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I have a problem with the protagonist of one of my stories. In the story he's in, he dies at the end (self-sacrifice), so I readily made sure to flesh him out the most possible, because, at least in my understanding, the more the reader knows about him, the more they will care about his death, and thus his death being a great loss.

However, I think it's not working very well, and I think it's actually having the opposite effect, because when I compare to some of my other characters, who all have much less characterization than him and have no need of being the most likeable character in the story, some of them are much more impactant, likeable and admirable than him, but with much less "screen time" and words written. You can feel emotions, empathy for those characters with a single short scene, but with this protagonist, even with a whole story about him, it's not so easy for me. Even his mother is interesting and passes a good feeling when you hear her name, like how of a nice, admirable and likeable person she is, even with so little development.

I mean, there are some moments which provoke some emotions about him, but not much in the overall, although he is indeed interesting, but I can't have such feeling. The feeling you have about him is of a cool character, but overcrowded of traits and information about him. There's a feeling that you know so much about him, that he becomes less respectable and likeable than the others less exposed.

I don't know if I'm tired of him, as I've worked actively in this story for almost a year and I'm currently working on it as a side project for over a year (and even if I completely stop working on it, I would still be thinking in it), or if I made a mistake that I can't spot.

There's a character, from another story, who is a member of the group of main characters. He is cool, skilled, smart, of few words, and is the protector figure of the group, always protecting his friends from harm, just like the protagonist above. But when he is incapacitated and brutally killed, his death is so much more emotional, impactful and touching. And you know what? That's all there is to know about this character, from a one-page story outline. Nothing more, nothing less, just enough to make me care about him (and he is not even a protagonist!).

So, is there such a thing as over-fleshing out a protagonist? Why in some cases a very simple character impacts and makes the reader care more than a deep one?

  • 1
    I think it's not about whether we know about him but whether we identify with him. – DPT Oct 4 '17 at 15:24
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It boils down to "show, don't tell".

You as a writer need to know your characters on a deep level, so you can show the reader who they are through their actions and words.

As you already have discovered through your other characters, the effect is often the greatest when you reveal a lot of character with few words.

If you need to flesh out a lot about a character to the reader, is often a sign that you don't know the character all that well yourself. You need to know them well enough to know what they would naturally say or do in a situation.

Another point is to reveal only information that is relevant to the story. If your protagonist's mother died when she was six (to create sympathy, for instance), but the psychological implication of this has nothing to do with the character's development in the story, then leave it out.

  • 3
    Checkov's Gun. If the mother's loss won't "fire" in the character development, leave it out. +1 – Mindwin Oct 4 '17 at 17:49
  • I assumed this was a story about biological anomalies, so obviously the first. – erikric Oct 5 '17 at 10:02
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First, congratulations on sticking with it so far. Let's try to fix some stuff.

... the more the reader knows about him, the more they will care about his death, and thus his death being a great loss.

It depends on what they know! If they know he stomps on puppies, they don't care about his death.

As a writer, you should often be thinking about Ramifications. There are a few, with regard to writing in general, but let us consider character development.

Ramifications to the plot: A character trait can influence the plot: Alice loves her striped underwear. When we are searching for Alice, we find striped underwear, cut off somebody with a knife.

Ramifications to the emotions of other characters: How do other characters feel about them? Why do Brad's friends like him? Why does Brad's wife love him? Why does Brad's dog love him? As a writer, don't take such relationships as a given, the good will of friends and lovers and even animals is not permanent.

Say Brad knows and loves dogs. He stops for gas at a corner store, and sees a matted stray, hopping away on three feet, it's front right leg hurts too much to walk on. Brad finishes up with the gas, and parks the car, but has to go look for the dog. He finds it; the lame leg is broken; the dog was apparently hit by a car. Brad immediately calls in late for work.

