When you write a strong protagonist, you have to make him, her or it realistic and relatable. That’s what we learned yesterday, going so far as to discuss the realistic side of that character-building equation to some degree.
Not so much with the relatable part though. So here we go…
When we talk about a relatable character, we mean one that readers can sympathize with or at least wrap their heads around.
Why is he doing what he’s doing? What is motivating her to behave that way? Where does it want to get to?
The protagonist’s behavior can be good, bad, or maybe even abhorrent. Yet the protagonist himself, herself or itself still needs to be compelling.
Whether we like it or not, there’s something we can connect with there.
As we acknowledged when we first introduced the topic of what a protagonist really is, a main character can be a hero or a villain.
Most of the time, he’s going to be a hero. In which case, the Writing Rule below is fairly easy to work with. It only gets truly tricky when you’re working with the opposite kind of depiction.
The strongest protagonists have something to lose.
As we’ve already established, protagonists are human. They’ve got their good points and their bad points. But humanity alone doesn’t make a compelling character. You need something more than that.
Give them something to fight for: some specific internal or external motivation that makes readers root for them or at least understand them on some intimate level. It can be a person they love, a value they hold, or a goal they want to reach... enough so to risk everything else.
Again, that's easier with a good-guy main character. But if you need a solid example of a compelling bad-guy protagonist, look no further than Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
If you ever read it, you already no doubt know what I mean.
Crime and Punishment really is a great example of how to write a strong protagonist… even when that protagonist starts out as a murderous wretch.
In the admittedly very long novel, main character Rodion Raskolnikov is a dirt-poor Russian who intentionally murders a lowlife pawnbroker for her money. As he plans out the deed, he’s busy convincing himself that he is right. That he deserves the money more than she does.
But money alone isn’t his motivation. It’s not what he’s fighting for in the end. He wants justification.
How often do we do that? Really?
Probably – hopefully – we don’t try to justify something as serious as murder. But how about when it comes to using people in more legal, less permanent ways?
The reason why Raskolnikov works as a protagonist, even though he’s a self-entitled murderous wretch, is because he taps into the human urge to be validated in taking the easy way out.
We want what we want, but we want it without any guilt.
That’s why, like it or not, Rodion Raskolnikov is relatable. Which means, like it or not, he’s a great example to use when you want to write a strong protagonist.