You can learn how to create lovable protagonists by focusing on what connects them with readers.
And that boils down to a few things. The first being that you need to create round, dynamic characters that your readers relate to and sympathize with. That process starts with some character development.
But because protagonists run the show of your novel or short story, there are some additional things that you need to consider as you figure out who they are. And that’s what today’s post is all about. Figuring out what a protagonist is and how to make one that stands out.
What are Protagonists?
Before we get into anything else, I wanted to give us a formal definition to work with:
Protagonist: is the central character or leading figure in poetry, narrative, novel, or any other story. A protagonist is sometimes a “hero” to the audience or readers.
Protagonists run the show. They’re the character that we follow throughout the story. We root, cry and laugh with them. They command our attention and keep it.
Protagonists have many different names, which we’ll look at below.
The Subtle Difference Between Protagonists, Main Characters & Heroes
While doing research for this post back in 2017, I came across an interesting article by John August on the differences between a hero, protagonist, and main character.
The article is a little dated, it goes back to 2005, but it does a great job of breaking down the terms. In short, here’s what he said:
- Main character: is who the story is about. They are the focal point of the story and the action.
- Protagonist: is the leading or a major character in a play, film, novel, etc. This character has the potential to change or changes throughout the story. They drive the plot.
- Hero: This is the person that you want to win. They have something big that they need to overcome or defeat, especially if they are a superhero.
Each term means the same thing. It’s how you treat the character in your story that makes them different, which brings me to our next topic of discussion: various types of protagonists.
The Different Types of Protagonists
There many different types of characters that we can include in our story, like an antagonist. Protagonists are sort of unique, though. They have their own needs for character development, but they also have a cast of supporting characters that you can develop.
The main idea that you need to take away for protagonists is that they are round and dynamic. Your main character needs to have these two qualities in today’s literary scene. Readers expect it, and they fall in love with these types of characters.
But what does round and dynamic even mean? Well, round characters have complex personalities and emotional depth. On the other hand, dynamic characters go through a substantial change by the end of your story.
This doesn’t mean that your protagonist has to be round or dynamic. They can be static. For example, Indiana Jones is a static character. He doesn’t change throughout the entirety of the novel. But please remember that Indie is an exception to the rule.
Readers want to follow the adventures of round, dynamic characters because they can relate to them. It makes it easier for them to dive into the narrative you’re concocting.
How to Create Lovable Protagonists
There’s a bunch of different ways to craft a character that hits all of the different boxes. But it all comes down to one main component. Your main character, your protagonist needs to be likable.
Your character doesn’t need to good all the way through. We all have that one anti-hero that we love, but they need to have qualities that readers relate to and sympathize with.
So give them some power to enact change and a sense of humor, and see where that’ll take you. But you’ll also want to keep the following tips in mind:
Protagonists are active.
And by active, I mean they drive your story forward. Their actions enact change, and they question things.
Your protagonist has to do things for us to be excited about them. If they stand around picking their nose, we’re going to lose interest pretty quickly (and be a little disgusted).
In the word’s of Writer’s Digest:
Your protagonist has to be curious, have agency, and engage the world instead of enduring or observing it. […] [Please don’t] use a protagonist as a passive way of simply showing off the world and the plot—things happen around him, things even happen to him, but the protagonist himself seems to be there just to let these happen and accept it rather than questioning or pushing back.
Every protagonist needs an antagonist.
Protagonists need to fight against someone or something. There’s a saying out there that says: “a protagonist is only as good as the antagonist.”
We need something so powerful and horrible for your protagonist to work against that it makes use have doubts and root for the main character more fiercely than ever before.
There’s a problem that they need to solve.
The problem that your protagonist needs to solve must only be solvable by them. They need a challenge that will make their lives more complicated.
And we need to be worried about their success. If it’s an easy problem with an easy solution, you don’t have a very long or compelling tale to tell. So give us a little it of doubt about whether they’re going to succeed or not.
The doubt can come in the form of a fatal flaw, a lack of knowledge, or maybe someone just a bit smarter than them stands in their way. Perhaps they have to go up against trolls, zombies, and dragons. Or a boss that takes credit for their work or an evil stepmother who wants to sell their childhood home.
They have a reason and the ability to act.
No one does something for no reason at all. There will always be a motivating factor. So first you need a good reasons for them to act on a problem. Next, they must have the ability to act on the issue.
For example, in Harry Potter, Harry battles Voldemort on numerous occasions to stop Voldemort’s reign of terror. It isn’t until the sixth book that Harry and Dumbledore figure out how to destroy Voldemort.
