Questionable: Great Protagonists

Lola asked

What Makes a Great Protagonist?

A character you can’t stop reading about (or watching).

That’s really the only criteria. A protagonist can be anything, do anything, and as long as you can’t look away from him or her, the writer’s done a good job.

There’s a lot of stuff out there about how to make a protagonist likable, and a lot of it is good advice except that it implies that a protagonist has to be likable. Macbeth and Scarlett O’Hara would beg to differ. For “likable” substitute “fascinating” and you’re on the right track.

So what makes a protagonist fascinating? Depends on the reader/viewer. (Stop screaming. Nobody put a gun to your head and forced you to sign up for this gig. You volunteered.) I think it’s safe to say that a romance reader would probably not be interested in a married general who kills his king and then goes on a bloody rampage only to find his humanity again just as he faces the man whose family he slaughtered. I’m just guessing. Of course if the romance reader is somebody who also likes Elizabethan tragedy, then all bets are off.

But while I can’t give you a recipe for a universally fascinating protagonist, I can give you some fairly good guidelines.

1. He or she is vivid and alive on the page.
The protagonist is somebody we are willing to suspend disbelief for and invest in as if he or she was somebody real, somebody we know.

2. He or she in trouble in a way that we can understand.
If the protagonist is a mass murderer, the reader may have trouble connecting with his need to escape the law. But if the protagonist is a good man tempted by a prophecy and egged on by the woman he loves to fulfill it, and who then loses his grip, a reader can understand how he got into trouble and watch fascinated as he comes undone. If your protagonist isn’t doing anything truly awful, it’s even easier to establish sympathy: just give him or her undeserved trouble. Pretty much everybody has the same reaction to “That’s not fair.”

3. He or she has a goal we understand and sympathize with.
If the protagonist needs something that we understand needing, and we sympathize with his or her need to get it, we’ll sign on to root for success, especially if the stakes are high. That is, we can understand a protagonist wanting a hundred thousand dollars as a goal, but if that’s all, we’re not too invested. If we know he needs that hundred thousand to pay for medical care for his child, we understand the goal and sympathize with it. But if the child is dying, the stakes are high enough that we’re almost sure to be invested, as long as we believe in the protagonist. Stakes in a story are a triangulation of our understanding of the goal, what the goal means to the protagonist, and what the protagonist means to us.

4. He or she has an antagonist who is stronger and smarter.
A protagonist in trouble is in a static state; for us to stick throughout the story, the trouble has to get worse. And the best way to make trouble get worse is to bring in an antagonist in pursuit of a goal that brings him or her in direct conflict with the protagonist. That way each move the characters make increases the conflict for the other.

5. He or she fights the good fight.
The most fascinating protagonists get down in the dirt and fight hand to hand. They don’t hire people to do the dirty work, they don’t ask to be rescued, they get out there and, in their own ways, kick ass and take names. They may be terrible at fighting, they may get the hell kicked out of them, but they pick themselves up and go at it again because they will do anything to get their goals. And every time they get knocked down, they get up again smarter and stronger. Even if they lose in the end, we stick with them because we admire them for fighting so hard.

Of course you can have a great protagonist who doesn’t do any of these things. And you can have a protagonist who does all of these and just doesn’t work. There is no universal protagonist.

Good luck! (Yeah, I never said it would be easy.)

Standard Disclaimer: There are many roads to Oz. While this is my opinion on this writing topic, it is by no means a rule, a requirement, or The Only Way To Do This. Your story is your story, and you can write it any way you please.

32 thoughts on “Questionable: Great Protagonists

  1. Enjoying a brilliant protagonist at the moment – thanks to someone here (sorry, can’t remember who) recommending Estelle Ryan’s ‘The Gauguin Connection’ the other day. (I think it might even have been free on Amazon.) Her protagonist, Genevieve Lenard, is a high-functioning autism spectrum person, who’s battling what most of us do without thinking every moment. It’s fascinating to see the world from her perspective, and she’s uniquely vulnerable, but at the same time determined to engage with the world. And her trouble keeps escalating!

    It’s making me really aware that what matters (at least to me) is the mystery of the characters.

