Writing a good protagonist is hard. Really hard. After all, what exactly defines “good”? Likeable? Interesting? Relatable? Well-developed? All of the above? Creating a “good” protagonist has never been an easy process, but here are just a few tips that might help you.
You’ll notice that often protagonists are similar in the way that they all have several key characteristics — bravery, loyalty, compassion, etc. Harry Potter is an excellent example of this. And then you have characters who aren’t exactly likeable, but they’re interesting, there’s something about them that is compelling — for me, Katniss Everdeen is like that. Both, I think, are good protagonists, but what makes them stand out from all the hordes of average main characters?
You’ll notice that a lot of books and movies will have other characters remarking, “You’re special, Protag” and “You’re different than the others, Protag.” There’s nothing wrong with this because protagonists are supposed to be different (if they weren’t, there often wouldn’t be a story), but it can become cliché. And it can become annoying, especially when our protagonist is seen to be special by the characters of the book, but to us, are completely average, maybe even verging on dull (for example: Bella Swan).
So how are you supposed to make a “different” and “special” protagonist without making them an utter Mary-Sue (a “perfect” character)? Some common traits of a Mary-Sue are 1) she’s not that pretty or that smart or even that interesting, but girls hate her because she’s “different” and boys want her because she’s “different,” 2) she has tremendous power/is good at everything without ever having much practice, and 3) she’s had a tragic past.
Development is a huge thing. Instead of making her learn her powers in a heartbeat, have her practice them for years, have her already have learned them when she was young. Instead of making her an orphan, never loved by her foster family, give her a nice family who may be strict but only have her best interests at heart. Instead of describing her as plain, actually make her pretty and make her come to terms with what her beauty reaps. These are the most obvious things you can do to twist the norm, but there are more subtle ways you can add a fresh take on an old look. Maybe she is an orphan, but she never really liked her parents anyway. Maybe she is plain, but she has gorgeous fingernails. And so on.
In making a protagonist, I believe your character has to be at least one of the following:
Likability is a hard one to nail because people have so many different tastes. You can never really go wrong with the three characteristics I listed above: bravery, loyalty, and compassion. Intelligence is always good. Personally, I like characters with a bit of sarcasm to their character. The characters who just go along with everything, moan and question their unfortunate situation, or are constantly scared and never save themselves are really irritating to me.
What’s relatable? Well, while there are people who have lost their parents, I think the majority of your readers will have parents. Why not write about the friction between a teenager and her parents? I’m sure everyone can relate to that. How about peer pressure in a teenage girl? It happens to the best of us.
Of course, all protagonists need to be unforgettable, but this is a special little category for when your character is neither likable and may be in a situation that most people haven’t been in before. Another way you could title this category is “interesting.” Someone who has such an interesting past and personality that you can’t help but root for them, even if they aren’t all good and do some detestable things. A good example I can think of isn’t a protagonist, but he’s a very interesting character on his own — any of you like Severus Snape? I myself don’t particularly care for him, but I know a lot of people love him, even if he was nasty to Harry at times.
The last thing I want to talk about is the “different” factor. What makes your character so different? Well, that’s really up to you to decide. Maybe it’s the way they speak, an odd habit they have, some scary-looking clothes they love to wear to freak people out, an unusual relationship they have with another character. To me, a good character is one you can’t sum up in one sentence. Someone you can’t describe quickly to someone; someone who is so complex that even if you were to tell this story, you’d probably forget something.
People have so many layers, so many dimensions to their personality. Sometimes, when you’re creating your character’s personality, it might seem like you’re adding too many details. Don’t worry. You’re probably not. I think it’s good to think up all sorts of random facts about your character; even if you don’t use them in the story, it will influence how you view them. It may add a new perspective that you hadn’t noticed before.
That’s really all I wanted to say. What do you guys think about protagonists? Are most of them Mary-Sues or do you like most of them? Does your own protagonist fall into one of the three categories I mentioned (Likeable, Relatable, and Unforgettable)? How much do you really know about your protagonist?
Thanks for reading, everyone! Best of luck to any of your writing endeavors!
~ J. Dominique