It takes him an hour to gain the trust of the dog, which Brad names Butch. He brings Butch to his vet, and charges with his Visa the surgery and casting, a full medical examination, vaccinations, and a wash and haircut for Butch. He ends up five hours late to work, missing an important client meeting, which truly pisses off his boss when Brad tells him why (Brad is a truthful man). When Brad gets home he can't wait to tell his wife Alice the story of poor Butch and his broken leg.

Alice interrupts him, "How much?" He thinks she is focused on the wrong thing, but reluctantly tells her: It cost $1800. Alice is distraught, tears well up, "God damn it, Brad. God damn it." She shouts, "Eighteen hundred? Are you insane?"

However, one of the reasons Alice loves Brad is because of his selfless love of dogs. Which she wouldn't take away, but still, he's causing her hardship and grief.

Ramifications to the character self: How do the character traits make this character feel? Why does he do what he does? How do his traits influence his thoughts, and get him the things most humans want? Food, Sex, Shelter, Companionship, Camaraderie, Accomplishment, Success, Money.

How does helping Butch help or harm Brad? Or, how would NOT helping Butch help or harm Brad? Would he have a bigger number in his bank account but be miserable or guilt ridden?

Ramifications to the emotions of the reader: Readers judge the characters. How do you judge Brad in the story above? Do you want Brad as a friend, or nothing to do with Brad? Do you want Brad as an employee? Would you want Brad (or a female version of Brad) as a spouse?

Character traits translate into Emotions that drive actions and actions have ramifications, as a character moves through the world. The traits shape the story, the relationships, the relationship of a character with themselves (what they feel joy about and guilt about), and the plot.

If you are including character traits that have no ramifications, you should not be.

The ramifications to the reader include sympathy and empathy for the ramifications of Brad's death, in Brad's world. What will become of Alice, if Brad takes a risk with his life to save one of his dogs?

It is five years later, and in an epic hurricane Brad's truck stalls in deep water that is still rising. Brad and Butch have to get out, the truck is going to be lost. The water is too deep for Butch to walk and too fast for Butch to swim, so Brad carries Butch through thigh-high water. It knocks him down; Butch is swept into the river. Brad is terrified by the river. He knows he could make it to dry land, he even starts toward it, already crying for Butch --- but he can't do it. He looks to the sky, shouts "Fuck you!" to the hurricane, or God, then turns in anger and wades, then swims, into the swollen river after Butch. Searchers find Brad's lifeless body on the shore a mile downstream, being guarded by a muddy and despondent Butch.

[Let me note here that the entire plot of this two-paragraph story rests on Brad's love for dogs, a character trait revealed in the beginning.]

It isn't exactly about how much they know about Brad. If you want readers to be devastated by Brad's death, then Brad's death must make a difference, in a concrete and literal way: What will be different about this world without Brad in it? In the reader's imagination, what becomes of Butch and Alice?

In other words, what are the ramifications of Brad's death? I've only given two characters, but in a story many can be involved. For the audience, the ramifications should be that the world is a much worse place without Brad in it, so much so it is worth crying for the loss. (On the flip side, the audience will root for the death of a villain because of ramifications: the world is a much better place without the villain, so much so it is worth cheering for the win.)

Now I detect some one-sidedness in your writing about his mother; and I'd caution against that. I would write Brad as human; he has selfish needs too, he can be lazy at work, he can not really give a crap about politics.

Or maybe Brad is not so truthful when it comes to his sales job. His love for dogs does not imply he loves people! Dogs don't ever lie to Brad and to him are easy to understand, control and make happy. So maybe Brad is suspicious and cynical of when it comes to people. Brad has zero tolerance for charities because he thinks they are all scams for some sociopaths to make a quarter million dollars a year while using ten percent of the donations to pretend like they are helping people when they are lining their own pockets. So he doesn't give anybody paid by any charity the benefit of the doubt, and thinks any volunteers are soft-hearted fools being robbed. He has a lot of anger and verbal abuse for anyone paid by charities.

