Updated: Mar 25
If you want to know how to write a strong protagonist, here’s what you want to do…
Close your eyes and think about the most compelling main character you’ve ever interacted with.
Maybe it was a girl with gossamer wings and a history of playing with mermaids no matter how many times her mom warned her to stay away from them.
It could have been a 33-year-old detective descended from a long line of cops who’s trying to avenge his father’s murder.
Or perhaps it’s a woman in her sixties recalling the stories her grandmother told about life in India under British rule.
Whoever this strong protagonist is, I guarantee that he, she or it has two things in common with every other strong protagonist out there.
It’s impossible to write a compelling main character without this set of elements involved.
Really, the following Writing Challenge should apply to every character. But since your protagonist is the one readers will spend the most time with, it especially applies to him, her or it.
Make your protagonist realistic and relatable.
No matter if your protagonist is a good guy or a bad guy, and regardless of what story line he’s moving though or motivations she’s working with, make sure this main character of yours is one that your readers can connect with.
One of the most basic ways to do this is to capture the “essence of humanity” within your protagonist. It might not be human at all (e.g., alien, animal or mythological being), but it needs to display human emotions and tendencies anyway that make it feel like it could exist.
In others words, if you really want to know how to write a strong protagonist, you’ve got to get real.
Real about what it means to be human. Real about how much we can take and what just isn’t possible to handle anymore. Real about what we all desire deep down inside, no matter how hard we try to bury it away.
So what is being “real” about humanity?
Don’t worry. We’re not going to get all touchy-feely here, although we easily could.
Instead, how’s this for starters… Your protagonist should never be perfect.
If you need to, make him look perfect on the outside. He can have the perfect hair, perfect face, perfect body, perfect social network, perfect job, and perfect wife and kids. But there has to be something he wants to change, either right from the get-go or as the book progresses.
Otherwise, he’d be a really boring protagonist. And he wouldn’t be realistic at all.
None of us real humans are completely satisfied with our lives. I don’t think we’re supposed to be down here on Earth, otherwise we’d become lazy piles of pointless mush.
There’s always something we want more of, whether that’s love or ability or respect or money or knowledge. Any protagonist – any character – that doesn’t fit that description will not be realistic. That’s important element/acknowledgement No. 1.
No. 2 is to take that realism and tie it into something your human readers can root for or at least excuse: some driving force that makes him, her or it pursue the plot all the way through.
We’ll explore that concept further on Friday when we wrap up the question of how to write a strong protagonist.
Editor’s Note: Read the next post on protagonists here.