Tips for writing a great protagonist

Writing a great protagonist is essential to writing a memorable story. Stories have this incredible ability to bring fictional people to life and letting the readers get attached to them. This quality is what makes reading so enjoyable for some. Being able to create a new world of people, places, and backgrounds in one’s head can be an amazing experience. However, why is it that some characters seem to stick with us longer than others?

Some characters we seem to care for enormously and hence we become invested in their stories. Others, however, seem to fall flat, are boring or downright irritating. Most writers would prefer their characters to fall within the former category rather than the latter.

But what features makes a good character? How will you know whether your character will capture your audience and leave a lasting impression on them? It is difficult to break down why we love some characters more than others because there are so many variables at play.

However, there are a few key aspects that are necessary to transform a dull character into a riveting, compelling one.

1. They’re not perfect

A protagonist should never be perfect for the simple reason that nobody is. When your character never makes any mistakes, it makes them seem as if they’re above the mundane human quality that is failure. It’s near impossible to relate to a character that never fails when we’ve all failed at something at some point in our lives.

Having your character make mistakes makes them more likable to your audience because they’re then able to empathize with them. This also makes your character more interesting to read and less predictable. There is nothing worse than reading about a character whose every move you are able to predict.

2. Backstory

A backstory is a good way of letting your audience in on your character’s past. This is where they discover why that person does the things they do and why they’re attached to certain things etc.

The backstory is an essential part of story building because this is where you make your readers “see” deeper into your character. Most of us can attest that things that happened during our childhood had a great influence on the person we’ve become. We all have backstories, and it is important for your character to have one as well.

3. Compelling storyline adds to the character themselves

A compelling storyline can really help make your protagonist stand out especially if they have interesting hardships to surmount. A captivating problem to solve can truly reel in the readers and make them actually care about what’s going to happen next to your character. Of course, it is possible to write a great protagonist without them having a storyline that is particularly captivating, but I found that oftentimes this is extremely hard to achieve.

4. Agency

A good protagonist is prone to taking action and doing something about the problems they may be facing. Let’s be honest here, nothing’s worse than reading about a protagonist that is constantly complaining about the obstacles they face but does absolutely nothing to solve them. Protagonists that are written in this way often come across as whiny and have difficulty establishing empathy within the readers. Have your character engage with their environment and take risks because this will ultimately get your readers more engaged in your character’s story. Basically, a good character has agency and takes control of their own life.

5. Having a Strong personality whilst having the capacity for self-reflection and change

I often find that a character with a strong, unapologetic personality is better suited to be the protagonist. This doesn’t necessarily mean that your character must be extroverted or loud. They can be quiet, shy, or introverted, but they must have defining characteristics, little quirks, that differentiate them from their entourage.

What you don’t want is a character that seems to just go along with what everyone else in their entourage wants. You don’t usually want your main character to be overshadowed by the personality of your side characters. This will leave your readers wondering why the side character is not the protagonist of the story since their personality is more interesting to read. Don’t get me wrong having good, well-developed side characters can add so much dimension and life to your story but make sure they don’t overshadow your protagonist.

Another important aspect of a great protagonist is the capacity for self-reflection and consequently change. A good main character is able to learn from their previous mistakes and change in a way that feels natural and follows the storyline.

6. Having both something to gain and to lose from acting (consequences to actions make a story more compelling)

Consequences can make a story so much more thrilling. Writing a character that has a lot to lose from failing but also has a lot to gain from succeeding is an easy way to make your story more compelling. This makes your audience invested in your protagonist’s quest and consequently in the character themselves.

7. The capacity to fail

Give your protagonist the capacity to fail. This will make them seem more relatable and more real to your readers. We as humans are imperfect and although we all fear failure to some degree, we have all probably experienced it. Hence, giving your character the capacity to fail will make them seem more human and add more suspense to your story.

8. Sometimes the antagonist can make the protagonist more interesting

Having an interesting/ challenging enemy can actually help your protagonist be more captivating. Challenges make a story more thrilling. If the antagonist is underwhelming, the protagonist’s hardships seem trivial and boring.  

If you’re interested in knowing how to write better antagonists, click on the link here.

9. The entourage

As mentioned before, secondary characters are extremely important, not only do they help in making a story come alive, but they make the protagonist seem more real as well. Witnessing the main character’s interactions with others will increase their relatability with the readers.

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