You already have the resources to know what makes a good protagonist.
Try to remember your favorite character from a book.
Now, ask yourself what you like about them.
Usually, you choose them because of how they make you feel and the thoughts you have of them when you see them. And usually, these characters hold the same principles and values you appreciate.
You like Jon Snow? You probably value loyalty and family.
Before diving into what makes a good protagonist, I would like to summarize the idea of good character development into two paragraphs.
- Well-developed characters are capable of good and bad things. Whether you’re writing the villain or protagonist, your character should sometimes do good and evil.
- Secondly, they are human, and as readers or viewers, we see aspects of our lives that feel like we are reading our stories.
Those are the two things you should keep in mind.
If your protagonist isn’t committing something horrendous and people still like them, there’s something you need to fix.
Secondly, if someone with a different background from the character should read your work and feel like they have nothing in common with the character, the story has a big problem.
That’s the whole summary of this post, but I still have to explain better for those who want to dive deeper into how to develop a protagonist.
So, let’s begin.
What makes a good character
To make this easier, I will be using three compelling character examples.
I would like to use examples from television, for instance. My favorite characters on TV are Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones and Ruth Langmore from Ozark.
In my own work, my favorite character is Natalie Mary Olisa from The Devil’s Ex-fiancee.
I’ll be using these three complex characters as examples for this post: Sansa Stark, Okonkwo, and Natalie.
These are traits of a protagonist:
1. They are human
It doesn’t matter if your protagonist is a rabbit with horns. They should have the major characteristics of humans, especially if they are an important character. For instance, they can laugh, or they can cry. They can speak softly or make loud noises. They can think – better if they can help those in need. Because you’re writing fiction for humans (most likely, except you’re reading this in space or writing for aliens), your readers want to read about themselves in another human. Give me me, but in other person. Humans want to know or read that your characters have a few attributes of humans. Boov is an alien that eats metal and wood. But right, he eats and talks like us. That’s cool.
We want to see things from the point of view of key characters or hear them talking.
- Sansa Stark — at the beginning of Game of Thrones, is just a young girl, quite tall for her age, with red hair. She does what a normal teenage girl does — crushing on handsome boys.
- Okonkwo — he is ambitious and proud. He loves hard work at a very young age.
- Natalie from The Devil’s Ex-fiancee — She quite loves soft things. She meets a handsome guy who gives her the world, and she chooses to marry him in less than six months. This is quite alright for anyone with a certain dream of the kind of life and love they want.
Most humans love ambitions and a lot of other characteristics. Your first job is to give us hints that we are reading about another human — or something that has attributes of a human.
By the way, the protagonist, good or bad, should be able to think or do a few things a human can do. It’s hard reading about stones, even rivers flow, which can be written about.
2. Good protagonists do good things
This is hard to explain because the term ‘good’ is subjective. What I describe as good might be another person’s definition of foolishness.
I remember taking a bird home when I was young, which is good. I just wanted to take care of it. My mother said I should leave it or the bird would die untimely. She was right. It died a few days in a cage, despite providing a small bed and food.
“Birds are better off in the forest.”
You get the idea. I was trying to do something good.
Good? What’s good?
That’s up to you to answer. Make sure your character takes that side of good instead of evil most of the time. Make sure they have some principles — about being good human — that they never want to break.
- Sansa Stark — she doesn’t want to hate the king. She doesn’t want her father to die. (That’s normal or good.)
- Okonkwo — he sometimes represents the gods of the land and passes judgment on behalf of the gods. Most of his judgments were, by the standard of the townspeople, good.
- Natalie — despite having an ex that’s unkind, she tries to call him and make things clear that their engagement has been officially canceled, which is weird. Who does that? She’s caught a shitty fiance doing something shitty. She flings the ring at him and goes to start a new affair with a better man. Then, she decides to call the ex to make things clear before moving on completely with her new man. It’s weird, but on the other hand, I, personally, won’t like to move on and someone coming to say, we just have an argument, and next thing you’re with another person. Sorry, I called you to EXPLAIN CLEARLY THAT I… AM… DONE.
