The Secret to Writing a Protagonist Who's Both Unique and Universal

The Secret to Writing a Protagonist Who’s Both Unique and Universal

All creative writers must strike that terrible balance between the needs of the characters and the needs of the plot. It’s a wretched ping-pong game sometimes, and we can feel as if one will win over the other. But deep down we know it shouldn’t be that way. The elements of character and plot are not in competition with each other. Each have their own needs and until we realize that fact, the struggle will go on. Let’s examine the secret to harmonizing character and plot–by writing a protagonist who’s both unique and universal.

Characters Are Individual

Few things are worse that two-dimensional characters. If there is nothing interesting about the people in your stories, it doesn’t matter how dynamite your plots are. If your people are boring, it is inevitable your writing will be as well.

Your characters are at their best when they are as unique as possible. They have physical quirks, as well as psychological. They have a particular vocabulary and speech pattern. Each and every character has a well-defined worldview and a personal motivation for their actions. Everything about them is as detailed and finely tuned as possible.

Stories Are Universal

In contrast to your “narrow” characters, stories need to be as broad as humanity. In particular, I have in mind theme. The theme is why we are writing our particular stories. Themes within a given tale can be about such things as sacrificing one’s self for a greater good, perseverance in the face or failure and defeat, or the short-term value of beauty or wealth.

Your characters should be as individual as snowflakes, but the themes of your stories need to be as absolute as the snowstorm.

There Is Only One Story

Allow me to let you in on a little secret that all creative writers should know: there is only one story.

That one story is about what it is like to live as a human in this world.

Just as all people are different, all people are just the same. We all have the same struggles and obstacles in life. we share the same joys and pleasures in this world. If your stories do not  tap into these shared struggles and joys, readers will not find a connection to your work.

The best stories are those with interesting people doing interesting things. To write such a story, you need well-written characters and meaningful plots. You need characters and stories that are not in conflict with each other, but that complement each other. Each have their own needs. If your characters are as unique and particular as they can be, and if your stories are as real and human as they can be, you will end up with a compelling tale readers will cherish.

Tell me your opinion: How do you go about writing a protagonist to make him both relatable and interesting?

The Secret to Writing a Protagonist Who's Both Unique and Universal

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About Neal Abbott | @NealAbbott

Along with the recently released novel Bloodhound, Neal Abbott is the author of three non-fiction books: The Gatsby Reader, Think Like a Writer, and My Plans for World Domination. Neal has also authored four novels Siciliana, Drover, Prince, and Pietas. These will be launched throughout the rest of the year. He is the content editor for the creative writing blog A Word Fitly Spoken.


  1. I write my protagonist in 3rd person, from inside his/her head. From there I look out and write the story. I see only what the main protagonist sees, feel only what he/she feels, and watch the rest unfolding.
    James McGonigle, a wonderful writer in his own right, wrote in a review of one of my historical novels, The Officer’s Code…
    Lyn Alexander … presents a fresh, provocative, new character into English literature—Erich von Schellendorf. All aspects of her narrative, description, and dialogue take in the reader so I found the most fascinating thing was to become the central character as he wove his way from War School thru pre-war events to his involvement at the front and back at camp during WWI.

  2. Sheryl Dunn says

    For my protagonist and all dramatic characters, I start with a basic idea of who they need to be to perform their roles in the story/plot, e.g., what kind of person would become a killer with a mission to rid the world of pedophiles (ANGRY ENOUGH TO KILL)? Sometimes this is simply their backstory; sometimes it’s two or three traits and a way of speaking.

    Sometimes I start with a real person I know – someone who has some really interesting habits or behaviors – and then, no matter how I start, I have a detailed checklist that I complete for that person. Even if I start with a real person, by the time I’ve completed the checklist, the character is nothing like the real person I started with. (Whew!)

    Then I analyze the character to ensure that s/he has enough complexity (e.g., conflicting goals, positives and negatives, etc.)

    Finally, depending on the POVs in the story (AETK is third person multiple), I write out their backstory in their own voices…to get into the rhythm of who they really are, to be able to hear their voices, and to be possessed by them.

    Sometimes it doesn’t take very much to get into a character…I come up with perhaps 4 traits and a way of speaking, and then the character pops into life for me (and often tries to take over the story!) Other times, it takes tons of work and time and thinking and feeling and reworking the character until s/he seems real to me.

    During the writing, the characters often surprise me – not so much with what they do (because I’m a plotter, although it happens occasionally that they’ll do something surprising), but more with WHY they do it. Their motivations deepen and become less unidimensional. I love that!

    For me, creating characters who come to life on the page is the most magical part of the writing process. They often become so real to me that it feels as though they’re either dictating the scene, or, even better, they’re actually writing the scene for me.

    For minor and non-dramatic characters, I try to come up with something interesting (and brief!) in the way I describe them (e.g., “a guy with more dandruff than hair”), to paint a picture of that person in the readers’ eyes, because with non-dramatic characters you really don’t need very much at all.