In the previous books, Voldemort put Harry through a series of challenges that made Harry so upset that he had to follow through with Voldemort’s destruction. In each fight with Voldemort, Harry learned many skills that would help him defeat Voldemort.
And in each book, he had a reason for going up against Voldemort – directly and indirectly. Here are his motives in order:
- Book 1: Harry wanted to get back at Snape for giving him so much grief.
- Book 2: If Hogwarts shut down, Harry would have to go back to the Dursley’s, which he didn’t want. So Harry had to figure out where the Chamber of Secrets was and stop someone from opening it.
- Book 3: He found out that “Sirius Black” killed his parents by ratting them out to Voldemort. He wanted revenge on Sirius.
- Book 4: Harry competes in the TriWizard’s Tournament by force and faces many challenges.
- Book 5: Harry’s knowledge of Voldemort’s return made him want to help Dumbledore and save his friends and loved ones. So he started the Order of the Phoenix and showed other students at Hogwarts how to fight and defend themselves.
- Book 6: Dumbledore actively recruits Harry in the fight against Voldemort by taking him Horcrux hunting.
- Book 7: Harry has his final battle with Voldemort. He either wins or dies, and Harry very much wants to live.
They have something to lose and gain.
As much as we like to put our characters through hell, we need to give them a win once in a while. But why do we need to do this? For starters, readers will get bored if all your character does is lose or win. It also gives your characters a chance to grow and adjust.
How our characters handle wins and failures tells us a lot about them. It helps clarify the protagonist’s end goal and can make them work harder to get their desired outcome.
Let’s use Harry Potter again.
In book seven, Harry finally defeats Voldemort, saving the muggle and wizarding world from countless heartaches. However, to get to that ultimate victory, Harry had to say goodbye to numerous friends and loved ones and his own life.
The silver lining is that the sacrifices of others and Harry’s life brought about the resolution that everyone wanted. And Harry had the choice to return to the realm of the living.
They can change.
A round, dynamic character is all about growth. Since we want to create these types of characters, we need to develop one that has something to learn or overcome. This something can make them a better person or dramatically change how they view others, themselves, and the world around them.
For example, Christian Grey, in Fifty Shades of Grey, realizes that he needs to compromise and change his lifestyle to keep Ana in his life. In The Lion King, Simba has to learn selflessness and accept responsibility for his actions to become a better leader for his pride.
Protagonists have compelling flaws and qualities.
Your protagonist can be aware of their flaws or not, but they should have them. No one is perfect. We all have things that we’re not proud of and want to change. The same should be true for your characters.
Flaws give your character a chance to grow and can introduce conflict into your narrative. This flaw could be the reason why your character is in trouble in the first place. It could be the one thing holding them back from achieving their goals.
As for interesting qualities, make them unique and unexpected. It could be a turn of phrase, a personality trait, a way of looking at things, or how your character does something. It’ll keep your reader interested in the story and your character.
They have a secret.
Secrets make things more interesting. They make the plot more diverse and engaging.
Pretty Little Liars does this well. The four female characters all have secrets that they want to be kept private, making readers come back for more. They want to know if the secret is revealed and how that’ll affect the other characters.
You can also keep a secret from the readers, such as who the identity of A is in Pretty Little Liars or who “xoxo Gossip Girl” is in Gossip Girl.
Someone or something interesting trying to stop them.
If they didn’t have someone trying to stop them from achieving their goals actively, things would get boring. I don’t know about you, but I love to have a character that I love to hate.
Kim Possible is an excellent example of this. In most episodes, Kim and Ron would battle Dr. Drakken and Shego. Dr. Drakken had multiple plans for world domination, but he wasn’t the smartest villain out there.
Which is why Shego was the best match for Kim. They were on par in strength and ability, making their fights entertaining as you were never sure who would win. Shego was also a good foil for Dr. Drakken. Out of the two of them, she was more passionate about their cause and had the intellect needed to see them through.
Protagonists engage with the world around them.
This goes hand in hand with the first point in this list. Protagonists are more interesting when they are active agents in their world. So make them question what is going on, and act upon the things that they want to change.
For example, in the Hunger Games, Katniss questions the need for the gamFor example, in the Hunger Games, Katniss questions the need for the games willingly steps in for her sister and challenges the status quo. She also rebels against the rules of the Capital.
They have habits.
We all have little things that we do daily. For example, you hit snooze precisely four times before forcing yourself to start the day. Or you may slather your body in lotion or say a prayer before bed.
Whatever it is, it’s a habit. And your characters are going to have them too. It can be as simple as hitting an alarm clock or playing with their hair when talking to someone they like.
Either way, it makes your protagonist interesting, and these small habits can tell a reader a lot about that character. And because they are habits, they get repeated throughout the story.
