I know. We all love our protagonists, whether in part or in whole. Or else they wouldn’t be our protagonist, right? They may even share similarities in personality or looks with the author. That’s totally okay. The good thing about humans is that we aren’t all carbon copies of each other, and we all have our own tastes. Which is probably why Tchaikovsky hated his Nutcracker composition; yet, as history would have it, it’s one of his most famous pieces. That’s just the irony of life.
I want to discuss how to make your protagonist real. Reading about the one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-lifetime, incomparable, most super special individual in the history of the world is really dull. I’ve already spoken of this before about giving your characters special abilities/powers.
Today, I want to talk about ordinary, non-magical, non-supernatural characters. The kind of protagonist that’s just your guy or gal or kid next door who gets thrown into a crazy plot. Just your average human.
- First, don’t introduce them to the reader with a pity party. “Woe is me” is so cliche. True, there will always be somebody who can relate, but generally speaking, this tragic backstory has been done a million times. Unless it is absolutely undeniable essential for some childhood tragedy to be in your character’s backstory, don’t stick a sob story in there. Don’t. Unless your story is about a girl getting revenge on her abusive stepmother or something like that, because then that’s just a cornerstone of your plot. But infodumping on the reader about how little Timmy was molested or beaten and so now he’s either timid or raging because of it — just stop. Don’t do it. I’ve enough to pity in life, I don’t need more in the fictional world. I’m tired of the blame game, both in real life and fictional reading.
- Second, your protagonist’s “talents” should be something that isn’t uncommon. What should be uncommon is the way she approaches it and uses this talent or trait. Which is why she and only she is the protagonist. And she has to earn that talent and the respect that comes with it. She has to work for it. And these traits that just may save her world in the end has to restrict her in some way. It can’t come easily. If it’s a personality trait, it needs to be established slowly and credibly. If it’s something material, there needs to be a high risk that it can be lost. Preferably through the protagonist’s own doing.
- Third, your protagonist cannot be adored by everyone. They cannot be respected by everyone. Somebody somewhere has to be plotting her demise in one sense or another. I see a lot of flat secondary and tertiary characters (and antagonists) who are basically just automatons. Don’t forget that they’re people with their own feelings and opinions, too! Your protagonist is not the only one that’s allowed to have a personality. And antagonists aren’t the only ones who have prejudices. Give your protagonist limitations, whether emotional, monetary, or physical. Make them down-to-earth and real. Let them flounder and lie. Let them be forgetful, self-righteous, lazy, or two-faced.
It’s fun being a writer. It’s like playing God. You can design a person down to the smallest hair, the tiniest quirk. But God didn’t make any of us perfect, right? So neither should your protagonist be flawless. Don’t skip over the weaknesses or flaws of your protagonist. You as the writer should know exactly why the protagonist has (or doesn’t have) specific traits. And make those traits work against each other. If your protagonist is honest and just, then he needs to be in a position where he must choose between lying or telling the truth. He needs to be in a position where he has to make an unfair judgment. Make your protagonist suffer internally. Make him live in the real world!
Then the readers will connect with your protagonist.