Welcome back to my Preptober blog series, where I plan a novel in the month of October (and then potentially write it in the month of November!) Last week I covered Concept, Premise, and Theme. Go ahead and catch up if you like, and then join me for Protagonist, Antagonist, and Exposition!
Something strange happened to me when I wrote WIREGIRL. For a long time, my writing had always been situation first, characters second. What I mean by that is, I would have a conflict, a setup, or a setting, and I’d come up with characters to fit the story’s requirements. I think it’s a holdover from writing to spec for RPG companies. Often my assignments were “write a story set in Osirion,” or “write a story featuring the Technic League as an enemy.”
In WIREGIRL, I started with a character I loved and built the story around her. It was an exciting and different way to work, and I found it really resonated with me. A deep connection with my MC (main character) made the writing more meaningful and personal. For this reason, I’ve moved up developing my protagonist to the first step after deciding on a premise.
Developing your protagonist might be the easiest topic to find recommendations on. The internet is chock full of guides for building your MC from birth. Personally, I find a lot of the guides too in-depth for my needs (and interest). If you find them useful, by all means, use them! For me, I don’t need to go into my character’s star sign, favourite spice, or preferred season. What I need to know is:
Physical description: How tall are they, what colour hair/eyes do they have, what’s their ethnicity? What do other people see when they look at the MC? This is usually where I start thinking about diversity and representation in my story, too. I try not to tell other peoples’ stories, but I do want a diverse and engaging cast.
Goals: What does the character want out of life? These can be big or small, and I tend not to go too deep into each goal. It’s enough to know what they want, what they really really want.
Weaknesses: What challenges the character? What trips them up? What have they always struggled with? Those are going to make good challenges in the story.
Strengths: A lot of advice talks about the importance of detailing character flaws and creating ways to exploit them. But I also like to evaluate the character’s strength and find ways to for them to show off. People debate about whether Mary Sue characterization is valid or sexist, but personally, I like characters who have a certain degree of competence.
Important Relationships: Family, friends, coworkers… anyone who might show up in the story (or backstory) who can showcase the MC’s personality and develop their character.
Name: Names are important! You don’t have to get it perfect right off the bat, but be prepared for placeholder names to grow on you. Not like I’m speaking from experience or anything.
For my mechanical dragon story (hmm… should also come up with a working title…), we have a heroic dragon hunter main character. I played some 2e D&D over the pandemic summer (which was totally amazing) and my character was named Victory. I love that and I’m sad I didn’t get to play her longer, so let’s call her Victory. A heroic name that perhaps she feels an obligation to live up to?
I mostly write women MCs because I’m a woman, and I mostly write white MCs because I’m white. Amplifying other voices without appropriating stories that don’t belong to me is a very important personal value. So let’s make Victory white, with… hmmm. My last MC had brown hair and hazel eyes (eventually), and I like to mix it up a bit. For now I’ll say she’s muscular and strong (I mean, she fights dragons) but not many scars (because she’s just starting out). What about short, pale blonde hair she dyes cool colours? It’s appealing to me. I’ll go with that for now.
Strengths & Weaknesses: Her strengths are, of course, she’s a badass fighter with a giant sword (a sword seems like a cool, classic weapon). She’s brave and pushes past her fears. She’s got a strong sense of honour that carries her into this profession, because she truly believes she’s doing good. When that sense of honour is challenged, it will seriously try her (so in a way, that’s a weakness).
For weaknesses, she could be a little too trusting, willing to believe what people in authority tell her. That’s why she’s going into dragon-hunting. It’s a super dangerous profession—why is she willing to risk her life? I recently did a self-destructive character, so for this piece I’d rather go towards another motivation. Revenge? Maybe someone she loved was killed by a dragon. Or… she came from a bad situation/childhood and sees this as her only way out. That would be a strong motivation, especially if she has a family to support. Following her code of honour could cost her family security.
Important Relationships: That leads right into the idea of a family, so let’s give her…. hm. A little brother she’s taking care of. Or siblings? Maybe twins, brother and sister, who were left orphaned when their parents died.
She’ll also need a grizzled trainer, a steely warrior I’m imagining as a combination of Jane Lynch and Sigourney Weaver.
And someone to hire her to fight dragons. Obviously kings and things would have experienced dragon hunters, so let’s have a somewhat bumbling town mayor who’s willing to give Victory a chance.
I’ll leave the question of the wizard partner alone for now and let it simmer a bit. That relationship is going to be really important for the book, and I want to examine it in more detail later in the process.
Goals: All this brainstorming has given me a clearer picture of Victory’s goals. She wants to support her little brother and sister so they won’t suffer; she wants to make a name for herself as a dragon hunter; she wants to make her grizzled trainer proud; and she wants to live honourably.
Nice to meet you, Victory!
This was a change I made to the original calendar. Many of the outlining problems I had in the past was from having a weak antagonist whose motivations I didn’t understand. Figuring out the antagonist early in the process is critical for when I examine plot, rising action, etc.