The point is if you make somebody too relentlessly good, the audience cannot identify with them, because 99.999% of us are not relentlessly good! That said, the flaws you give a good character should be understandable by the audience, and forgivable (perhaps with some reluctance) in light of the good that they do. In the end the reader must judge Brad's world as a better place with Brad in it.

You can feel emotions, empathy for those characters with a single short scene,

Precisely.

but with this protagonist, even with a whole story about him, it's not so easy for me.

Probably because the "whole story" is boring, to you and the reader, because the traits you have given him have no ramifications. That makes them a wasted investment in reading. Nobody cares if he likes to read mysteries, if there are no mysteries for him to solve. Nobody cares if he likes strawberry jam better than grape, unless that informs something else in the story.

Another way of saying traits must have ramifications is to say character traits should be connected to the story in some way.

Yet another way of saying this is the idea of "show don't tell," but to me that is too cryptic an advice to give a writer. Because of course, everything written is "telling", I'm telling you what Brad did, what Alice did, and so on.

What it means is, do not tell us about Brad's emotions, do not write that Brad loves dogs to the point of irrationality. If that is your premise then it has ramifications, and you should let the reader figure that out based on the ramifications in the story.

Don't try to come up with clever or poetic wording to convey that trait! A trait must influence Brad's thinking and actions, and that is the "show" part of that maxim. What Brad DOES when meeting Butch, and Brad's other actions and time taken out of his life to care for other dogs, shows us how Brad feels about dogs.

We don't have to be told, and we should not be told: The scenes let the reader develop their own beliefs about Brad. Those will stick with the reader, while a laundry list of traits to memorize will not.

Can you picture Brad? I think you probably have an idea, even though I have never described a single physical trait about him. But in my story (created for this post) it makes no difference what Brad looks like, his age or race or height or weight, his accent. What matters about Brad is his emotional self. If Brad is ugly or handsome, that needs to influence the story.

The audience wants to know more about the main characters, but everything you tell should have some influence on the story. The ramifications of your protagonist's death are not just whether he succeeded or failed, that is worth only a moment of gratitude. The impact is in what the reader knows he has given up, and what others will lose by losing him.

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    brilliant answer! And very helpful. – shieldedtulip Oct 4 '17 at 17:43
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There are two types of protagonists, I'll call them "portraits" and "projection surfaces".

The "portrait" type of protagonist is an attempt by the author to depict a specific (kind of) person to show to the reader what that person and the life of that person might be like. These protagonists are "fleshed out" as much as possible, or rather, they are as truthful to the real (kind of) person as possible. When you read such a protagonist, he or she will almost always feel distinctly different from yourself. You will witness another person's life and learn what it means to be that (kind of) person.

The "projection surface" type of protagonist serves as a device for the reader to project him- or herself into the story. These characters are given as little detail as possible, and where any specifics are given they are often sterotypical and universal. When you read such a protagonist, he or she will almost always feel like anybody. Through that protagonist's viewpoint you can enter the narrative and experience it as if you were living it.

The "projection surface" type of protagonist is most often found in ("escapist" or "idea") genre fiction such as romance, science fiction, fantasy, horror, or thriller.

How much you need to flesh out your protagonist depends on what kind of experience you want to facilitate for your reader: becoming familiar with a person unlike themselves, or the ride of their lifetime.

  • One good example of the projection surface protagonist is Bella from twilight.. Or all the "token kid" in those 80' cartoons (that were not about a bunch of kids), like Spike Witwicky in Transformers (G1). – Mindwin Oct 4 '17 at 17:52
  • @Mindwin - On the contrary, I’d argue that Bella gives me a very good idea of the life and feelings of a person quite unlike myself (Stephanie Meyer). – Obie 2.0 Oct 4 '17 at 21:12
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Sometimes the reader cares about the character, sometimes it just wants to read more about it. In both cases there will be a sense of loss if the character disappears. However these are not the only explanations for the feeling of sorrow in a reader. I'm guessing that your less "fleshed out" character feels more impactful than your protagonist due to a sense of tragedy.

