When I wrote The Trail, I needed first to populate it with characters. All along I had in mind the villain. I kept thinking of Nicolas Cage, a big guy who had often played intense and nasty characters. I kept thinking about Cage as the villain the entire time I wrote the first draft.
For my hero, I never did settle on anyone in my mind. I just played him as average and straight. But this lack of effort in fleshing out my hero showed in the manuscript. The hero was weak, sometimes non-existent. When I reread my scenes, I still had a hyped up interest in my villain, Paul Leroux (Moonwalker).
After a third draft, I showed it to several writing friends whom I trust. Everyone said my villain was super, but the hero, Karl Bergman (Awol), was weak. One said to give Awol demons. Another said to switch out Awol entirely, and she was my agent. I'm a Vietnam vet and the hero was based loosely on me. My agent told me several times to make the hero a veteran of the Gulf war, but I didn't listen.
I was pulling my hair out because I had to admit, the protagonist was weak. My wife sometimes is my best critic. I had Nancy reread the manuscript and we talked. This is our dialogue, word-for-word, as I remember it:
"Okay," she said, "who basically is your protagonist? Who is he based on?"
"I guess, me."
"That's your problem." She smiled. "Sometimes you are a little boring."
And then it hit me--readers are not interested in boring heroes!
I went to my town library and looked in magazines for a new hero. And I decided to make him a veteran of Desert Storm. I found a picture of a thirty-something guy taking a break from his workout in a gym. He wore shorts and a towel was draped over his shoulders. Not too big, not too small, but he looked determined and fit. I liked the look, and my new Karl Bergman (Awol) was born in that moment.
I did give Awol a rather severe demon. He's just trying to cope and get through his life day-by-day, one way or another. He could be me; he could be you.