Yes, the main character, even if based on an actual historical person, can impact the success of your novel. When the idea of the story first pops into our head, whether from just the base historical facts before us, or we become intrigued by a particular historical figure, the task of bringing the character to life can seem daunting at first. Our goal as an author is to make the reader feels as much passion as we feel when we decided to start writing the story... and to be honest, this can be 'lost in translation' when it comes to fleshing out a character.
More often than not the reason is quite simple. We have not chosen the right person, or character, to tell the story we imagine in our head. This selection is crucial to the story as the main character carries the hefty duty of the story. Have you chosen the right candidate? In simple terms, there is a way to decide if the right character is telling the story and below it is broken down in bullet points.
Does your character interact with the theme of the story?
First, does your story have a theme? Some think this is not necessary but no matter if you are writing historical fiction or a powerful hero's journey epic or a time travel phenomenon, themes are a must.
For a better idea of what this means, think of some favorite novels out there, some of the masterpieces... such as “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck. Okay, maybe a simple one but we can see clearly the struggle between right and wrong, the quintessential “Cain versus Abel” theme, throughout his novel. What about “Lord of the Rings”? Again, the theme is obvious... and Frodo's stake in the entire series is profound!
There are so many themes available to an author: love, corruption, injustice, hope, and on and on...
While the theme defines the backbone of the story, a strong main character must interact with the theme in a way no other character in the book can do. Only this chosen character can tell this story in the way in which it needs telling... the story in your head. For this character, this story is incredibly personal and the stakes are very high, and the theme is a result of the stakes in the story. This leads to the next bullet point:
Does your chosen character have a stake in the story?
From the very first line, the reader must see that your main character is drawn into the events of the story and pushes them into action (which later in this series, we will discuss the “inciting incident”). Why is your character compelled into the events, or why not? What are the consequences of your character's acts or if he/she doesn't act? Sometimes this is already laid out for a historical author since we have historical facts readily within our reach but still, even if we know the stakes, the execution of revealing the stakes for this character is crucial for your reader to invest themselves into the story. If the story can rock along without any real involvement of or consequences for your main character, then perhaps you have not chosen the correct one to tell the story. The burden is on his/her shoulders as much as “The Lord of the Rings” would not have been the same without Frodo's stake in the storyline. He was the glue upon which the story stuck, as well as the other characters in the story.
Take a moment to examine your main character. If you can clearly identify the theme and the stake for your character, then likely you have chosen the correct one.
Great! I see the head nods... but wait... just because the first two bullet points are covered, there is something else.
Does your main character have the right perspective to tell this story?
You have the story swarming in your head, and all the historical facts laid out before you, but how do you get the reader to view the story through your main character's eyes? This is closely related to the theme since you want your reader to understand your theme through this particular character's actions. Sometimes you may have a blatant theme that you want to tackle head-on (as with Steinbeck's themes of right and wrong... as well as forgiveness), so in order to get the reader to connect with this theme, you must come to a basic thematic statement about the storyline. Yes, a statement... something your character would say or something said about your character.
Going back to “The Lord of the Rings” I think everyone knows the basic statement of this entire series: “Even the smallest among us have the power to fight evil.” Without this basic statement, again, Tolkein's choice of Frodo as the main character would simply not make any sense. Take a moment to consider each of the other characters in this masterful work of art. If Tolkein had of chosen any of them instead of Frodo, would the book have had the same impact?
When you choose the correct protagonist, the storyline compels the reader to “see” the theme as well as the stakes through the main character's actions.
But wait... can a story have more than one thematic statement? Simply put. No. The reason? Your main character is the only one who can make this statement or have this statement said about them, no one else.
Case in point:
Not Samwise Gamgee – why? Because he was not gifted the ring, he did not carry the burden.
Not Gandalf – why? He had incredible power as a wizard, that might have been too obvious in trying to fight evil.
Not Aragorn – why? Because his stake in the story is different, his goal is different – the inheritance as a King of a mighty kingdom.
Not Legolas or Gimli – why? Again, their goals and stakes are different.
Only Frodo has a wide-reaching arc (which will later discuss character arcs) that not only encompasses the entire story but also reveals the theme and the stakes for Frodo and all of Middle Earth. This is why Tolkein's choice is brilliant.
Once you have these three points down, and you know you've chosen the correct protagonist, you can proceed with fleshing them out. One of the best pieces of advice I can remember from a writing class I attended gave the recommendation of writing out an entire history of your main character in a separate book. Of course, if your character is an actual historical person, you have a lot of this on hand but still, this is a good way to truly get to know your character one on one. After all, a historical document or non-fiction account of a historical person may not give you ALL the details you need about them, thus it gives you the opportunity to add a bit of fictional fleshing woven into the factual aspects. (i.e. - Anne Boleyn's favorite food? William the Conqueror's pet peeve? Julius Caesar's quirky habit?) Sometimes, based on history, we do know some of these small details but for the most part, this is an opportunity to add some human qualities, something which will connect the reader, to your main character.
Later on, I will discuss more on developing these fine-tuned qualities to bring your character to life.
Next, place your character in the plot and have them propel the story forward, not the other way around. When your character's theme, stake, goal, and motivation are in the forefront of the story you are telling, then your character drives the story, and this is an outstanding way to push yourself to tell a powerful story that only your protagonist can tell.
Next article: Four Types of Antagonists
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