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Wednesday, October 21

10 Signs of a Great Protagonist

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

At the heart of every story is a person with a problem, and the more compelling that person is, the better the story will be.

Imagine you’re having lunch one day when you overhear an animated group at a table, gossiping about a bunch of people with crazy lives. Some of them debate which hottie Jess should end up with, while others discuss the terrible behavior of Selene, and not one of them can agree on what Alastair is really up to.

You lean closer, curious about this wild group, and soon realize they’re not talking about life on the cul de sac, but their favorite novel—or more specifically—their favorite characters.

If you’re a writer (or a reader), discussing fictional people as if they really existed is normal. For writers, it’s even encouraged.

A well-drawn character comes to life on the page, and we know them as well as we know our friends and family. In some cases, we know our characters better than the flesh and blood people we interact with every day.

When fictional characters are fully developed, they become real to readers.

Characters lie at the heart of a story, and a flat, boring protagonist leads to a flat, boring novel. Cardboard cutouts walk around and spout their lines like bad actors. Emotions are only as deep as spilled wine. Motivations stem from the authorial version of “Because I said so” and there’s no sense the hero we’re supposed to love even cares about the problem they’re facing.

And no writer wants that.

We want our protagonist to feel so real our readers consider leaving their spouse for them. We want them to be people readers talk about long after the book is over. We want them to be worthy of the stories we’ve spent so much time developing and writing.

Here are ten things to remember to create a memorable protagonist:

1. A great protagonist has a problem that needs solving.

You'd think this would be obvious, but I’ve read plenty of manuscripts where the protagonist could have died on page one and the story would have continued without missing a step. 

Make sure your protagonist is the one with the problem that has to be solved. They’re central to the conflict and the story, and if you took them out, you’d have no story.

(Here's more on Where Does Your Novel's Conflict Come From?)

2. A great protagonist has the ability to act.

A good protagonist causes the story to happen and moves the plot through their actions and choices. Even if they're trapped in a cell, they're able to look for a way out, or try to pick the lock or break the bars. They don't just stand there.

Make sure your protagonist is in a position to create change, even if it’s a huge battle to so do. 

3. A great protagonist has reasons to act.

Imagine how unrealistic Die Hard would have felt if John McClane had been a tax account and not a cop. Or if he was just in the building and didn’t have a wife being held hostage by bad guys. Why on earth would he have risked his life if there wasn’t a good reason?

Plenty of people might be able to deal with the story's problem, but the protagonist has cause to get involved. If your protagonist is risking their life or happiness, make sure it's for a reason readers will understand.

4. A great protagonist has something to lose.

But just having a reason to act isn’t enough. Losing something that matters is a powerful motivating tool and will force your protagonist to do what they normally wouldn’t. They'll take risks they'd never take if they didn't have this consequence hanging over their head. 

It's the risk that raises the stakes and the tensions and makes readers worry.

This is an important aspect of the story’s stakes that's sometimes forgotten or not thought through well enough. Give your protagonist a reason to keep going when everything tells them to give up. They deserves a reward for their struggle, and a positive reason to put their life (or heart) in danger. 

Without someone worth gaining, readers will wonder why they're struggling so hard to win.

(Here's more on Three Questions to Get to the Heart of Your Story)

6. A great protagonist has the capacity to change.

Character growth feeds the soul of the story, and turns it from a series of plot events to a tale worth telling (and worth reading). 

A great protagonist has the ability to learn from their experiences and become a better (though not always) person. They won't be the same person they were when the story started.

7. A great protagonist has a compelling quality.

Maybe they’re funny and likable. Maybe they’re twisted and fascinating. They might have an unusual talent or skill, or a unique manner. Whatever it is, there’s a quality that makes readers curious to know more about your protagonist as a person. 

Often, what's compelling is also contradictory, and wanting to know how these two things work together is what keeps readers hooked.