An excellent example of this is in the movie Stranger than Fiction. Harold Crick brushes his teeth exactly 38 times horizontally and vertically. He crosses the street at a specific time and always has an apple with him. Harold does this every day. It shows us that he takes care of himself and is a creature of habit. And it’s these habits that we can relate too.
Give them a past.
As I mentioned in my post on using psychology in your character development process, our past experiences shape who we are today. And the same goes for your protagonist. They’re going to have a past.
It’s up to you if you want to share their past with your readers or keep it a secret, but you need to spend some time thinking about it. Knowing where your characters have been will help you figure out how they will react in certain situations. It’ll also help you think of your character’s flaws.
Overall, giving them a past makes your protagonist more interesting and unique.
Protagonists interact with others.
No one lives in isolation, especially in the age of the internet. Humans crave the company of others; it could be a dog or another human. Either way, we’re happy.
The same goes for your character. Being by themselves is boring for the character and readers. So give them someone to talk to and interact with. How your characters interact with others gives you another opportunity to show us who your protagonist is and how they deal with external conflict.
Please note that your protagonist can also interact with inanimate objects as if they were humans. The movie Cast Away is an excellent example of this. Tom Hanks’ character needed companionship on his deserted island, and his humanity made him create his own company.
Give them a code.
Codes area special type of belief that a character may have. They live their lives by this code and will not break it. It can be seen as a virtue or a flaw depending on your character’s situation and can create some magnificent internal and external conflict moments.
The best example of this can be found in the Fast and Furious franchise. For Dom, the most important thing in his life is family, whether they’re blood-related or not. Everything he does goes back to his family.
Family is his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. And no matter what happens in the films, he always goes back to that principle.
Use real-life people as inspiration.
I like to use my friends’ and family members’ personality traits and problems for my characters. I don’t base my characters on anyone I know, but I get to pick and choose what I need to round out my protagonist. The added benefit is that all these traits, habits, and qualities seem real because they are real.
When your book is years old, and readers have long since read it, they’ll remember the main character. It’s the joy and fear and happiness they experienced on behalf of that protagonist that will make them remember you and your book.
All you need to do is focus on creating active protagonists who are willing to change and drive your story forward. So give them a backstory, some goals, an antagonist that grinds their gears, and a host of habits that drag them down or propel them forward.
If you can do all of that, you’ll be in great shape. And readers will remember your story long after they read the last word and closed the book.
Who is your favorite protagonist? Are there any tricks that you use to create your protagonists?
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.
One bad thing in regard to characters is when they have no challenges and everything goes fine for them. The movie or whatever becomes just one long display for them to show off their strengths, win every fight, always look good.
Readers can’t respond to that. We don’t have everything go right for us, so we can’t relate to someone who does.
I believe when you have such a female character, she’s referred to as a ‘mary sue’.
Remember Luke Skywalker from the original Star Wars? Early in the movie he got knocked down by a thug in the bar, but ended up invading the Death Star with an old man, a roguish smuggler, a wookie, and two droids.
He had his own abilities (he could shoot a blaster and fly a fighter), and had a great adventure, but nothing came easy.
We’ve talked about before how my heroine, Fawnlum, has great fighting ability, to the point of beating a giant dragon into unconsciousness (she concentrated on her strengths and his weaknesses). But she has insecurities and is going out into the world to claim a major battle to go beyond those insecurities. And as she’s being all brave and taking the initiative, she sometimes makes the wrong decision.
It’s a way for her to grow. Her fighting strength is not a “make everything easy” card; it’s an asset to be used.
I want the reader to see her really trying to use all her assets, to achieve the goal she has constructed in her mind as the means to be happy.
Agreed. It definitely becomes really annoying and more prevalent on the big screen. I found out through my fiance that some actors, like the Rock, stipulate how many times they can get hit in a movie and how many fights they have to win. It’s bonkers. And no, we definitely don’t respond to that.
Hahahaha. Yeah. I have watched the movies, but I tend to block them out. XD Star Wars is not my favorite franchise. But yes, Luke does know how to do things, but nothing came easy for him. He was forced to learn and grow before he became The Force wielding warrior that people love.
Yes, we have. 🙂 And you’re totally right to include Fawnlum’s insecurities and naivety in particular situations. Just because she can fight doesn’t mean that she’s good at identifying when something is a trap. And to a degree, you can even use her strength as a point against her. She may trust it to get her out of every situation, but it might not work as well against a foe who solely uses intellect to defeat his challengers.
Don’t you worry! I’m sure you’re doing a fantastic job of showing her using her strengths. 🙂
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