Characters, Fiction, Story, Writing Process

How to write a compelling protagonist?

Writing your protagonist into being is much harder than you think…or at least that’s what I found out when I started writing down my stories about twenty years ago. A lot of new writers get caught up in the description trap.

You might be tempted to think: how can my readers connect to the main character in my story if they don’t know what this character look like? I totally get that! Of course it is possible to make your protagonist relatable by giving him/ her/ them specific attributes that hint towards a certain demographic (BAME, LGBTQ+, disability, working class, upper class etc.)

Nothing wrong with that! Diversity is an important issue to address and I am glad that more writers are championing underrepresented communities in their fiction these days.

BUT the description of the character alone does not necessarily guarantee that your readers will find them compelling. I would go so far as to say that your protagonist’s physical description can be entirely omitted from your story without negatively impacting how compelling your character is.

Shock, horror! I said it! If you don’t believe me, go read my short story ‘Original Magic’ (free to read on Wattpad) and tell me whether or not the characters are compelling. My current readers suggest they are. And none of those characters (including the protagonist) are physically described.

So, what makes a protagonist compelling? Contrary to what most people think, compelling characters don’t have to be likable. Compelling characters are characters about whom we care – for whatever reason.

Could it be that your protagonist is a victim? If so, then it’s likely that your readers will feel for him/ her/ them and want to find out if they are going to get out of their bad situation – whether they like them or not.

Or maybe your protagonist is a charming troublemaker who annoys everybody around him/ her/ them but your readers might secretly hope he/ she/ they get away with their next prank…because such characters are just too charming for jail.

Also, I imagine your protagonist could very well be a miserable old witch or wizard who doesn’t like people approaching their domain? In this case, the reader might find it hard to see any redeeming qualities in your protagonist but how compelling would this character be if an innocent child got lost and somehow ended up at this protagonist’s door…?

Wouldn’t you want to read on to find out what such an unlikeable protagonist would do to the child? Wouldn’t you want to know whether he/ she/ they live up to your expectations?

And there is one last thing that I would also caution you against: make sure your protagonist is NOT perfect! Who wants to read about a beautiful. skinny, popular, talented individual with no flaws? Nobody! If your protagonist has no flaws, you picked the wrong protagonist for your story.

See ya next time 😉

If you ever had trouble making your protagonist compelling but just couldn’t put your finger on the problem, I hope this post provides some clues. Comment below if you know this struggle is real and let me know if these tips brought you any value … or even if you think I am barking up the wrong tree. I am interested in your views.

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