8. A great protagonist has an interesting flaw.

Perfect people are boring—it’s the flaws that make them interesting. Flaws are also an opportunity to show character growth and give the protagonist chances to change. 

Maybe they know about this flaw and are actively trying to fix it, or they have no clue and their change is forced upon them. Maybe this flaw is the very thing that will allow them to survive and overcome their problems. Or, it might be the cause of the plot’s entire mess.

9. A great protagonist has a secret.

Open-book characters are usually predictable, and predictable doesn’t keep readers hooked and guessing what will come next. 

If the protagonist is hiding something, readers will wonder what that secret is and how it affects the story. Let your protagonist be a little cryptic until readers are dying to know what their secret is.

(Here's more on Shh! It's a Secret: How to Raise Tension and Conflict in a Scene)

10. A great protagonist has someone or something interesting trying to stop them.

A protagonist is only as good as the antagonist standing against them. Where would Sherlock Holmes be without Professor Moriarty? Dorothy without the Wicked Witch? Buffy without Spike? 

Give your protagonist someone worth fighting or their victory is meaningless. Think of your antagonist as the opposite of your protagonist—the dark to their light, the evil to their good. 

A protagonist who knows what they want and makes the story happen is a far more compelling character than one who sits around and waits for the story to happen to them.

Dig deep. Because a great protagonist is more than just someone in the middle of a mess.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Look at your protagonist and identify how these ten things apply to them. If you discover some are missing, brainstorm ways you might fill in those holes. Maybe give them stronger motives, or a secret that could ruin their life, or maybe it’s the antagonist that needs further development.

Who's your favorite protagonist? Why?

*Originally published June 2013. Last updated October 2020.

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. One of my all-time favorite series is Megan Whalen Turner's "Thief of Attolia." In the second book, he gets his hand cut off. He's a thief. This is a problem.
    His flaw? He's hilariously childish most of the time. Secrets? The twists in those books gave me whiplash.

    "...hurts my soul a little." I love your writing.

  2. Rachael, thanks! I haven't read that, but now I'm intrigued. A one-handed thief? Very interesting.

  3. I'll have to make those points into a checklist. There are days, Janice, when I wish this blog were a reference book instead of a gem of the interwebs.

    Rachel, I'm also going to look for that book!

  4. One of my favorite protagonists is Frankie from Elegantly Wasted by C. Elizabeth Vescio. Frankie works as a contract killer with her two cousins and, despite her vocation, she's crazy relatable. She's also a sociopath and KNOWS it. Her flaws and lack of moral compass are honestly what made me love the book so much.

    Great list of traits!

  5. This is an excellent way to look at your MC. In the first book I wrote, I was guilty of having things happen to my MC.

    My current MC met most of these. I hadn't played up the: she has a secret. She does! Thanks, I will amp that up.

  6. Amy, I'm working on that, actually :) I hope to have some writing books out before too long. It's taken a lot longer to organize and get them the way I want than I expected.

    Tyler, oo fun! I love how favorite characters are all "dark" in some way :) Readers after my own heart.

    Rubianna, secrets are always fun :)

  7. Janice, this is something I'm always trying to improve. Thanks for the great reminders.

  8. Julie, happy to help. It's helpful to remind myself as well, hehe.

  9. "It's so disappointing to read a book or see movie and find a great story idea surrounding a protagonist I couldn't care less about."

    So true! Recently I've watched anime Amnesia. I loved the mystery, all the twists and cliffhangers, but the heroine? Meh!

  10. Ekaterina, aw, such a shame. I see that way too much in movies these days.

  11. My favorite is Orchird from Empress Orchird. She seems strong and very independent.

    1. I don't know that one. I'll have to take a peek.

  12. My favorite protagonist, I'd have to say, is Peter Parker/Spider-Man. I see a little of myself in him and he's the perfect example of a great, strong protagonist.

