Posted On October 6, 2017 by Print This Post

How to Add Depth to Your Protagonist by Angela Ackerman

One of our favorite people Angela Ackerman joins us today to talk about your protagonist! Read up!

I love it when a story idea grips me. Often, it starts with one small thing…a sound, or an image flash in my brain. Sometimes I’ll get both. The experience is so utterly sensory the real world is momentarily forgotten. Maybe I’ll see and hear the ominous flutter of a plastic grocery bag caught in a tree branch on a windy day. Immediately I’ll start to “know” things: there’s water nearby. A dead body lays in the reeds, a teenage girl. A boy will find her, one who has lost the ability to speak. Snippets trickle in, clues of the story ahead. Excitement builds. I’m sure it’s a similar process for many of you.

For me there’s always the temptation to rush down the rabbit hole and write the first scene: one where the mute boy discovers the girl’s body. I want to leap in, describe it all—how the light dapples the water, the warmth of the sun, the paleness of flesh devoid of life.

But the truth is, I’m not ready to write. I shouldn’t write.

Because even if I know exactly how the scene will go, how he will drag the body onto the bank, praying the girl is alive, wishing he had a voice to call for help, I don’t know anything yet about who he really is.

The protagonist is the heart of a story.

The immediate events around him—discovering a dead body, pulling it from the river—will keep a reader glued to the page at the start, but the compulsion to read on will fade if something deeper isn’t introduced. What keeps people reading isn’t intense action scenes, but rather the emotional component of the hero’s connection to what is happening, and how it affect him on the inside.

Some assume emotion is a built-in standard…that this situation would make someone scared and that situation will bring them joy. But the human experience is much more complex. Each of us is a different fingerprint, molded by our past and what life has thrown our way. We have motivations for everything we do, and fears, insecurities, and emotions which shape our actions, especially when it comes to certain situations that act as triggers, reminding us of past emotional trauma. How we will respond is unique; no two people will ever behave the same.

The reason is a one-of-a-kind personality blueprint based on how past experiences have affected us. Part of that blueprint is negative: character flaws which came into being in response to past hurts and fears caused by emotional wounds. And while we think this “emotional shielding” of dysfunctional behavior, attitudes, and biases will keep us from being rejected, disappointed, or hurt again, flaws actually can hold us back in life, damaging our relationships and limiting us in many ways.

Luckily, we have our positive side of the blueprint—morals and character strengths that help us grow and navigate challenges, move past adversity, build close relationships, and become better people. They balance each other, two halves of a unique whole.

So…if each one of us is this complex…shouldn’t we craft characters just as layered and meaningful?

Of course the answer is yes! But this leads to another question…where does a writer even start?  You’ll notice this post is peppered with links…why not follow a few to gain a deeper insight about some of these important elements of character building? Then, try out some of the tools below.


The Reverse Backstory Tool: a visual aid to help you see how your hero’s or heroine’s specific attributes, flaws, emotional wound (and lie the character believes), and greatest needs all tie into revealing inner motivation to achieve the outer goal.

Protagonist Goal Checklist: a great Character Arc checklist that asks all the important questions regarding your hero’s pursuit of his goal. (Grab this Worthy Goals Checklist, too.)

Character Profile Questionnaire: not your average height, weight, hair color type questions…instead, dig deeper into who your character is by asking probing questions about his fears, morals, secrets, emotional wounds, special skills and interests.

One Stop for Writers’ Massive Thesaurus Collection: not only can you access the thesaurus content from our Positive and Negative Trait books, you’ll also find Emotional Wounds, Talents & Skills, Physical Features, and much more. This brainstorming description bank will lead to truly memorable characters.

Character Attribute Target Tool: visualize your hero’s best qualities as they fall into the 4 categories of Positive Traits: Moral-focused, Achievement-focused, Interactive-focused and Identity-Focused, building a well-rounded hero who is capable of winning the day.

Character Flaw Pyramid Tool: organize your hero’s flaws, from minor to fatal, and brainstorm how these flaws manifest through behaviors, especially when stress or fear enters the picture.

One Stop’s Tip Sheets & Checklists are filled with mini tutorials to help you make your character as strong and layered as possible. We want to create struggle and growth on their journey and these downloads will show you how.

These links should help you dig deep into your hero’s backstory to understand what makes him tick and what his demons are, and how these will provide an inner challenge for him to overcome to succeed.

Also: If you don’t yet have The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws, for the month of October, the ebook is at Amazon (com) for $1.20.


Join us next week for more more more RU!!!


Bio: Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as five others. Her books are available in six languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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11 Responses to “How to Add Depth to Your Protagonist by Angela Ackerman”

  1. Morning Angela!

    Excellent list of tools – I had no idea they were out there!

    I’m like you, I get gripped by an idea, a scene, and I want to start writing it immediately…and a few pages in I realize I’m stuck. I just don’t know the character well enough to keep going!

    Thanks for a great post and excellent links…this will keep me busy today! =)


    Posted by Carrie Peters | October 6, 2017, 8:59 am
  2. Thanks Carrie! I love that spark and the excitement when an idea hits and it is so hard to resist, but just like you, when I write before I am ready, I always peter out. 😉 I’ve learned to be patient and just dig at the idea for bits and pieces, and enjoy that process while I think deeper about the character’s motivations.

    Posted by Angela Ackerman | October 6, 2017, 2:20 pm
  3. This is awesome advice – bookmarked it already, but I wish I could memorize it, too!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | October 6, 2017, 6:00 pm
  4. I have almost all your thesaurus books and use them whenever writing. Invaluable material for any writer. Thanks for sharing this!

    Posted by Kayelle Allen | October 7, 2017, 9:26 am
  5. Great tools for building characters. Thanks!

    Posted by Ginger Monette | October 11, 2017, 12:16 pm


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