Your Protagonist’s Special Trait: Making Characters Stand Out

Do you know your protagonist’s special trait? No doubt you’re familiar with the idea of ordinary/extraordinary in a story. We often find ordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances and extraordinary characters standing out in an otherwise ordinary world. These extraordinary elements are what make stories unique and fascinating. Many authors tend to think their characters are extraordinary or special just because, hey, they’re your characters! However, it’s important to dig deep for ways to make your protagonist stand out from the crowd.

4 Examples of a Protagonist’s Special Trait

There are a number of ways you can do this. Guillermo del Toro exploits several of them in his movie Pacific Rim. Let’s count off the ways in which he makes his protagonist special.

1. His protag possesses special skills. He’s a Jaeger pilot, and, even more specifically, he’s the only remaining pilot of the Mach 2 class of Jaegers.

2. He has a hard-knock backstory, which gives him more to overcome than the other Jaeger pilots, setting him apart.

3. He’s a latecomer to the main plan, which makes him more of an outsider, even as it solidifies his importance to the story, since the plan can’t go forward without him.

4. Finally, he is one of only two people ever able to pilot a Jaeger solo.

Find Out if Your Prologue Is Destroying Your Story’s Subtext

Pacific Rim (2013), Warner Bros.

All of these factors, but particularly the last one, make this character stand out among the other similar characters in the story. In many ways, he’s just an ordinary guy. But the very fact that in piloting his Jaeger solo, he was basically able to do the impossible, he becomes special. He did something—even just once—that most people will never be able to do. And that is going to send a little thrill of excitement down most readers’ backs.

Consider your characters. What sets them apart from their peers? What ability do they possess that others don’t? What makes them special?

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is your protagonist’s special trait? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Great video. In the novel I’m working on now, the heroine is 25, but she acts much older. She has older friends and she finds her peers, including her identical twin sister, to be very immature – many refer to her as being an “old soul.” This sets her apart from her peers. Also, what makes her unique, is that she’s a widow (at such a young age). Not long after graduating from college, she got married to a preacher who was ten years her junior. He was killed while doing a church ministry in a rough neighborhood.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Wow, she married him when he was fifteen? I’d say that qualifies as unique!

      • Sorry, there was a typo in my last comment. She married him out of college, when she was 21 – he was ten years her SENIOR not JUNIOR. He was in his early thirties. All of that is backstory, but her being a widow at such a young age was a unique factor (at least it is to me).

  2. She is from a different people/group with different customs and values and she is a shapeshifter (like her own people) but no one knows it including her husband.

  3. Oh, my visual mind loves your video! I’m on my way to re-evaluate my protagonist, which means extensive editing. Sigh. I’ll go bury myself in words now. 🙂

  4. Eric is one of two who act according to conscience rather than the social norms.

    Roddy is the one whose ideals are being called into question as his friend’s firmly follow their paths.

  5. I love your whole series on Pacific Rim~ It was one of my favorite movies this year!
    My question is: Where is the line between making your characters special and making them stand out…And your characters becoming the dreaded “Mary-Sue/Gary Stu”? I’m always paranoid that I will be blind to the fact that my special main characters might be annoyingly special to readers. O__O

  6. My protagonist is my aunt and I am writing her life story. I didn’t expect to grapple with plot or characters since I know her story inside and out. Except that I don’t, really. I know the Line of her story, but her motivations can elude me. Her special trait(s)? She is brilliantly unsinkable. She is the proverbial cat with nine lives. Every roadblock, crisis, and nightmare that befalls her is of her own doing and she has gargantuan strength to right herself every time.

    However, as I write her story I am drawing new, different conclusions (or perhaps I would do better at this point to call them speculations) about who she was. I am seeing a psychopath emerging on my pages. It’s one thing to Know the story of a person’s life – you visualize it in sections, spans of time, this era, that era… but to write it down scene after scene, after chapter linking it all together creates a person that you realize you really didn’t know – a person who leaves you sitting stunned in front of your screen.

    They say that an author’s characters develop and become who they are as the story grows so that even the author cannot always control them.

    I’ve begun questioning my aunt’s version of her life. I am struggling to believe that little kimmi’s drowning was accidental; that the suicide pact with a longtime friend, which left him dead and her not so much, was ever truly her intention. My challenge, as I see it, will be to leave my reader wondering those same things. If I can pull that off, which I am not sure that I can, I will deserve the title of ‘Author.’ wish me luck. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland says

      It’s very true that we don’t ever know our stories – or our characters – until we actually start writing them. We can do all the prep work in the world, but until we sit down and start piecing together the minutiae of the scenes and the characters’ inner workings, we don’t *really* know what kind of story we’ve got on our hands.

  7. I need a little help, I have a secondary protagonist who is a woman from the 16th century. She was a sheep farmer. Through the magic of sci-fi hand waving, she finds herself in our time now. I’m not sure what her unique talents are to help the protagonist, who is an explorer and adventurer. She would be like a 1520s Marion Ravenwood to a modern-era Indiana Jones. I am not sure what ‘powers’ to give her, since women in that time were lucky if they were taught how to read. They didn’t have much access to education beyond the rudimentary. She knows farming. I want to give her character agency but I’m not sure how?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Agency is available even when a character has no special skills or education. Agency is simply the will and ability to act and take responsibility for one’s actions. But I would definitely examine what this specific character brings to the story. Why her? Why is she important to the unfolding of the plot events?

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