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First of all, this is my first time writing more than a short story, and I am quite new to writing in general, so pretty novice. I am currently in the process of outlining the story for a novel I am about to write, and I have problems adding main characters/protagonists.

I have the protagonist—let's call him Mike—down in detail. He is the one most of the narration follows. In the beginning of the book, he will be all by himself, but will find the secondary protagonist—call her Abby—later on at the end of Act 1. He will need her abilities later to access a special location (he does not know of her abilities at that moment though, he will find out over the course of the story). This location is the thing he craves for, his ultimate goal.

So, main story wise, I am struggling to find another protagonist to at least get the group to 3 people, as all essential main story components are already there. Mike is the brawn, Abby the brain, but I fear only having 2 people in that party is a bit too few to have enough interesting dialogue etc.

Is there a good process to designing more main characters, in general, and especially in my case? Should I just "add more obstacles along the way" and design protagonists that are able to overcome them?

  • So, essentially, your story is asking for a group of protagonists, but you are struggling to give them personalities? – Alexander Mar 20 at 18:00
  • Welcome to Writing.SE. I did a light edit of your question and tags. – Cyn Mar 20 at 21:37
  • @Alexander: The Main Focus is Mike in this regard. My novel plays in a somewhat dystopian world with parallels to our own, and Mike knows how to right the wrongs. He is the determinator, but he can't do it alone, because he lacks the ability to enter this one Location at the end of the path - Abby on the other hand, does have that skill. With two characters that must find each other (Abby is from "our" world and got lost in Mike's), I fear having only the two of them regarding decisions made and dalogues etc. – Pharguin Mar 21 at 7:03
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You might find that you are a discovery writer. My characters have the frustrating tendency of doing things and meeting people. I keep thinking ‘great, another character - this is getting crowded’, but it is. I start with a name and that informs me of the heart of who this person is. Do they know my MC? If so, how and how long? Will they help or hinder?

In one case, I had one situation where a character asked another if Morgan, who was nearby, should be sent. I asked myself ‘who is this?’ and came up with a rather intriguing character. I discovered that she was from Missouri, had strong self esteem and a quick wit. She never fails at her task (professional kidnapper) and finds that the more that she uses the force of her personality, the greater her success regardless of the training of her targets. She started to grow as I put her in new situations and she revealed aspects of herself.

If it were me, I would have Mike meet someone, might not be the first person he encounters, but someone who adds what is missing. Maybe he meets a sardonic middle aged man named Everett (got teased a lot by some, but grew more determined and learned the importance of self-reliance. Doesn’t come from money but his parents thought a name like that would improve his chances of success in business.) Create this character, see him in your mind and how he interacts with Mike.

Does Mike like him? Respect him? Does Mike wish he had turned right instead of left if only to avoid running into Everett? Do they have a long-standing relationship or is this some walk on character who exists in part because the world has people in it and the streets are not empty.

Step inside Everett for a moment - who is he? What does he want? If Mike needs to meet Abby to get to location X, perhaps he knows about location Y and is going there. He might invite Mike to join him, creating a bit of an obstacle and a slight red herring.

Adding obstacles and creating characters to overcome them certainly works. You can end up with an interesting group of characters, some of which might be more interesting than your protagonist. The Belgariad did this, an ensemble cast with some very engaging secondary protagonists - each had a role to play.

If there is a compelling reason for Mike to be alone, wandering and eventually finding his way to Abby, that could give you a good opportunity to learn about him, but it could come across as an info dump, so be careful. Having only one other character certainly makes it obvious that here is a person of importance - only two people, one cannot be just fluff.

Consider adding a couple of characters as foils, but give them lives and characters of their own. Someone might be willing to help Mike, knowing that Abby is likely to know what Mike does not. Said character might tag along out of curiosity and just be there for the occasional renark. Can’t let Mike’s status as MC go to his head - some ego trimming might be in order.

  • I am liking this quite a bit, as I feel am am somewhat of a discovery writer too. – Pharguin Mar 21 at 7:04
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Is Abby a protagonist?

What does Abby want for herself? Why would Abby be willing to help anyone, not just your hero – and most important: what does Abby expect in return?

Think of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. A vulnerable little girl ends up in a strange land, and she needs to get someplace so she can get what she wants. She's just a little girl, but the locals don't know her from Adam. "Hey, thanks for killing our oppressor! Oh, you need to go to the Emerald City? Yeah, it's that way. Bye, good luck!" You'd think they would be more helpful, but nope, not their problem.

The "people" Dorothy teams up with aren't selected for their talents at defeating traps. Dorothy is a tend-and-befriend hero. She can't pass a person in need without trying to help them. Her habitual nature causes her to encounter many people along the road – not all are helpful or friendly, but the ones who join her are the ones who want something for themselves. If they didn't have an overwhelming desire for something, they would be like the other locals: "Thanks for your help, Strange Little Girl. Bye."

They don't join her because of something she promises them, or out of gratitude, or even because they care about what she wants. They tag along because they think they will get what they desire most. That's the real motivation why they are willing to walk away from their lives and go on this journey with a stranger.

Sidekicks "follow along" with the protagonist, but if they don't have their own motivations for the quest they aren't co-protagonists. As author, you know ahead of time a few tricks that only Abby can solve, but the characters don't know that, and the readers don't know it (unless you telegraph it to them ahead of time). A well-planned jewel heist is where you get to cherrypick the team based on their skillset, but an ad hoc team won't have clear and complimentary talents.

Give Abby her own desire, completely separate from Mike. Then do it again for the other team members. This will give them rough edges because their desires won't all align. They will be forced to work together, and they will have limits where their personal goals don't match the others. Abby and the other team members will become more substantially their own characters, rather than an extension of what Mike is not.

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Like @Rasdashan, I am a discovery writer. My characters take shape as I write. You might find that this approach works for you too.

That said, since you wish to write about a group of characters, you might want to look into group dynamics, and various party structures. Here is my answer to a question about writing a story about a team. You should find it useful.

The thing is, you are not writing about several stand-alone characters. You're writing about a group. Think of the group as a unit. This unit interacts with outside challenges together. The choices the unit can make are dictated by what kind of characters are in the group. It's not just "this special ability is needed to pass that trial". It's "we have a curious character who will poke things he shouldn't, we have strong character who will save the curious character from whatever he has unleashed, and we have a smart character who will figure out what on earth happened", for example. Consider what kind of interactions with the environment you'd want your group to have, what kind of challenges they would face, and make sure there is someone in the party who could naturally take the action you'd want them to take.

At the same time, of course, there is the interaction within the team. Those are the bread and butter of a team story. There, you want a measure of conflict. You want contrasting characters, because the contrast makes each shine the brighter. You want different viewpoints, so they can disagree, and learn from each other. If all characters in the group are of the same mind, they might as well be one character.

If you struggle to find your second character, look at your first: what character traits does he lack? Where is he perhaps "too strong"? Balance him out with the second. Adding a third character, consider what is still missing, and what traits are so polarised that you might want a balancing character in the middle. Or try to create a (relatively) balanced group right from the start. Whatever way of thinking of it works better for you.

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I find this to be somewhat useful.

  1. Google about for images of people (if you are looking for a female fighter pilot, just google for 'female fighter pilot')

  2. Find the one that looks like the person in your mind's eyes for that character

  3. save the picture

  4. look at the picture, and come up with a back story, and some character traits.

  5. throw scenarios at the characters that drive the plots forward and write down what happens.

  • This provides a good general procedure to come up with characters, not necessarily only for MCs but also minor roles. I like it, and will definitely use it in the future. – Pharguin Mar 21 at 7:06

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