This is not a vague notion. Tragedy is a form of drama based on human suffering that invokes an accompanying catharsis or pleasure in audiences (readers in your case). Look at some notable examples (modern and ancient):

  • J.K. Rowlings in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire killed a minor character at about the end of the book. Although this character "feels" unimportant the sense of tragedy is great. Not only the death was unexpected and cruel but the very tone of the saga changed from a children's adventure to a "real world" drama.

  • Sophocles in Antigone wrote a play about a king who made a decision of not respecting the burial rites of an enemy. The sister of that enemy is his daughter in law. Although she begged him to allow burial rights he refused. She eventually committed suicide. In sorrow his son (that loves Antigone) also commits suicide. His wife, upon knowing the loss of her son, follows the same path. At the end the king although having support for his decision has a deep sense of personal loss. Its a story about the cost of pride.

My point being that a character does not need to be well described to cause a sense of loss. You just need to guarantee that the death is tragic. For example s/he was about to achieve something important, or is very consequential to other likable characters, or it deeply changes the tone of the book.

As a note of warning if you abuse the use of death throughout your novel you'll make it trivial. You'll be effectively desensitizing the reader to shock and violence. If you want your character death to be meaningful make sure that is a key point in the story and not just yet another victim.

  • "As a note of warning if you abuse the use of death throughout your novel you'll make it trivial. You'll be effectively desensitizing the reader to shock and violence." __ totally right, and many good authors have made that mistake @armatita! – English Student Oct 4 '17 at 16:59
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I feel like you're kind of asking two questions here, so here come two answers:

No, there is no way to flesh out your character too much, as long as you spread it out sufficiently and it doesn't turn into a large exposition dump or narrative-interrupting flashback. People should know the characters in your story

No, more information does not necessarily mean more attachment. Just because we know what types of bread a character prefers doesn't mean we'll empathise with them more. Of course it is true that a character is easier to identify with if you understand them, which I feel is best achieved by showing (or explaining, depending on context) why a character does things.

On top of these two things though, I feel like there is one thing to keep in mind as well.

Protagonists are hard to write
Having an ancillary character show up, do something likeable only to die in a later point of the story packs a definite punch, people will care about that.
But the broad strokes that the author used to make the character likeable won't suffice to make the character interesting enough to carry the entire story as a protagonist.

If you feel like your protagonist is currently not likeable enough to make your sacrifice ending work then that is something you should definitely try to change, but it is unfair to compare them directly to smaller characters in the story.

2

As a long-time dedicated reader of excellent fiction I should like to draw attention (in your specific context) to one of the greatest examples of a novel dealing with self-sacrifice, A Prayer for Owen Meany, where John Irving's entire book is about characterization of major protagonists specifically leading up to one of them sacrificing themself to save many others at the finish, which still comes as a real surprise for the reader.

It is not really a question of making a character 'likeable.' The value of detailed characterization done right is to transform someone into a fully-developed personality as real in the reader's mind as any real person. That's why an author can take a whole novel to do that and many authors tend to 'save' their character at the last minute! However John Irving was here specifically characterizing to give readers the full sense of a 'real person' leading up to their death in the self-sacrifice event.

I could cry when I think about it though I read this book 18 years ago at the age of 20. The emotional shock and the tremendous impact of this great work comes almost entirely from the in-depth characterization, as also avoidance of explicit foreshadowing of the sacrifice, though the author does give subtle hints which may be really understood only after the event -- I was (and I am sure many others would be) so emotionally invested in this character and others, that I ended up wishing desperately that this person shouldn't die, and deeply saddened when the ultimate inevitability occurs. The character even says, in effect

don't grieve -- my whole life was literally a preparation for this event; and I am truly glad to save these people even though I shall perish in the process (paraphrase)

which really hits the reader hard, reminds me of a certain God, and should answer your question!