So, remember what makes a good protagonist. Money Heist’s main characters are armed robbers. They are stealing people’s money, but they choose to do good with the “do not kill anyone” principle.
If you want to go further, both a protagonist and an antagonist should be capable of doing good. The Wildings in Game of Thrones were only protecting their ‘land’ or what belonged to them.
3. Good protagonists do stupid/horrible things
If your main character has the capability to do evil, then you’re on the right path. You have a story.
Think Harry Potter! He’s the ability to do evil, if he wants to, if he needs to.
When I was ghostwriting, I often taught clients how to write a good main character. And the major thing is that interesting characters are capable of doing evil and going wrong — horribly wrong.
The hero of the story should do things that make us beg them to stop. But they didn’t, and we have to continue reading to see the consequences of that action they took. This poor decision-making can last through the course of the story until the middle when they change, or it can happen once, but they have to face the consequences for the rest of the pages.
- Sansa Stark — she signs a silly document that makes her father the villain. Her father was thus beheaded.
- Okonkwo — Because he wants people to see him as a man of culture, he murders the boy he raises from a young age to adulthood, a boy he loves.
- Natalie — Out of anger, commits murder without any idea of how to dispose of a dead body.
Question: What makes a good character?
Answer: Are they capable of evil?
4. Oblivious to certain realities and life
It’s okay to make your character kind, sweet, and understanding. But no one has it all. Ensure that certain realities or truths don’t get to them in the beginning. Let that reality change them.
- Sansa Stark — she thinks kindness answers it all. But she is utterly shocked when some poor people grab her and try to tear her into pieces. She can’t believe it. “I didn’t do anything to them,” she said. Sorry, Sansa.
- Okonkwo — He’s been powerful in the land for a long time until the white men’s arrival, and he realizes he’s no longer one of those who dictate how things are done. He’s furious with the new way things are going and decides to take matters into his own hands. Well, that doesn’t go well.
- Natalie — she is enjoying her new love life until she becomes a captive. She can’t believe it. She is so angry, so angry that when she has the opportunity to commit murder, she takes it gladly.
A great character lives in a cocoon, shielded from some realities, at the beginning of their story. When they meet something new or troubling, they begin to shift to a new person. So, remember this when writing.
5. We know their reasons for doing something important
Want to know what makes a good protagonist? Don’t take this for granted. It is most important for most of your major characters. Everything about your main character must be justified somehow. Great characters have a good reason for taking their actions.
- Sansa Stark — many people are angry with her character, but they forget that this story setting was centuries ago. And, in the beginning, Sansa is a little girl in her early teens. All her life, she has been shielded from certain things. She has been training on how to become a girl with manners. So, the reason is right there — born as a princess, and immediately starts learning to become a ‘good wife’ to a perfect ‘gentleman.’ (Explore this when creating your character arcs. Show us how and what changes the protagonist from being silly to taking control of their actions and decisions.)
- Okonkwo — why does he work so hard? He has seen what laziness does to his father and wants something different for himself.
- Natalie — why would she allow her fiancee to flog her? One, her fiance isn’t like that until lately, and she thinks he is only angry because he’s jealous. Two, he is rich. Third, she’s secretly afraid that he can do something worse.
If you ask ‘Why is the character doing something?’ at any time in your story and you don’t have a reasonable answer, the best thing you can do is rewrite that part.
So, how do you make a protagonist realistic?
You start by making sure they are humans. Even if they have superpowers, start by giving us a glimpse they have things in common with the average humans. Then, start exploring what makes them weird, the protagonist’s goals, and their fears. Give us their motives or why they do the things they do. Then, go through this post and pick the other four things about what makes a good protagonist. Incorporate those into your stories.
It’s practice, but it’s better to start now than wait.
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