    I suspect many writers find their own ways to make their characters compelling, but the key is that we all end up in the same place, no matter how we got there…if our characters are compelling, I mean.

  3. thomas h cullen says

    Character and plot shouldn’t be in competition, though a storyteller might be forced to compromise on the latter for sake of the former – yet not vice versa! (Basically, you’re correct as pertains to one direction of travel.)

    • You shouldn’t have to compromise either, even plot. The needs of plot and character are different, so they shouldn’t fight with each other

      • thomas h cullen says

        One can honour both, true, however then must in that case be restricted on their plot’s parameters:

        To ensure loyalty to character, restriction of freedom of plot will have to be enacted.

        (Thanks for indulging me.)

  4. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Neal!

  5. The mistake I made with my first book was I didn’t pay much attention to the protagonists, (there were 4). I thought making them typical metalheads would be enough and I was wrong. I only had one protagonist with the second book and he is definitely more interesting, you feel sorry for him at the very least. Good advice here.

  6. “The best stories are those with interesting people doing interesting things.” I love this! It’s perfect, like this post. 🙂

  7. Am I the only who’s characters just come to me and start talking?????

  8. The theme of my current series is claiming one’s identity. It gives me a lot of meat to work, and I think it’s a message the world needs to hear.

    My characters run the gamut from a smart-ass who will say anything, to a man who doesn’t like to be touched and is reclusive in his desire to stay away from people, to another man who sees the world as a chessboard and has to realize people aren’t pawns in his personal game, to another man who has to learn to step out of the shadows and fight for what he wants in the open.

    Each one is totally unique, and each struggles with accepting their identity and claiming it. Knowing my theme so intimately keeps me on track when I’m plotting and makes sure characters and plot work in harmony.

  9. I like how you tied the point you are trying to make here with theme, because it is absolutely true. I’m in the process of fleshing out some of the characters in this story (not the main characters. They are pretty fleshed out as is), and I am definitely finding that they each contribute something different to the overall theme. The thing with my theme is something that no person could ever be impartial to. Anyone can relate to it. Everyone approaches it, reacts to it, and has their own sense to it – character in story, and person in real life.

    Having said that, I think you can fit any character into a story, so long as that character is used as a vessel with which you provide more depth into either your plot, or your theme, or preferably both – and I think THIS is what you mean by your starting point, that neither should be sacrificed. What a character needs (or feels s/he needs) is usually theme-related to begin with if you play your cards right.

    Thanks for the post. I have very frequent fleeting thoughts on various aspects of writing (since I am a novice and just in the beginning stages of getting serious about it), and it’s nice to see that I am on the right track by seeing my thoughts written on a (web)page before my eyes, by somebody else. This entire blog is great for that, and your post is a welcome contribution in my eyes.

    • Great points, but I’m not sure abut one part. I’m not sure that you can fit any character into any story. You can’t put Prufrock in place of Hamlet. Maybe I’m misunderstanding you, so if you would like to amplify on your answer, I’d appreciate it. You may be right and I just don’t see your point yet. Thanks for commenting.

      • Yeah, I didn’t quite mean it that way. You can’t replace one character with another, because they are unique. You gave two unique examples.

        What I mean is that any character that you chose to make can be made unique, and can be made to fit into a story so long as you use them as a vessel to portray that theme.

        When I make a new character to fit into my WIP, I try to define their goals and conflicts and I try to find a way to relate those goals and conflicts to the theme of the story in question.

  10. Brian Cartwright says

    The TV shows I like the best are the ones that present situations and make the viewer question what they would do.

    I also try to objectively analyze stories in the news, looking for turning points, moments of escalation, where those real life people made decisions, good or bad, that the rest of their time line turned on.

    I have an outline where a man picks up a young female hitchhiker and proceeds to make several questionable, although not on the surface outrageous decisions, that cause him to end up in a heap of trouble. The reader may not like what he’s done, but I want him to remain sympathetic – have the reader think “that could have been me.”

    • thomas h cullen says

      “The reader may not like what he’s done, but I want him to remain sympathetic…”. Right on the bull’s-eye.

      This is where storytelling operates on the most intelligent of levels.

    • The greatest stories have a sense of Ambiguity. They don’t answer the questions of life, but aide the reader in coming up with the answers for himself. It sounds like this is what you have in mind. Good job

  11. Brian Cartwright says

    Well, I know what’s quality when I see it, now it’s a just a matter of whether I can pull it off for myself!

  12. I do not write characters well. This is something I struggle with. It takes me forever to get them to be more than a prop in the world. What they do within the world is not the problem. It’s what they are thinking when they do it that I have trouble conveying.

    • Thanks for commenting, Ernie, my friend. When I’m preparing a story, I work on the story then characters then story then characters and so forth. The more I know about the story the more I have to work with for the characters, and the better developed my characters are, the more I have for the story. It truly is a ping-pong match


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