Other famous examples of literary works where very detailed characterization was primarily responsible for making me (and certainly many other readers) care deeply about a major character who dies by the end of the novel include

(1) Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

(2) Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove

(3) Killing Mister Watson by Peter Mathiessen

(4) The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and

(5) David Morrell's Last Reveille.

  • This reminds me of the MC child molester in Lolita. Horrible man, but somehow understandable. He had a warped view of the world and was drawn so well that the reader gets drawn into his perspective. – DPT Oct 4 '17 at 15:27
  • Now if that type of horrible person had for some reason died in 'self-sacrifice' in a novel it would be quite a conflict for readers to decide how they feel, simply because of the author's success in writing him into our minds as a very 'real' person, @DPT. So I think OP is very right in concluding that "The more fleshed out the character is, the more the reader will care about him" -- for better or worse: love him or hate him, as the case may be! – English Student Oct 4 '17 at 16:54
  • I'm not voting this down, but it doesn't really answer the question at all, even though you think it does. One good example doesn't tell the OP whether a lot of detail is necessary (it isn't) or what kind of detail works. Your question reminds me of a great book is not really an answer about the craft of writing. – Amadeus Oct 4 '17 at 20:16
  • Thanks for pointing out but it is the best I can do @Amadeus because I see the 'craft of writing' only from the reader's perspective -- however I have now included a few other notable literary examples where detailed characterization helps the reader to really care about a character who dies by the end of the novel. – English Student Oct 4 '17 at 20:46
  • @Amadeus Although it indeed didn't answered my question, his answer was very useful for me in regard to the buildup for a self-sacrifice story. – Yuuza Oct 5 '17 at 2:11
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I think that there are some points to take into account when fleshing out a character :

Reader's expectations : when you introduce a character, people will have some kind of expectation on the part they will play in the story, especially when it's about the protagonist. As seen in Game of Thrones most notably, killing off a character for whom the reader had lots of expectations can be really impactful. On the other hand, if your character has had a lot of time to accomplish what the reader expected him to do, he won't have the same felling of loss. This is probably why in the Hero's Journey, the "death" occurs before the climax and the final resolution of the plot. If the plot has been resolved, who cares what happen to the hero ? Of course this doesn't necessaeily apply to all stories but it's good to keep on mind.

Evolution : a way around the previous point I mentioned is to introduce a flaw to the protagonist, which prevents him from acheiving his goal. The "death" part of the Journey could then be when the character fails to overcome that flaw. The climax could be the ultimate struggle against both the antagonist and this flaw, eventualy leading to the self-sacrifice. Seeing the hero succeed where he previously failed can be very compelling and the sacrifice will reinforce the threat posed by the antagonist, raising even more the stakes which is always a good thing to get a reaction from the reader.

External viewpoints : as your main character dies, the reader can only rely on remaining characters to experience the remaining of the story. Therefore, giving more strength and meaning to your character's sacrifice could be done through an emphasis on the reactions of other characters. Like reaction shots in movies or stories with multiple narrative arcs decribing different "periods" with a new hero each, living in the world left behind by the previous protagonist (the Chronicles of Amber for example).

Symbolism : Now for how your secondary characters can have more impact even though they have less development in the story, it's just that less details often leads to idealisation from the reader. Which leads them to see these character as symbols : your character could be seen as "the Protector", Gandalf in the Moria is "the Guide", etc. Watching those characters die brutally is assimilated with the symbol they represent : your characters lose their protector, leaving them vulnerable ; the Fellowship loses its guide and will get lost (death of Boromir, separation, etc).

I really don't know how much all of this apply to your story, or if it seems trivial but well, hope it helps.

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Short answer no, you can get to know a character very well without actually getting invested in them, especially if the character is "a bit of a tool". To get people to care about a given character you need them to relate to that character. The reader should feel that in the same situation as the character they would have done just the same thing. It often helps if the character is also endearing and "likable" as well as relatable but it's not required.

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