Site Features

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Creating a Protagonist

I have a very specific issue I'm dealing with right now in a short story I am working on.  Trezl is not the main character, but it is related to his story.  I started mapping it and writing it down as backstory to Trezl's.

The problem I face deals with the protagonist.  He is not human, nor is he a standard fantasy race (elf, dwarf, halfling) that the reader might quickly identify with.  He is from a group of wolf-like creatures that stand on two legs, are intelligent, and live a shamanistic society.  They are not werewolves, but they would look similar to werewolves.  They stand over 6 feet tall, are covered in fur, and have wolf shaped faces.  They have opposable thumbs and build homes, tools, and weapons.  They speak their own language (though they are capable of learning other languages).  They worship gods and use magic.  They are a fully developed society in Ryndaria, even if they are distrusted by the other peoples of the world.

I am struggling with the best way to introduce the fact that this character is not human.  How do I describe him?  When do I describe his characteristics?  How quickly do I need to let the reader know that this character is different than they might expect?

I tend to want to start off a story with action or drama of some kind.  I am a big fan of those big opening set pieces in movies (think James Bond or Nolan's Batman movies), and I like to start with something like that to draw the reader in.  This character's first set of experiences are important, and I hesitate to take time to describe him and his people before just jumping into the first scene, which takes place completely from his point of view.

I am leaning toward letting the first scene play out.  Then, once it is complete, take time to step back and let the reader in on who's eyes they have been looking through.  The scene should stay relatively short, and I feel like revealing the nature character AFTER the scene may even draw the reader in with more questions and curiosity.

I'm curious what opinions others might have.  Is the answer a big fat "it depends on the context"?  If so, what are some examples you might give that I could go read?

The first that comes to mind is The Hobbit.  If I remember correctly, Tolkein takes time to introduce readers to what a hobbit is and why this story is going to be peculiar (hobbits don't go on adventures, you know!) before he really lets the action get going.

Other examples?

As always, thanks for reading!


  1. This one's tough. All the advice I've read starts by saying describing character appearance can be challenging. That, and don't have your character look at himself in the mirror. :)

    I wouldn't use The Hobbit as a guide post for two reasons. First, it was aimed at young readers. Second, Tolkien was a master of world building and epic themes, but he was not so good at many other technical aspects of writing.

    Probably the best advice I've found about description is to parcel it out a piece at a time and make each bit just a small part of another part of the prose. You could start in media res like you were thinking and describe their savage pack tactics. (You could even refer to them as a pack, depending on how on the nose you want to be.) You're telling the story of a cool battle scene, but you're sneaking in a description of how these people are not like other people, they're not human. You can describe one tearing into an opponents shoulder with his teeth, blood matting the fur of his muzzle. (More sneaky description!) You could put done to it by having him howl when he downs his foe.

    After I read all that, I would definitely be thinking "wolf-man" even though it never specifically said so. And since this is for a short story, the impression of what he's like is probably all you need. If he makes it into the main novel, you can flesh him out with more sneaky description over the course of the story.

  2. Because your hero is not human, he can do things humans cannot. Like smell prey. And that means he naturally thinks of being downwind or upwind of his adversaries--like we don't. Moreover, wolves also have claws. Like a built-in Swiss army knife. Inventory all the ways your hero isn't like us. Now, these are things s/he cannot think about. They are things s/he will DO. Soooooo.

    Start your story in media res with the protagonist doing these inhuman acts.

    I also recommend putting a human in this scene. Maybe a crashed spaceman spiff... It doesn't matter how, just make it so that the hero can marvel at the human's lack of claws, olifactory sense, shivering for lack of a fur coat, OR comfortable on a hot day for lack of a fur coat.

    You need a Watson to serve as a lens through which to project your Sherlock.

    You'll want to create sympathy for your hero, so, he should do something good in the first scene and be punished for it. Like NOT eating that tasty-looking human in the crashed space ship. I unpack this idea here.

    Finally, I suggest the tasty-looking human be attractive to human eyes, like this girl here.

  3. Wow, thank you both for your comments. These are great.

    I can work in aspects that make this character different, but not just from a physical appearance sense. If he is wolf-like, he will share some of the senses and even the instincts of a wolf.

    His body would allow him to move quickly; his teeth are made for eating meat. His hands will be clawed, changing the way he interacts with his environment.

    This excites me to continue writing!