Building a protagonist requires a lot of work. Not only do you need to figure out who they are, but you also need to decide who they will become by the end of your novel. This is called the character arch.
Visualising the journey your protagonist needs to go on to make this character arc is incredibly overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be. Instead of trying to figure out 400-500 pages worth of character development for your novel, you can break the task down into 3 simple steps. I have talked about these steps before in my posts about writing kick
In those posts we talked about the winning formula for writing character arcs for protagonists and antagonists: Flaw, Want. Need. These three things will define your protagonist and antagonist and their transformation/character arc.
The Winning Formula
What your character wants will be directly linked to their flaw.
For example: Maybe they want to hide away for the world because they are ashamed of the mistakes they have made.
Meanwhile, what your character needs will be how they will ultimately overcome their flaw and become a better/less flawed person by the end of your story.
Using the same example: The protagonist needs to forgive themselves and perhaps work to seek forgiveness from those they have hurt.
Now we have a formula, let’s pick what your protagonist needs. This step is rather simple because there’s a very limited number of possible motivations. In fact, there are only 10. There are as follows:
Accepting blame and/or atoning for the mistakes of themselves or a loved one
Fighting for the lives of one or them many
In themselves, relationships, the future, civilisation or religious figures
Finding the courage to overcome a fear
Of circumstances, past events or of self
of self or others
Self-love, romantic, friendship
In own ability/talent, relationships or civilisation
Sacrifice or heroic act
Accepting a duty or destiny (the ‘chosen one’)
The 10 needs are rooted in human nature. Every single person on this planet needs at least one of the things listed above. As such, readers will identify with them, making your protagonist believable or, better yet, feel like a real person. We connect with the things that we know. The things we have experienced. It’s human nature.
Exercise: Pick 5 books that you have read (and remember fairly well) and try to pinpoint what the protagonist of those stories needed/internal goal. If you can, pick a variety of genres.