“You’re Not Like the Others” — How to Make Your Protagonist Different Without Being Cliché

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:
1. Likeable
2. Relatable
3. Unforgettable

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

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Fourteen Ways on How to Write a Good Female YA Protagonist

Disclaimer: Keep in mind that these are my opinions and observations after reading many YA books with weak female characters.

1. If she is pretty, she should know it.
They shouldn’t flaunt it (unless it’s part of their character arc), but they shouldn’t not know it and continually say, “Oh, I wish I was pretty like that girl!” when they have two guys falling head over heels for them.

2. She should be decisive.
But not to the point where they aren’t uncertain. If they have two guys falling for them, they should have a reason to like both. (As a love triangle is a common literary device in YA, I will use it frequently.) Not because one is cute and friendly and the other is hot and mysterious and they can’t decide which one they like better. They must have legitimate reasons.

3. Don’t make her ignorant.
A little naivety is fine. If they are kept in the shadows to “protect them,” that is also fine. As long as there is a good reason for them to be protected. (How many times have you heard the parent saying, “I just wanted you to live a normal life”? Many. Try thinking up something a bit more creative.)

4. If she’s going to save the world, make her worthy of it.
You don’t want a whining, unappreciative protagonist who has no guts, no brains, and just “raw power” to save the world. Someone like that can’t possibly be destined to save the world. It’s not realistic. Yet time upon time you see the same type of people prophesied to save the world from imminent danger. You need someone who’s smart, powerful (but not the kind of power that she “just learned” and happens to be “really good at it”), brave (not stupidly so), and who understands the gravity of what she needs to do.

5. If there is a love triangle, there should be a reason that both boys like her.
She cannot just be pretty. She cannot be their “soulmate,” just because. She cannot have sparked the boys’ interests just because she is “different.” Show us that she’s beautiful inside and out. Show us why she’s their soulmate. Show us why she is different. Give us a reason why two boys would like her.

6. She must have fears, and she must have flaws.
Fears can be flaws, but not all fears are flaws. For example: Fear of losing your family can be a flaw if you are unwilling to let go of your family in order to save the whole world. (Usually, the protagonist finds a way to save both the world and their loved ones, but I find that to be rather dues ex machina.) She cannot be a Mary-Sue (a perfect character). She needs to have realistic flaws. And, as said above, a fear does not always count as a flaw. Flaws are arrogance, hotheadedness, selfishness, etc.

7. She must think about more than just boys.
How many books revolve around just boys? How many books have the protagonist pining over for that perfect guy, and dwelling on it, and nothing else? Make her think for herself. Make her realize that there are some things that are more important that some guy. (Saving the world, her family, stuff like that.) Her world may revolve around that perfect guy, that’s fine, just as long as her thoughts don’t.

8. She must change, for better or for worse.
Your main characters must have these things called arcs. They must change. The change doesn’t necessarily have to be a good change, but as she is your heroine, that generally means she is going to change for the better.

9. Don’t make her good at everything.
This falls under the category of a Mary-Sue. If she picks up a bow and automatically finds herself good with shooting arrows, that’s okay. But if she does this, and finds herself magically gifted, and realizes she can get A-plus grades while saving the world, and finds herself to be a great flirt . . . it doesn’t work that way. She must be good at some things, but make sure these things she can do well work with the plot. Don’t give her random talents that don’t forward the plot.

10. Save the insta-love.
Love at first sight? A bit far-fetched. Like at first sight? Sure, that’s fine. Everyone can crush on someone the first time they meet them. But thinking they’re your soulmate two pages after you meet them, and kissing them two pages after that? No, just no. Give them time to get to know each other. And when they fall in love, don’t have them kiss every page after that. Save the kisses, make them like little gifts for the reader. Also, if you want your readers pining over the two characters to get together, give them lots of fights, break-ups, make-ups, real problems. (Just don’t overdo it, of course.) I have a lot of respect for authors who don’t let their two lovers kiss in the first book. I have even more respect if they don’t kiss in the second book, either. Kissing less than halfway through the book just turns me off.

11. There has to be a reason for her to be the protagonist.
If she is better off as a side character, make her one. Her relation to the plot must be essential. To make her the protagonist, she HAS to be the protagonist.

12. She must have real problems.
Personally, I don’t count having to choose between two boys as a real problem. But if it is a real problem, that’s okay. People rarely have just one problem, though. As well as having a love triangle, make her have some family problems, maybe a best friend ongoing argument, maybe a lack of food in her house, etc. Several problems are okay, as long as you don’t go overboard. And each must have some relevance to the plot.

13. She doesn’t have to be likable, just understandable (or relatable).
She can totally be a selfish pig (aren’t we all sometimes?). But she must have a reason for being a selfish pig. And she must do things that your readers can relate to. Also, usually if someone starts out being unlikeable, they start to be more and more likeable as the story progresses. This can mean they have a physical change in heart, or you just write the character to be more likeable.

14. She must grow.
This is vital. She must grow in strength, in understanding, in personality. She must grow to love the boy of her dreams. She must grow to be worthy of saving the world. She must grow as a character to be a strong, lovable (optional), memorable (not optional) protagonist.

This probably isn’t a full list of everything I could say about this subject, but it is at least the basics and problems of typical YA books. Don’t be discouraged by this list, and don’t take it by heart. Rules, advice, tips, they’re all meant to be broken, aren’t they? Write your protagonist how you want to. These are just a few opinions of mine that I thought I’d share with you. How you write your story is completely up to you.

Happy writing!

~ J. Dominique