How to Write Likeable Protagonists
“She is naïve, spineless, and a horrible and chronic liar.”
“I hated the main character from the start.”
“He is annoying as fuck…. He’s just an ass.”
“The characters were all idiots… the kind of character that wouldn’t be able to tell that yes, it might be a bad thing if you put a fork in a toaster.”
“She irked me quite a lot and reading this book from her point of view was no picnic in the park… She’s boring, clumsy and downright bitter.”
There are a lot of problems and pitfalls when you’re writing a story, but this one is an immediate killer. Readers might slog through excessive adverb use and colourful dialogue attribution, they might stick with you through rambling plot threads and confusing motivations, but they will not stick with a protagonist they don’t like, unless it is in hope that you might kill them off in a painful and interesting way.
Even the most fascinating plot cannot redeem a protagonist you want to stab in the eye with a spoon.
So how do we create a likeable character? How do we ensure our readers can relate to them? And what doesn’t fail to turn readers against them? Now of course every reader has a different opinion, but there is a difference between a polarising protagonist and a downright awful one. There are lots of reasons why people hate main characters, so let’s just look at a few main ones.
#1 – They are passive and useless
This one is often a symptom of a larger problem with the story as a whole. When I say a character is passive I mean that they don’t move the plot along. They sit around and wait for the plot to happen to them without making an effort to control the outcome of their own lives. And often this is because they don’t actually have a goal. There is no ‘problem’, nothing they are striving for, and that leaves them flat.
(Check out my discussion on ‘goals/problems’ for a discussion of this subject)
Another way a character becomes passive is letting someone else take the driver’s seat. This happens a lot in romances and some YA where we have an innocent young woman thrown into a strange world and while she flops around being useless, our ‘hero’ (and I use the word loosely) is controlling everything, manipulating the plot so she ends up falling in love with him no matter how awful a person he might be.
(There’s definitely a rant in there for another day…)
So if you want your readers to like your protagonist, make sure they have a goal and that they are taking steps to succeed at it, no matter what these might be or whether they ultimately do succeed. A character who is sitting on their butt or waiting for someone to solve their problems for them is boring to read about.
#2 – Morally bankrupt
Now this is an interesting one. (For those readers of fantasy think Jorg from The Prince of Thorns.) In fact this is the one most people will have a different opinion about, because some people like to read about characters with a mean streak, and others are disgusted. But of course the more horrific you let your protagonist behave, the more purpose there needs to be for it. Not that they always need to be redeemed, but if the violence is purposeless and gratuitous it’s going to be harder to keep your readers on side.
There is often a moral event horizon, the point beyond which there is no coming back – cross this with your protagonist and you’re going to have trouble keeping your readers. Generally we want to cheer for a protagonist, they are the character we are most rooting for and most want to be, make them too villainous and we might stop caring if they win or not. And not caring about a protagonist is the point at which book death occurs.
# 3 Melodramatic and Whiny
We all know people who act like this. We all see them on Facebook or hear them on the train or in shops, they complain about everything and everyone, or act as though everything is an insult and the world is out to get them. Or maybe they just have an emotional response dialled up to two hundred and forty out of ten. And that’s all good, the world is made of lots of different people, that’s what makes it such a cool place (most of the time) but there would have to be a very compelling reason for me to want to read about a self-proclaimed martyr who complains about everything or sees insult where there is none.
No one likes to listen to people whining and complaining, so why would anyone want to read about one?
# 4 Cardboard cut-outs/robotic
These are the cliché characters, the stereotypes, the ones you cannot care about for their sheer lack of depth. They are called cardboard cut-outs because a printed piece of cardboard could stand in and no one would notice the difference.
Is your character an emotionless robot going about the plot like it has been programmed into them? We don’t want our protagonist melodramatic and whiny, but there’s fairly broad turf between these two extremes in which to play.
Always remember that not being scared isn’t bravery, bravery is being scared and doing it anyway. Do we get to see that your protagonist is scared? That they worry, doubt, cry, cheer and laugh? If there is no emotion behind the actions then readers will struggle to care.
