Before you even start reading this article, let’s do a little exercise. Try to make a short list in your head of the “10 Perfect Protagonists”. You can draw from literature or film. The trick is to think about what makes those ten protagonists so “perfect” in the first place. What qualities do they possess? What sets them apart from the other characters in their respective stories? What makes them timeless? Do you have a list ready? Okay, here is a list that I spent all of ten seconds coming up with, but it should still serve my purpose well enough. In no particular order, my ten perfect leads are (once again, I invested no time at all in coming up with these, so cut me some slack if you disagree):
- Frodo Baggins (Lord of the Rings)
- Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment)
- Rorschach (Watchmen)
- Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye)
- Scout Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird)
- Lisbeth Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
- Forrest Gump (Forrest Gump)
- Charlie Gordon (Flowers for Algernon)
- The Creature (Frankenstein)
- Tony Stark (Iron Man)
Okay, kind of a motley list I know. If I were asked to make the same list a week from now, I’m not sure if more than two of those characters would make the list a second time, but I think I could have done worse. At least I can look at these ten characters and think of specific qualities in each one that I like, or in the case of Raskolnikov, who I can’t say I ever found particularly likeable, I can still find quite a bit in him to find “interesting” and keep me invested in his tale. That said, let’s look at 5 things that make for a strong protagonist, using these ten characters as a lens for this study.
Is the Character Likeable? This one might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people underestimate what makes a character likeable. I’m not just talking about a protagonist donating tons of money to charity or saving a baby in the first few pages. Frodo Baggins would come to mind as a character who starts out almost so wide-eyed and goody-two-shoes that he’s more of a joke in the first entry in that series, as evidenced by the people from my generation who giggle at his innocence in Fellowship of the Ring. He’s likeable, but less interesting than most of the characters around him, especially Gandalf and Strider. However, there are tons of things that can make even a fairly despicable character quite likeable. Han Solo from Star Wars comes to mind. As Princess Leia puts it, he’s a scoundrel, but we love him because, although he’s self-absorbed, he basically has a good heart, adds humor to the series, and is effortlessly dashing in his own way. Ask yourself what you can do to make a likeable character likeable in spite of himself or herself. That’s what will make your protagonist memorable.
Sympathy: Sympathy is also key for tormented or doomed characters and, in my opinion, no genre of literature handles this better than comic books! Oh, *ahem*, I’m sorry—graphic novels. Sorry, I was getting some dirty looks. Rorschach, the pseudo narrator/protagonist from Alan Moore’s landmark Watchmen, is my go-to example here. Through the first few pages of that book, you quickly realize that Rorschach is a few screws shy of an Ikea desk. He’s borderline psychotic, delusional, schizophrenic, and dangerous in more ways than a honeymoon in Liberia. And, yet, he is a hero of the book and the one character whose pursuit of a better world free of violence and crime cannot seemingly be compromised by emotion. He is pure justice, born in the face of childhood abuse and a relentlessly pessimistic view of human nature, and it is a triumphant, symbolic aspect of his character that his manifestation of justice is so detestably insane. If I were to use a less obscure example, I would go with Batman, the vigilante crimefighter who everyone knows is driven by the childhood murder of his own parents. Sympathy creates an emotional and personal connection between your story and your reader. Your protagonist should serve as a bridge in that respect and the more time you invest into building that bridge, the stronger your story will be and the more your reader will enjoy the ride.
Is Your Character Relatable? This point is closely related to sympathy, but ever so slightly different. Some characters are so radically different from anyone else that sympathy alone is not enough. We need qualities that will also make that character relatable. Now, the trick is that sympathy can help make a character relatable! That’s the connection. Going back to the Batman example, I wouldn’t say that I can relate to Batman (he’s a handsome, 30-something, genius-level billionaire who spends his nights fighting crime in an armored black leotard) but I can be sympathetic towards his motivations because I can imagine the pain of losing my own parents or the frustrations of feeling helpless in a world that endures crime. That’s the bridge. Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a better example, though. Here you have another young, goth, genius-level, computer-savvy detective who dresses in black and, say…Lisbeth Salander is basically just the Swedish Batman. Once again, there isn’t much about Salander to which a boy like me from Bagdad, Kentucky could relate, but as a person I can relate to misfortunes her character endures in that book and, more importantly, I root for her because her motivations are pure and good. Even though I could not possibly relate to her personal interests, I want to see her succeed because I relate to what she is trying to accomplish.
Vulnerability is also key to me, because let’s face it—Superman sucks as a protagonist. The man is nigh invincible, flies, and shoots lasers out of his eyes…and something about frost breath. He’s less of a hero and more every James Bond villain scheme for world domination combined and distilled into human form. Yawn. That’s why every single storyline ever has to eventually involve kryptonite at some point because it’s the only known thing in the universe that could make him interesting. On the other hand, you have Frodo Baggins, who becomes more vulnerable—and more interesting—as the Lord of the Rings saga progresses because of the effect that extended exposure to The One Ring has on him. By the end of the story, we start to wonder just how much our protagonist can even be trusted and (especially in the movies), the role of hero gradually shifts to his pure-hearted partner Samwise, who one could argue has more of a character arc than Frodo in the first place.
Human Conflict: The last key point that I would make about building your protagonist is to consider what kind of human conflict your character embodies and how that conflict would be expounded upon or enhanced. On this point, I have always loved Charlie Gordon from Flowers for Algernon. I read that book for the first time in middle school and it had a profound impact on me that the main character, a simpleton with significant mental shortcomings, is given the opportunity through scientific experimentation to pursue rapid and profound intellectual growth. As the story progresses, he becomes a genius, but ultimately becomes isolated and miserable. In the end, he decides that he was happier being dumb and decides to regress back to his initial state. If you are writing a novel, what is your character’s arc? Where is your character going and how will your character respond to getting there? How will the choices your character has made affect him or her and would your character be happy with the result? Sometimes you have to do quite a bit of soul-searching from your character’s point of view to establish whether or not your character would be happy with the outcome of your story. I really wish I’d had enough time to comment on The Creature from Frankenstein, but take a moment to consider his conflict. In the meantime, I’ll plan to revisit that book in greater detail in a future entry.