There are numerous character exercises I suggest my clients and students complete when creating their protagonists to ensure that they are producing truly compelling characters that don’t feel like they were born on page one.
My favorite, however, might be writing down the 5 Deal Breakers for your character. The 5 things your character would NEVER do.
To come up with these deal breakers, you would look at your character’s backstory and where they came from, the situations they’ve gone through, what kind of person they are, what they value, what their goals in life are, etc.
Deal breakers are different than fears. A character can be scared of something, but given the right situation, they will overcome it. Heights, spiders, clowns, the dark – whatever. In fact, it’s often part of their arc to overcome those smaller fears. Deal breakers are bigger than that. They connect with the very moral fibers of your character, to their value system.
And knowing your character’s deal breakers is important for quite a few different reasons.
If during the course of the story, your protagonist breaks all 5 of the deal breakers, you’ll know that either they weren’t really deal breakers to begin with, or you don’t know your character well enough.
Consistency is important in characters and breaking the deal breakers may mean that your character has not stayed true to him or herself when faced with obstacles or dilemmas, which would be a whole new unintended character flaw. Or it may mean the story has gone awry and your character’s arc is not strong enough and he or she is going in the wrong direction.
However, the deal breakers aren’t just important for creating and defining your characters. They can also be wonderful tools in brainstorming and figuring out where your story should/could go because while the character should never break all FIVE, he or she SHOULD break ONE!
Your protagonist breaking ONE of their deal breakers is often what happens in the climax of your movie and is the very moral dilemma and internal struggle that your character will face in the third act. This deal breaker is often what will be standing between their emotions and the achievement of their ultimate goal. Figuring out which deal breaker your character must break to win the day can help you figure out where your story can go and how to bring the external and internal struggles together.
For instance, if your protagonist is a soldier and his deal breaker is that he would “never leave a man behind,” then in order to save the world or his other men, or defeat the bad guy in the climax, that is exactly what he’s going to have to do. If your character’s a reformed hit man and his deal breaker is that he would never again take another man’s life, then to save his child from terrorists, he will have to break that deal. If your character went through a nasty divorce and her deal breaker is that she refuses to admit she’s in love, that’s what she’s going to have to do to achieve happiness and complete her arc.
With all the things your character is going to have to face, overcome, achieve, defeat, reconcile, and learn in their journey, it’s always important to start with a strong foundation.