  2. Just wanted to offer up my own personal comment on “no such thing as a universally appealing protagonist.” –

    One of things I’ve figured out that doesn’t work for me personally as reader/writer/viewer/what have you/ is the “deadly earnest” protagonist. I read the first “Hunger Games” and I really liked the fast moving action, the creativity of the world, but I didn’t care for Katniss as a character. She’s hardworking, loves her sister, loyal to her friend Gale, has all these great qualities. Everyone kept saying what a great role model she was, what a strong female character, and yada yada yada and all I could think “yeah, but she’s such a drip. She has no sense of humor and is so serious about everything. I wouldn’t want to spend five minutes drinking a cup of coffee with this chick.” I actually got into fights with people about it 😉

    Now before anyone jumps down my throat, I totally get why Suzanne Collins made Katniss the way she was and I thinks she did a great job of SHOWING WHY Katniss is the way she was. I get that it wasn’t a light-hearted book. It just doesn’t work for me. I couldn’t make it through the other books even though I heard all the raves and it made me realize why some other “genre classics” leave me cold.

    Now I know even if the story and the world is very, very dark, I need someone with even just the slightest spark of a sense of humor. Even if it’s very black humor, they need at least a hint of that quality to be fleshed out and likable to me. It’s helped me as a reader and writer to know myself better.

    Just an observation and a YMMV type of thing.

    1. I didn’t like Katniss very much either, but I was fascinated by her, and I wanted to know what would happen to her so I read all the books. I liked Tris in the Divergent series better than I liked Katniss, but I didn’t always like her either. Nevertheless, I always wanted to know what she was going to do next so I read all the books.

      Twilight was different. My friend loves Twilight so much and wanted me to read the books so I tried. I really tried. I made it through three, but I couldn’t read the fourth because no matter how hard I tried, I just didn’t care what happened to Bella. Not only did I not like her, but she also annoyed me to no end. She annoyed me so much that I couldn’t figure out way either Edward or Jacob would want her much less fight over her.

      I guess my point is that I can read (or watch) a protagonist I don’t like all that much as long as the story is compelling and I can understand the character and why he/she does what he/she does. If I can’t figure out the character and why I should care, then that’s just not the story for me.

      Now that I put that down in writing I realize that’s why Arrow is losing me. With all the Lance drama and Oliver’s relationship with the sisters, I am dangerously close to not caring any more.

    2. Same here. All my favourite books have a generous dose of humour. The stories may be dark and dangerous, the hero/heroine in much trouble with the trouble getting more and more unsettling, but without a bit of relief (e.g. the hero not taking himself serious all the time, not being too full of himself) they lose me. I’ve never read the Hunger Games and didn’t want to spend money on movie tickets, so waited for the DVD to come out. Yawn. It’s well made, great actors and all, but without a spark of lightness I don’t care enough to enjoy the ride.
      It’s different with dark stories based on real events (say WWII stories and such) though.

  3. If I’m going to stick with a Protagonist through numerous seasons of tv or a series of books then I need to see some change and growth in that character. I’ve quit a few book series and some tv shows because after so many seasons they’re pretty much the same as they were when I first met them. I think what can keep a someone fascinating is how they grow and adapt and change throughout the many years of reading or tv viewing.

    And knowing my personality, that need for change may be something that I bring to the table as a viewer. Maybe it’s my own expectations and my own personal contract I want to have with the characters.

    And I like a character with a little bit of self-deprecating sense of humor. Too much of it can come off as a whining pity party or abusive put downs on oneself. I can’t think of the author who did that but I didn’t finish the book. I remember thinking it was too bad, she was a great writer but I didn’t want to spend anymore time with that character.

    1. There are two schools of thought on that. One is the one you and I agree on: characters have to grow to be interesting and believable. The other is that readers read series because they want more of the same, so if the character changes too much they’ll drop the series. I suspect both are true because there’s such a variety in readers.

      1. There’s probably something about the amount of change and its coherence.

        For example, “Glee” lost me as a viewer at the point that I just couldn’t take any more of the characters’ inconsistency — they weren’t really changing, they were just completely unpredictable in a way that eventually stopped seeming zany and fun and became puppet-like. Whatever Ryan Murphy wants them to do this week, that’s what they do, regardless of anything they’ve ever said or done or felt before.

