The Psychology of Protagonists

farside-four-basic-personality-types_smHere’s the reality; as writers, we’re often prone to writing characters who are just like us. Even in the characters that we design to be different, we’ll still find similarities between ourselves and those character we’d hoped to be the antithesis of ourselves. And while we’re often able to borrow from archetypes and stereotypes for villains and foils, how often do our stories feature protagonists who, aside from some physical differences, resemble us almost exactly? Too often, I believe.

Or maybe we design our protagonists to resemble who we want to be, but aren’t. In this case, we’ll still see far too much of ourselves in our heroes.

It is the nature of the beast. “Write what you know!” our teachers tell us. And who do we know better than ourselves?

But I’d like to challenge you for a minute. How about crafting a story around a character that is truly different than you. Not just in physical appearance, not even necessarily in gender. But one who truly thinks differently than you, who lives their life in a way you wouldn’t. This doesn’t mean that you need to write about some unsavory fellow, but maybe the home-body, non-risk-taker features a go-getting adrenaline junky sky-diver. Maybe the high-school nerd who was bullied every day, features a jock for a hero, and not one that defends the weak (as you might be tempted to write), but one who is relatable for a different reason.

The goal here is to think like someone else. What rules govern their psyche. How did they become these people? Why do they make the decisions they do? I’m not talking about simple differences here—different job, different tastes in music, etc. I’m talking radical differences—world-view, morality, decision-making, risk-taking.

Here’s a great link to learn about the different personality types. These should give you a good idea of how different people think, how they view the world, where they’re comfortable, where they’re uncomfortable, etc. Take a minute to figure out which type you are, then find one that’s drastically different than yours.

When you build characters, be sure to include what personality type they are. It will make a difference.

12 Comments on The Psychology of Protagonists

  1. Shania Sheehan | October 9, 2012 at 10:45 am | Reply

    I often find that this is true, even with the bad guy, who tends to reflect the writers darker qualities.

  2. christopher rush | October 9, 2012 at 11:04 am | Reply

    i noticed that when i write a story i do tend to write someone like me or some one i want to be i need to step out side of that and write somthing diffrent.

  3. I agree that we tend to write characters that refelct to ourselves. It would be interesting to produce a character that is someone completly different from myslef, which will be hard because i am like the coolest person ever.. totally kidding. <33

  4. Hailee Brooke Stewart | October 11, 2012 at 10:36 am | Reply

    I agree. A lot of the characters i have written about all seem to reflect me in some way. I would love to try and write about someone who is the total opposite of me, maybe even of a different gender or time period. <3

  5. That’s pretty interesting. I write about a character like me nearly every time I write. Even if the character’s appearance is completely opposite, they think like me. I will challenge myself to get outside my head and write about a character who barely resembles me.

  6. I try to get my protagonists into totally different people from myself, but they almost always end up similar to me in some way. This is one of the big things I’m focusing on as I write my novel.
    My biggest problem in this regard is the character’s sense of humor–I think something he or she says is entertaining, but that’s because it’s me speaking through the character.That’s problematic.
    Let’s face it. It is hard to write a self-insert that your readers won’t want to chop up like sushi by the second chapter.
    Don’t think of the character as an embodiment of you. Don’t let them think too much like you do. Allow your characters to grow. If you think low of religion, then make your new character a religious person or figure. If you never curse, write someone who swears copiously. If you are straight, write a person who is gay. Write the opposite gender! Write a different species, even!
    Write well, write often.

  7. When I write sometimes I build my characters as real people that I know like my friends and family. Also sometimes I base the lead character as myself and the second lead character as one of my friends or family member.

  8. Thanks for the link Gansky! I thought this was a good piece that will help me catch any mistakes whenever I begin character development. I often find myself making characters that are too perpendicular to my own traits, thoughts, and actions.

  9. Katelyn Haeckel | October 19, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Reply

    That is one of my biggest problems. I find myself writing the character as if I was the character. Even if I’m writing a fanfiction and using someone else’s character’s, they still end up sounding like me! I really need to work on that….

  10. Not gunna lie the main charecter is either me or my friend other charecters always hace my charecteristics though

  11. Miranda Almeida | October 22, 2012 at 11:07 am | Reply

    I do find that I write about characters that are very similar to myself. Sometimes I find it hard to write about things different from what I believe or know or like because it is outside of my comfort zone. It feels weird for me to write about things much different from outside my own world and thinking. Next time I write a story, I will try to develop a character who is completely unlike me and step out of my simple minded relm of thinking to develop a very unique and abstract character.

  12. I personally try to change the personality of any villian I create to go along with his or her amain goal. I find it helps pretty well

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