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.