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Creating a Compelling Protagonist

Updated on April 21, 2014

The Hero's Journey

The protagonist of your novel is the character that readers will be spending the most time with. Suffice it to say, if readers don't enjoy spending time with him or her, they are going to find the novel to be quite a slog. Whatever happens in the course of the story, a compelling protagonist will keep readers hooked, wanting to know what happens next and how the hero's story will turn out. Whatever sort of novel you are writing, whatever genre it might be, here are some tips for creating a compelling protagonist that will help make it a better story

Create Sympathy

No matter what the circumstances of the story might be, your protagonist has to be a sympathetic character. This doesn't mean they have to be squeaky clean or even heroic. On the contrary, your protagonist might be more sympathetic if they are flawed, troubled or damaged in some way. In fact, your main character might even be an anti-hero, a tragic figure or a profoundly broken human being. However, readers must still be able to sympathize with them. Ask yourself this question: why should readers care about what happens to my protagonist? If you can't answer that question, you are in trouble.

Consistent Personality

In order to feel sympathy, readers must come to know and understand the protagonist in a real way over the course of the story, getting a clear sense of where they come from and what events have shaped them. After all, when we truly understand people, we are able to put ourselves in their shoes, to see the world as they see it. It is possible to do this even for a character who is morally gray.

In order to convey a real sense of personality, you as the writer have to understand the protagonist. Figure this person out, and once you know your main character, keep their personality consistent. Consistency doesn't mean they won't change as the story unfolds. They might change profoundly, but the changes have to be consistent with who they are and where they've come from. They must make decisions that feel authentic to their personality, even if authenticity creates extra challenges for your plot.

Bear in mind, you don't want to convey the personality of your protagonist in one big block of exposition. Rather, let it become evident to the reader over time, revealing the truth about the character through key events, their responses, dialogue and behavior.

Clear Motivation

A protagonist with a clear set of motives creates a strong sense of direction in a story, even if they are constantly frustrated in their motivations. Don't create a protagonist who is an empty shell, present only to watch events unfolding around them. They might be weak, they might fail, they might even be utterly powerless, but they should have strong motives driving them. Maybe they are trying to get somewhere. Maybe they are trying to fix something. Maybe they are seeking revenge. Maybe they are trying to keep a relationship together.

Of course, if you have a clear understanding of your protagonist's personality, the motives behind their behavior will not be hard to figure out.

Make Them Care

If readers come to understand your protagonist, if they get a real sense of who this person is and what is driving them, there is a very good chance that they will come to care about the journey that the protagonist takes. And if you can make them care, then you've got them hooked. They'll hang on your every word, waiting to see how things unfold. Will the relationship work out? Will the hero escape the clutches and schemes of the enemy? Will she get the revenge she so desperately seeks? Will he be able to overcome the inner demons that are tearing him apart?

Before you hammer out another chapter, you might need to sit down and really get to know your protagonist. Have some interior dialogue with this person and figure them out. Create a compelling protagonist, and you'll create a compelling story.

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