The best stories have protagonists the reader connects with, characters they care enough about to continue reading to see what happens. A good plot isn’t enough if your reader doesn’t care what happens to the characters you created. Here are some tips for creating protagonists.
The main character should be the hero of his or her story.
The story has to be about your protagonist: what he wants and can’t have, what she needs to overcome, the quest for meaning or greatness. Everybody sees themselves as the heroes of their own stories. That’s why we can relate to the hero of the story we’re reading.
Main characters shouldn’t be perfect.
The greatest way to kill a story is to create a perfect character. If your character always does the right thing, reacts the right way, and makes the right choices, there is no story. When conflict happens, we need to be able to bite our lip hoping the hero makes the right choice but knowing she might not. Otherwise there is no conflict.
Another reason not to have perfect characters is that people are turned off by those who are too perfect. They can’t relate to them. Give your character a weakness. Even Superman had kryptonite to keep him humble.
In my Christmas novella, A Christmas Promise, Anna Brunner is the perfect wife, mother, and missionary, but even she has a flaw. She is so fearful and worried that something might happen to her family that her husband skirts the truth to protect her, and her children feel smothered by her. If I’d written the story without that flaw, Anna would have come across as boring and holier than thou.
The main character should grow and change. This is called a character arc. In real life, conflict causes people to make changes in their lives. The same should be true of your story.
The hero of your story is faced with conflict. This will cause him to change and grow as he works through the conflict toward a resolution. The change will sometimes help him overcome flaws and become a better person, but he could also become bitter, angry, or vindictive.
Both occurrences can happen in the same story. He might react the wrong way at first and become bitter, then come to accept the situation and grow into a better person. The change might happen gradually or it could be dramatic and instantaneous. But there should be change.
I use this technique in my novella, Soldier’s Heart. Noah is home from the Civil War with PTSD. He’s a good man, but the reader never knows for sure if his PTSD will cause him to act in the wrong way despite his good intentions.
Your protagonist doesn’t have to be likable, but she has to have a redeeming quality.
There is room in fiction for the anti-hero, the interesting character who might not be likable and who goes against societal mores. These kind of protagonist can work if they are the heroes of their own story.
But whether they change to become better people or not, they have to have a redeeming quality. This redeeming quality is called “save the cat” or “pet the dog”.
The main character could have a strong loyalty to family. He might regularly save people’s lives. She could have a soft spot for children. He might have sacrificed something for a friend. Even if your protagonist is disagreeable, manipulative, immoral, or greedy, this redeeming quality will be the one thing to keep your reader on the protagonist’s side. Even Scrooge had a good eye for business.
One example of this is Reddington on the television series, Blacklist. Reddington is a real bad guy. He kills people and has betrayed his country. He’s sold arms to small countries and is on the FBI’s most wanted list for a good reason. But he’s not completely despicable. He’s a charming man who will do anything for the people he cares about. One of those people is FBI agent Elizabeth Keen. Another is his assistant who he rescued from a slave trader. He is willing to sacrifice everything, including his life, for these people.
Whatever that redeeming quality is, it has to be something the character does. Don’t make the mistake of giving your character a bad childhood or a horrific event in life to make him likable unless you show him doing something good despite his terrible background. Everybody has gone through tough times. The reader will tire of the author making excuses for the character because of what happened in the past.