        But “The Mindy Project” lost me because despite the promise of the pilot, the main character *never* does seem to learn from anything, to grow and change. There was a good episode this season where the new doctor in her practice calls her out on her tendency to ignore what other people are interested in and to be self-obsessed. I thought “Yay, she’s really listening to him and accepting what he says, she’s going to be more aware of others!” Nope, by the next episode she was just the same.

        However, I’m still enjoying the not-Ted characters (I have never really liked Ted despite his being the main protagonist) on “How I Met Your Mother” because I think they’ve had fairly convincing growth. I even hung on through Robin and Barney getting back together, though I normally loathe that plotline (coughFriendscough), because it was plausible: you can see how they’re fundamentally right for each other and just had to figure out how to be a couple. Especially on a relationship-obsessed show like that, I think what works for character change is for the characters to retain certain basic traits, like Lily’s insane revenge plots, while growing in their relationships. Barney still wants it to be legen-wait-for-it-dary, but he’s able to find that in a monogamous relationship now.

  4. I just noticed that it was my question. duh. I may need another cup of coffee.

    Thank you for answering it. 🙂

  5. I think all of those points are totally on the nose. I always say I need to find a character “likable” and yeah, you’re right… fascinating is a much better way of saying it. I need to feel some kind of connection to them. There has to be “something” in the way they’re written/portrayed that allows me to feel like this is a character interesting enough to spend time, complex enough for there to be multiple sides to them (shades of gray and all that instead of an extreme of either black or white), a vulnerability that lets me relate to them and see the humanity in them (even if they aren’t human), and for there to just be some admirable about their core personality.

    The character can do bad things, many of my favorite characters often do (hit man, assassin, spy, trigger happy federal marshal, criminal, heck I’d even argue Sherlock Holmes can fit that unlikable/does ‘bad’ things/behaves in a bad way), but I need to see there’s a reason for it; a code of honor system somewhere in the makeup. If I can’t think, “Man, I would love to hang with this character or have a dinner party and invite them just to learn more about them” I have trouble investing in a story or tv show or movie.

  6. I have a genre specific question. How do you come up with goals in a straight contemp? If there’s no suspense element, no capers. Can the romance itself be the goal? Or is it better to be external? So for example in Bet Me is min’s goal to have a date to her sisters wedding? Do the hero and heroine both need goals? Or do you pick one person to be the protagonist and drive the story?

  7. Hi there, long time lurker here. *Waves*. I’m wondering about multiple protagonists… say, for example, in GRRM’s Game of Thrones series.

    I found the novels pretty brilliant on a lot of levels, but for me, I couldn’t sustain interest in more than a handful of people at once and so ultimately I had to walk away from the novels. The first book, for me, was all about the Starks. I was super invested in that family and rooted for them. I tore through the second book invested in Tyrian, the Stark kids, and a couple others. I loved that the author started challenging me to find previously despicable characters like Jaime Lannister relatable — or if not relatable, understandable in some way.

    But by the third book my head was spinning and I found I couldn’t invest any more. I suppose this is always a danger when writing a series like this? Is it just personal preference? I know those books are super popular and I’m wondering if other people are just able to invest in more characters than I can?

    1. I haven’t read the books, but I’ve felt that way during the TV series (just finished watching season 3). There are so many POV characters in the series, it really scatters the focus and tension for me. I don’t think it’s necessarily a matter of having fewer characters, but of picking which handful of characters to focus on and invest in amidst a cast of thousands. I assume I’m in a minority on this, given how incredibly popular the books and the show are. But I definitely found the first season the strongest, since there was one character who seemed to me clearly the spine of the tale, the lead protagonist, the person through whose eyes I was filtering the whole store. Then (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER ALERT) he departs from the story, so to speak, never to return… and since then, although I still enjoy the series, I’m not as attached to it and not nearly as attached to what happens, because no one has emerged as the central protagonist in the subsquent 2 years I’ve viewed. Although this apparently isn’t true for most people, I find that even in a sweeping epic, I think a story needs one or two people who are identifiably at its center for the writer and reader.

      1. I haven’t been watching GoT because I have enough trauma in my life right now without a Red Wedding, but I’m a passionate reader of Discworld novels. Those work because each is a complete story set in that one world, each with its own protagonist. I gather that each of the GoT books aren’t complete stories? Or they are but they’re consecutive? Because that’s where I’d have trouble, trying to write an endless story. My attention span is too short.