If all they do is talk about superficial things readers will struggle to care.
If they are stereotypes and clichés (blond bimbo or old wise man) then chances are your readers will not give two damns, or even one for that matter.
If they are cookie-cutter repeats of famous characters that have gone before, your readers won’t only not like them, but they won’t like you either, because that’s just lazy and insulting.
# 5 Can’t empathise with them
This one comes in a few forms. Sometimes we can’t empathise with a character because they never have a struggle to empathise with, and again this is a symptom of a much larger problem within the narrative. If your protagonist never suffers, or is perfect all the time, then readers won’t be interested, not only in the character but in their story.
The opposite is also true. If their struggles are so huge and out of this world, so far beyond any experience we know, then empathy will also be difficult. Just as too much of one kind of suffering can cause us to become desensitised to a particular protagonist’s plight. Always try to find common ground. We might not all be able to relate to a king’s struggle to fight for his kingdom, but we can all relate it to the desire to protect our loved ones.
And try to find a way of bringing poignancy and closeness to any suffering. We are all scared of our houses burning down, but the fire itself is too big, we need to see the small details. Describe the pain of smoke stung eyes, or show your protagonist’s favourite book burning or the smoking body of their dead cat that was too blind and old to get out in time (Apologies to all cat lovers, but if the image upset you then I hope you can see my point.) We can all meet in common ground even if we have never been in a fire before.
# 6 Do and say stupid shit (motivations don’t make sense)
This is a great way to make readers yell at your book. “Why? Why would he do that? It just doesn’t make sense.”
Stupidity is not often endearing. Naivety can be, in the right character, but that is a very different and subtle beast to downright dumb. I’m not saying your protagonist has to be clever or always make the smartest decisions, but a small amount of common sense will keep your readers from banging their heads on the table every time your protagonist opens their mouth.
Further to this make sure the steps your protagonist takes to achieve their goal are logical. If the goal is to become CEO of their company, don’t have them decide the way to go about it is to go on a solitary fishing holiday.
(See plot controlling character)
The goal itself also has to make sense. Don’t paint us a picture of a hippy protagonist who grows their own vegetables, lives in an old bus and is nice to animals, and then have their goal be to become the CEO of mining company because they like money.
(read here about goals and motivations)
As is often the case your best friend here is the question: “Why?”
# 7 Mary Sue/Marty Stu/Author Avatar
There is a lot of discussion around the technical definitions of these terms, but generally they get across the idea that an author has inserted themselves into the narrative as the protagonist and are playing out a wish fulfilment fantasy. The idea originated in Star Trek fanfiction, but most people use it now in reference to any character that is ridiculously perfect, whom everyone loves, and that is so unique and wonderful and saves the day using skills no one else could ever have such that they shatter any attempt at suspension of disbelief.
If you want to write these kinds of perfect author fantasies then go ahead, just don’t then force them on other people because we aren’t interested.
Characters need to be plausible. They can, and often should, be larger than life, because fiction is larger than life, but they need to be believable. And we need to be able to empathise with them, understand their goals and cheer for them as they work toward achieving them.
But the ingredient most often missing, the one that can turn a good protagonist into a truly compelling protagonist, is ASPIRATION. Give them something your readers wish they had. We don’t want perfect protagonists, but we don’t want average ones either. We want them to be good at their job, or great with a sword, or a fantastic thief, or brave, or really good at Quidditch. The things your readers might find cool or aspire to will differ from genre to genre, so only you know what will fit with your readers and your story, just don’t neglect this part of building a protagonist. When you add this level of ‘larger than life’ to a protagonist you can move a reader into their own wish fulfilment (not yours) and hook them so they will read obsessively. And that is not only what you want, but what they want as well.
But remember balance. Your protagonist might also be clumsy, or terrible at talking to people, or burn everything they try to cook, most people have a mix of traits and skills and aren’t just amazing or useless. And the places where your protagonist falls down makes them human and therefore makes their amazing skill more attainable.
This balance is the key to creating a protagonist people not only love, but can relate to. Give them a meaningful goal and make them active in pursuing it, and you can’t go far wrong.