I’ve discussed antagonists and supporting characters on the blog before, but I’ve never discussed the most important character of all: the protagonist. Tastes vary on what makes a “good” or “likeable” or “strong” protagonist (and I could write an entire post on whether a protagonist even needs to be likeable), but all protagonists must do one thing: make readers keep reading. A protagonist must be compelling enough to make a reader spend hundreds of pages with them and their story. How can writers accomplish this? Here are some of the most important traits for protagonists:
For readers to have a good sense of who this character is, the protagonist must be consistent. One who frequently acts out of character will confuse or annoy the reader. That’s not to say that characters can’t grow and change, of course, or that their emotions in one scene might lead them to make a decision they wouldn’t normally make. In real life, people aren’t perfectly consistent, and characters don’t have to be either. But on a basic level, your character should stay in character.
This is one of my most common editing notes and one of the problems I see most in the slush pile: protagonists must be active. But by “active,” I don’t mean they must participate in literal action scenes. “Active” means that they—their actions, their decisions, their choices—must drive the story forward. It’s not enough for a protagonist to simply react to things happening around them; they must cause things to happen through their actions. If you’re unsure of whether your protagonist is active enough, ask yourself: If this character were replaced with any other character with any other personality, would the story change? If not, your protagonist isn’t active enough in their own story.
- Goals and motivations
Readers need to understand what your protagonist wants in order to root for them. What do they want, and why do they want it? What are they willing to do to get it? Without motivations and goals, there is no need for action, which causes inactive protagonists as discussed above. Their motivations might be subconscious to the character, but they must be present for the reader.
This is a mistake I see a lot of beginning writers make: their protagonists are too perfect. In an effort to make them likeable, the characters are rendered unrealistic and boring. A character who always does everything right is a character who doesn’t feel human. Plus, it kills all of the suspense and tension when readers already know that the character is going to make the right decision in tough situations. It’s much more compelling to have a character with real struggles and real flaws who makes real mistakes.
- Unique voice
Protagonists should seem unique in some way in order to stand out from every other protagonist in every other book. One of the most important ways to do this is through their voice. More than any other character in your story, the protagonist should have a strong, unique voice that couldn’t belong to anyone else.
If you’re feeling unsure about this, test it out. Compare your protagonist’s lines to the dialogue of other characters. If you take lines out of context, can you tell them apart? Is it obvious who said what? Is there anything that distinguishes your protagonist’s lines from anyone else’s? (If you’re too familiar with your manuscript to do this yourself, ask a critique partner or beta reader to evaluate the lines.)
- The capacity to change
Protagonists should change over the course of a novel; their growth is what makes the story worth telling. A great protagonist should learn from their experiences and change as a result (though whether they change for the better or not is optional). They shouldn’t be the same person they were when the story started.
- Compelling characteristics
Perhaps more than anything else, a compelling character can make a reader keep reading. Your protagonist doesn’t have to be a good person or a likeable person or a strong person, but something about them should be compelling enough to make the reader want to spend time with them. Something about them is interesting and makes the reader curious enough to know more. Maybe it’s a fascinating flaw or a strange contradiction or a relatable desire; whatever it is, it must be compelling.
What do you think? What are some other traits of great protagonists? What do you like or dislike in protagonists? Let me know in the comments!
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