        1. An endless story, with very little humor, about sums GoT for me. I made it through 3 1/2 books on sheer plot surprises, but ultimately fizzled out. I’ve got no interest in the tv series or in revisiting the world.

      2. I had the same problem with Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. It began with a core of characters in which I was interested, but as events progressed, more characters came into play and the original core was split up and going in different directions. Not only did I lose the interaction of the core characters together, but it actually became difficult to track progress. If I had to put the book down for a few days, I actually had to flip back and re-read the previous scene in which the character had appeared, because so much had happened in between. I finally just said, ‘To heck with it, I’ll wait for the last book and just find out if Rand went crazy,’ and then, of course, Jordan died.

        Seems to be the curse of the epic fantasy series.

        1. It’s an interesting problem. You want to build a world, but the world doesn’t mean anything without story, and story really relies on character.
          I like Pratchett’s approach of creating this incredible world and then setting different stories in it. He does go back to favorite characters but he’s free to roam wherever he wants to go without expectation of a particular character or group.

  8. I’m trying to think of the protagonists I’ve most enjoyed. I am a bit of a wide-eyed idealist, even though I’m over 50 and have had a rather traumatic life. So it must be genetic. So probably my fave books tend to have likable characters. Yet, one of my favorite series is the Sherlock Holmes books (I’ve read them all, multiple times and seen all the Jeremy Brett shows). On the other side of the wheel are the various Tamora Pierce characters who are generally all (except perhaps for one) likable characters who go up against overwhelming odds. They are not Mary Sues and they sometimes engage in less-than-kindly actions and in extreme circumstances have to kill bad guys. But the books offer humor along with the difficulties and dark times and the characters grow and change.

    I can enjoy dark books — if there is humor, even black humor. I can enjoy flawed characters, if they have redeeming features. It depends on so many things.

    One of my all-time favorite movies is Ruthless People. Who else has seen this? I’ve watched it many times because it always fascinates me and makes me laugh. (Hmm, I could use some laughter; I’d better watch it again soon.) Louis DeVito makes an awesome villain because he is reprehensible, selfish, BAD, and he so enjoys his own nastiness. Judd Hirsch and his wife (don’t know the actress) are sweet, naive, milksops who desperately need to grow up (especially the wife, but her trust and gullibility are necessary). Then there is Bette Midler who is a horrible person at first. Oh, you just want to slap her! Hers is the real character arc. She is the most fascinating character. She is the one in bright colors. Judd Hirsch is probably the main protagonist, but Bette steals the show and becomes a protagonist in her own right when she finds out how little her husband is willing to pay in ransom for her.

  9. Other People’s Money with DeVito is one of my faves. It’s also a terrific case study in how to create a fascinating character. I absolutely wanted him and Penelope Ann Miller to be together at the end. Danny’s not most people’ idea of a romantic lead, but the writer made it work.

  10. Hi – sorry I’ve come late to the discussion, but what do you think about heroic characters where they’re supposed to be larger than life and have special skills and a wound etc? Do you ever distinguish between heroic and non-heroic protagonists? I wanted to write a cowardly heroine and was told that that just wouldn’t work because heroines HAD to be heroic (and heroes act brave even if they’re afraid inside) in popular fiction.

    1. Well, people will say damn near anything.

      The key is probably in the way she’s a coward. If she works for an abusive boss and is afraid to stand up to him because she can’t lose her job, that’s cowardly but completely understandable. If she’s married to an abusive man who’s hitting their child and she’s afraid to stand up to him, readers will probably say, “Nope.” If she’s afraid of heights, doesn’t like going out after dark, is terrified of clowns, those are all fears she can overcome as part of her plot.

      So it depends. But in general, anybody who tells you that a protagonist HAS to be anything doesn’t understand story. She’s probably getting it confused with marketing which is a different thing entirely (and she’s wrong there, too).

    2. “hat do you think about heroic characters where they’re supposed to be larger than life and have special skills and a wound etc?”