  13. Protagonists: Hig in The Dog Stars, Marie-Laure and Werner in All the Light We Cannot See. Elena in My Brilliant Friend. In all three stories, the problem and goals are hard to frame: Hig -- survival in a post-apocalyptic world? Marie-Laure and Werner, surviving Hitler and WWII? Elena growing out of poverty in Naples and out from under the powerful presence of her best friend. All four characters are captivating, and face insurmountable odds. I think about those books and want to crawl back into them again. Thanks for the tips. I'm staring at a 400 page first draft that needs help with almost every single thing you've listed. Might have to junk this one and start a new story, but maybe not. Cheers --

    1. Sometimes it's easier to just start over, but you might be able to salvage it. It'll take take to go through it all to tweak all the character issues, but take it a chunk at a time so it doesn't get overwhelming and fatiguing :)

  14. Hi Janice,
    I was close to tears before I found your brilliant blog! I really liked my main character, and her flaws,and your advice has dispelled all the self doubt about her, so thanks a million! I've printed your advice, and stuck it to my memo board in prep for NaNoWriMo.

    1. Aw, I'm so glad I was able to help. (and sorry you were so frustrated before you made it here-hugs-) Welcome to the site! Good to have you with us.

  15. The problem with novels at this decade are just too many protagonises with Mary Sue's syndrome. Anastasia Steele and Bella Swan are boring protagonises with weak motivation that triggered their actions

    1. A lot of movies have the same problems as well.

  16. Hello! I really love your blog!:) Could I translate some of your articles into Russian and post in

    1. Thanks! As long as you give me and the blog credit and link back to it, yes.

  17. Excellent information. You are truly gifted and so helpful to others.

  18. Excellent information. You are truly gifted and so helpful to others.

  19. I'd have to say my fave protagonist is Sherlock, definitely.

    1. Great character :) In all his various forms.

  20. I'd like to add that in order to have an emotional connection to the protagonists, they have to be vulnerable somewhere. I don't mean whiny or angsty, but... being able to be touched by others, or by what's going on around them. Super cool, aloof heroes leave me cold. I need be able to care for them, feel afraid for them, and fall a bit in love with them.

    1. yes, there was something wrong with my protagonist, I was not quite connecting with him--he was too cocky and perfect. Then I gave him vulnerabilities and everything clicked. He became interesting, and someone I could care about, and yes, fall a bit in love with. And I fear for him--but I throw him into awful situations anyone, as one must.

    2. You must indeed :) One of my friends was laughing at me just this week because I was cackling in glee over putting my characters through the emotional wringer.

      I'm glad you found the missing piece to make your character work.

  21. These are great tips. I had a book rejected by Harlequin because the story focused too much on the hero’s conflicts. So, maybe he should have been the protagonist. Still not sure that the hero and heroine can’t share the protagonist spot.

    1. Not necessarily. Harlequin has some very specific guidelines and things they look for in some of their imprints, so a book that worked just fine on its own might have just not fit that particular imprint's guidelines.

      They can, and you effectively have two protagonists, though often one stands out a little bit more than the other. But twp protagonists in romance is fairly common since the goal is to get them together.

  22. Thanks for this information. I am taking each one of your points, as an exercise to give my protagonist more life. Excellent article and very useful comments.

  23. I'd have to say Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. The title says it all. Sherlock too. This has become my go-to site. Thanks for sharing your tips :)

    1. Most welcome, I'm so glad you find it helpful :)

  24. Excellent advice, thank you Janice.

    I would also add that I like to read a reluctant hero, I feel it adds realism.

    The reluctance may be for several reasons, but whatever those reasons are, it will almost certainly emphasize their humanity, which of course relates to the reader.

    This hopefully creates an emotional bond and a deeper compelling reading experience, hopefully.

    Mark Howland

    1. Reluctant heroes are great, thanks for adding them.

  25. the wicked witch objectively sucks

  26. hello,i'm dealing with this topic in my dissertation and i wonder if i could get some help

    1. There's ton of information on the site--just click on the "protagonist" tag at the bottom of the post. If you have specific questions, you can email me.