I don’t go into as much detail here as I did with the protagonist. It’s enough for me to know who the antagonist is and what their motivations are. I can figure out more details later (or as I write).
Thinking about the antagonist necessarily means considering plot and conflict. We know Victory is going to hunt a dragon as part of her journey, and then she learns something about dragons not being all that bad. The primary antagonist will be whoever tries to stop Victory from telling the world that dragons are cool.
We also know wizards use dragon bits for their magic, so it makes sense that a powerful wizard would want to stop Victory. After Victory learns dragons are intelligent creatures, she makes the difficult decision to abandon her contract. She goes back to the bumbling mayor and tells him what happened, and he doesn’t react well. He informs the local wizard’s guild, who pass the information up the chain to the regional head wizard, and he comes after Victory.
That seems like a pretty good setup for now. There will also be a secondary antagonist in the dragon Victory is going to hunt. They’ll fight at first, but then Victory will find a way to communicate with him. Maybe he will become an ally—but will he be a trustworthy one? Humans have been fighting dragons for a LONG time. Food for thought.
At this point, I have enough detail to start fleshing out the start of the novel, what I call the Exposition. This comes from the classic novel structure you probably learned about in high school. Litcharts has a more detailed explanation of the diagram.
Exposition can also be called the backstory, or is sometimes referred to as the status quo. It’s the state of events at the start of the novel, before all the action and excitement happens (what Campbell terms the Call to Adventure).
Now I’m going to put all the pieces I’ve got so far together and figure out what Victory’s life looks like before she sets out on her quest. It would be boring to start the story with her going about her everyday life, deciding to hunt a dragon, visiting the mayor to ask for a job, etc. But I also don’t like starting a story TOO far into the action. A lot of advice suggests jumping into the story in media res (in the middle of everything) but sometimes I find that disorienting. I’m sure I can find a happy middle.
I’m going to brainstorm some potentials “out loud” here to start:
- there’s a meeting at the Town Hall to elect (?) the next dragon hunter
- the meeting is to decide if they should hire a dragon hunter – Victory argues they should hire her even though she’s new
- Victory sees a poster calling for dragon hunters to track down the terrible Lizardbreath (note: come up with NPC names) (also note: this means other dragon hunters can be competing for the kill)
- A messenger rides through the village announcing that whoever kills Lizardbreath gets an amazing reward from the ruler
- the apprentice wizard approaches Victory and asks to be partners
- Victory’s grizzled trainer tells her it’s time to go out on her own and hunt a real dragon
I think we can combine several of these to make a good intro. I’m going to use the working title of SCALE HUNTER. Try this on for size.
Ever since her parents died, leaving her to care for her two younger siblings, Victory has been determined to provide a better life for her family. Duty and responsibility weigh heavily on her shoulders, two qualities that made her an ideal apprentice dragon-hunter. In between training with her mentor and working to support her siblings, Victory has barely had a minute to herself for the last three years.
Now her training is almost complete, and Victory is committed to slaying her first dragon. When a messenger rides through town announcing a considerable bounty for the dragon known as Lizardbreath, Victory thinks her opportunity is at hand. But when she attends the town meeting, she hears the officials decide to hire an elite dragon hunter from a larger city. Though Victory argues for a chance, the mayor deems her too untried to be hired.
Despairing of ever killing a dragon (and knowing her young siblings are about to lose their place at the local boarding school), Victory wanders the streets of town. That’s when a young wizard approaches her. The wizard says she is also looking to kill Lizardbreath, needing his scales for an impressive ritual to make a name for herself. The wizard offers to team up and try to kill Lizardbreath together. With no other good options, Victory agrees.
Even as Victory and the wizard prepare for their mission, though, they hear rumors that an experienced dragon hunter is seeking Lizardbreath. Victory will have to hurry if she doesn’t want the kill taken by another hunter… assuming she can even stand against the ancient dragon.
Now that I’ve gotten this written out, I can already see my exposition needs some updating. I have to add a rival dragon-hunter as an antagonist to start. I also made the apprentice wizard a woman, what the heck. It was my first instinct, so I should go with it.
Also it doesn’t make sense that there would be a bounty out for Lizardbreath, but the town decides to hire a dragon hunter. Wouldn’t the hunter want to freelance and keep all the money for themselves? Maybe dragon hunters have to be sponsored – maybe it’s a way of keeping them in check. That would make Victory a renegade? Hmm, will have to think about it.
This is also when I look back on the themes I detailed in the first blog post. At first I was thinking about “don’t hurt nature” as a theme. Now we have Victory struggling to protect her family and make a name for herself by killing dragons, so maybe “the price of power” is a more apt theme. Certainly if the wizard antagonist knows that dragons are sentient and kills them anyway, that’s a steep price to pay for power (maybe even… his soul???) Also “greed” is closely tied in here. Maybe Victory will have to confront what she really needs out of life and what she only wants.
At any rate, this is a great beginning for a novel, and I’m super pumped to keep this exercise going! See you again in a few days for Climax and Rising Action!