      This is a question I’ve dealt with a fair bit because I write an urban fantasy series (the Esther Diamond series) in which the heroine/protagonist does not have any supernatural powers, does not have a divine destiny or mission, does not possess magical weapon, does not possess any special skills or esoteric knowledge, etc. She’s a talented struggling actress in contemporary New York, with only the skills which her job description implies…

      And I’ve been amazed by how often and how many people think this is a weird, or improper, or strange, or surprising protagonist for an urban fantasy series, or who think I deliberately “subverted the form” or just “don’t know the genre or what I’m doing” because I wrote the series heroine this way…

      But it was none of the above. I don’t see a person’s heroism–EVEN IN FANTASY–as being about their bag of magic tricks or gimmicks, though I have also written protagonists with such bags and will do so again, no doubt. I see a character’s heroism being about what’s inside them, who they fundamentally are when push comes to shove, how they react to challenges, problems, danger, their worst fears, how they view and/or sacrifice for the greater good, etc.

      And, in fact, the primary protagonist of my epic Sileria trilogy, which was very traditional epic fantasy (magic world, magic super-effects, guys with swords, books that size of small cars, etc.), the central protagonist of that trilogy, the guy at the spine of a saga with about 10 POV characters–also had no special skills or magical abilities. Like Esther Diamond, he had trained seriously for a profession and was very good at it (acting in her case, sword-fightingin his case), but he was essentially a “regular guy” who happened to have a heroic character–i.e. when faced with things that terrified him, he scraped together the courage to hold his ground, as Esther does, and he was capable of taking a deep breath and realizing that the safety of the world matters more then just his own personal happiness, as Esther does. These are heroic characters in the fantasy genre as -I- see it; magic swords and superpowers have absolutely nothing to do with whether someone is heroic (or larger than life) IMO.

      1. I agree, in fact I think the Ordinary Man or Woman going up against super powers is a great plot; you always want your antagonist stronger than your protagonist.

  11. I think you are completely right about the things that make an unforgettable heroe. I was thinking about classic protagonists in Romance novels -as Kleypas’ Derek Craven or SEP’s Phoebe Somerville- and they more or less meet your requirements. The only doubt I’ve got -in the Romance genre- is about the need of an good antagonist. I’m not sure if it’s a requirement.

    1. If there’s no antagonist, there’s no conflict. If there’s no conflict, you have people sitting around chatting.

    2. I think when it comes to writing romance “antagonist” takes a potentially different form, too. When I think Protagonist/Antagonist I traditionally think big foe material like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader — a big bad thing you’re up against who is actively trying to stop you and take you down. When it comes to romance, I think the antagonist can take a slightly different (softer?) form. Unless, of course, the book has a thriller/mystery element like a serial killer hunting one of the characters, or a paranormal where you have that epic battle for the world or universe or the fate of your species.

      When it comes to contemporary romance or even category romance “antagonist” starts to feel a bit different to me. Someone/Something is pushing the hero and heroine into a situation that forces them to confront their inner fears & outer conflicts… the father that wants the hero to grow up, stop mucking around in that “hobby,” join reality and take over the family business, the mother pressuring the heroine to settle down, stop living in a dream world, marry that guy the heroine isn’t sure she even loves, and start being the good “dutiful” daughter/wife. The ranch down the road trying to squeeze the heroine off her struggling farm so they can take over her land. The co-worker so bent on climbing the career ladder she can justify blowing up the hero’s job to get him out of her way cause he’s old and clueless anyway.

      The antagonists are there, they’re just not chasing the main characters with knives or through outer space. At least, not all the time. 😉

      1. The easiest way is Love Interest #1 against the Antagonist in one plot. Love Interest #2 against the antagonist in a subplot. Then by the end of the first act, the two love interests have joined forces, which makes their negotiation to compromise all right since they’re going to take down the antagonist in the big climax.

        Or you can do a Moonstruck plot where one lover destroys the other completely in order to free him or her.

        1. You know, that might solve my issue with a book I’ve been kicking around forever. I’ve got the idea of the characters but the plot is just wriggling all over the place and I’ve had nothing but problems trying to figure it out. I had one idea that actually uses that antagonist idea (the original idea) but then I thought it made the Hero look “bad,” which made me doubt the plot, which led to me sitting on the stupid thing forever and having the worst freaking block ever.


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