the story. Always remember to leave some steps unfinished, for these start the plot. The antagonists journey is what sets the plot into motion. 

The Hero's Myth in 9 Steps (To translate for the Antagonist use the yellow/red list above)


Now that you know how deep you have to go with your antagonist, remember to tailor them to the story. The hero's 6, 9, or 12 steps tell the story you're writing: the antagonist must have completed 50%-66% of his/her 6-12 steps already. That is why Star Wars episodes 4-6 kick 1-3's asses. Readers want to see Luke's arc, not Darth Vader's. That's why you write it into the character in their bio, and use the last steps to fuel the plot. For example the very last step for the antagonist is "Rebirth With the Prize." the prize is his/her/its ultimate goal such as ruling the world, stealing the Franklin mint, or marrying the princess, or perhaps simpler like destroying the ego of a rival, becoming the most famous serial killer ever. That grab is the start of the plot and an antagonist can be aware of it before hand. In horror stories this is literal: the prize is the death of the protagonist, and the antagonist goes for it after we assume they are dead. They miraculously are reborn and snatch at the prize, meaning the last step of the antagonist's arc is the climax of the story. The protagonist;s 12th step should line up with the 11th of the protagonist (Resurrection Final Battle w/ Villain & Cheating Death). If your antagonist has 9 and your protagonist has 12 always plan to line up the end of the antagonist's story with with the climax of the protagonists. Plot out their history to allow this.

The 6 Step Hero Myth. See how limiting the simplicity can be?


For example they can know their ultimate goal is to rob Fort Knox. Perhaps stage 9 their gauntlet was getting a massive underground drill. The plot can begin with "the march home" during which the antagonist begins laundering money, and our protagonist takes notice.  That's why the antagonist's history has to be tied to the story. The antagonist's history is what sets the story into motion, and ends it.

An example of the boiled down 4 stage Hero Journey. The3 step is merely separation, transformation, and return.     Credit


Now that you've gotten your antagonist, it's time for the protagonist. Here's an important rule of thumb: 2:1 protagonists:antagonists. That's why 1 super villain faces a superhero and sidekick, that's why the hero gets to get a girl and the villain never does (or loses his, and she never has any lines anyway). So you're going to have to do this twice.

Your #1 or main protagonist will be the guy/girl/goat whose POV tells the story. They are the only one who can have 6, 9 or 12 stages of the hero journey. Got that? ONLY THEM. You can just give them 3, but you better be writing a children's book or romance novel (I think you're beginning to see why romance novels are the mimes of the fiction world). So your #1 protagonist, the person who tells the story if using first-person narration, or has the "camera-on-shoulder" of third-person narration, should have 6, 9, or 12 steps of the hero journey. Want to write a better romance novel? Make it 6 or more. Leave 3 for some other schlub.

Now that you have your main protagonist, who's the #2? This depends on sub-plot or overall plot. If your sub-plot is a romance but it's a mystery, #2 must be a love interest. If it's a drama with a mystery sub-plot, #2 must be a subordinate or complimentary associate. If it's a war-time coming-of-age #2 must be the tragic friend or the cold mentor. If it's a mystery that's actually a horror #2 must be the intelligent survivor or the sacrificial goat. If the main plot is a romance the #2 will always be the male love interest. Just as with the antagonist, the plot determines the secondary protagonist. If they won't be on page all that much, give them 3 stages of the hero's journey. If you want a "well-rounded" #2 give him or her 6. If you give them 9 or all 12, you better be writing about multiple main-protagonists, a la George R.R. Martin.

Except for the characters who die in book 1, each of these people are being written with 6, 9, or 12 step hero myths. No wonder Martin takes 5+ years to write a new volume.


The specifics of a protagonist or antagonist can be whatever you want. Try to give each qualities in yourself you understand. Give you antagonist that nasty habit you hate about yourself (like your arrogance) and give your #1 the thing you like best about yourself (like your ethics), and give your #2 things you like about yourself (but don't love, like your bodacious tits or firm ass or ability to knit). Do this to make them easier to write, and for specifics such as brothers/sisters, age, favorite food...pick things that make sense to you. Things like education, job, aspirations and goals are determined by the story.

Get to know the hero's myth. Remember that there should be 2 protagonists for every antagonist. Remember a villain most off-page can get 3 steps of the journey and a #1 can only get that in a bad romance novel. Write down the steps in their arc your antagonist has taken before the start of the story, and note the next ones they must take, and put this on their character bio. Your protagonists hero journey belongs in your outline but can be noted on their bio. You'll get a feel for this eventually, but keep this lesson in accessible. Go and read your favorite stores and think about this, note in the margins every time you see the #1 protagonist and the antagonist go through a step.

While you re-read Valley of the Dolls looking for this, try to throw in a classic or two 


Now that you know how to basically craft main characters, and from the 101: 1- series you have a plot, next week we'll visit the summary in excruciating detail. Don't worry, like summaries, we'll keep it short and sweet. Until then, happy writing.