Every great story needs a strong central character that keeps readers invested. While protagonists can come in a variety of forms, what matters most is that they are written well—a mediocre, wishy-washy lead never led us to anything interesting.
Above all, the best protagonists are relatable and accessible to the reader. Even if we never experience exactly what they do, or even if we disagree with some of their actions, we should at least be able to understand their motivations.
As you plan your short story, novel, or screenplay, you should spend a good amount of time figuring out what makes your protagonist tick if you want a character readers will cheer for.
Tips for Writing a Great Protagonist
In order to create a strong protagonist that will win your readers’ hearts, there are a few basic essentials you’ll want to remember.
1. Make Them Relatable (That Means Flawed)
Even in film adaptations of classic comic books, producers have started making our ultimate heroes a bit more human. That’s because protagonists just aren’t interesting if we can’t relate to them somehow. And if we can’t relate, we can’t be emotionally invested in their stories.
One way to make a character more relatable is by highlighting their flaws (rather than hiding them), and presenting both internal and external struggles.
Elizabeth Bennet, for example, has a sharp tongue and tends to make quick judgments. This leads her to initially reject true love in Pride and Prejudice.
But if Elizabeth were simply a quiet, perfect girl who immediately said yes to Mr. Darcy and lived happily ever after, what kind of story would that be?
Besides being incredibly boring, we’d miss out on some of the great traits that make her such a relatable character.
Making your characters imperfect makes them more accessible. Even if your reader doesn’t see herself directly in the character, she’ll be more sympathetic and invested in the plot if the character feels like a real person.
2. Outline Their History
Every character has a history, even if we as readers or viewers never get to see all of it.
As you start to construct your protagonist, imagine their back story and try to form the most complete picture possible.
Ask important questions about the events that made them into the person we see on the page, such as:
- Have they ever experienced a trauma?
- What was their childhood like?
- Do they maintain a relationship with their family today?
- Where have they lived?
- Did they have any past significant relationships?
- What kind of work have they done?
Imagining their history in full will help you to craft a more complete and realistic protagonist.
While you don’t necessarily need to reveal every detail you think of to your audience, you should gradually reveal some of the more significant parts of their back story.
This will give readers insight to the character’s motivations and the events that made them who they are. They’ll also be better able to sympathize with a protagonist once they know more about them.
Along with a well-developed history, creating a character profile will also help you to form a more dynamic, relatable protagonist.
Create A Character Profile
Answering some basic questions is a great starting point for giving life to your character(s).
As you fill in the details, you might even find new inspiration or ideas about just what kind of character you want your protagonist to be.
Think of as many details as you can to make your character more complete, even if you never explicitly state some of these facts to your readers.
You can start by filling in some of the details listed below (although you shouldn’t feel limited to this list):
- Economic/social background
- Family background
- Dress style
- Likes and dislikes
- Best quality
- Biggest flaw
- Opinion of him/herself
- Consideration for others
Find the quirks that make your character unique. The more detailed you are, the more memorable your character will be.
3. Find Their Motivation
As the central character, your protagonist will need a reason for doing what they do.
Their motivating force should be strong enough that they persist even despite serious challenges.
If your readers don’t understand your protagonist’s purpose, they’ll have less incentive to root for him as the story progresses.
Besides a plot-level motivation, good protagonists are also driven by a more universal, internal motivation—everyday wants, hopes, or fears that most of us can understand or relate to.
Perhaps they do what they do because they need to feel accepted, or prove their worth. Or maybe they just want to find love or safety like the rest of us.
This deeper motivation will spur on their actions in the plot and keep them going even through odds that seem unbeatable.
4. Give Them Something to Lose
There must always be a risk that your character will fail in his quest. If they don’t have something to lose, why would readers invest the time to follow the story?
Therefore, the challenges your protagonist faces should feel not only realistic, but also greater than them.
When readers see that the odds are stacked against the protagonist, they’ll have more reason to root for them.
5. Make Them Evolve
Once readers or viewers feel they can relate to a character’s struggles, they’ll be eager to see how the character adapts.
Now that you have a clear challenge in mind for your protagonist, think about what they’ll have to do in order to overcome it and reach their goals.
The ideal answer should involve some change. A dynamic protagonist is certainly more interesting than a static one! This is another reason why you shouldn’t make your protagonist too perfect—you want to leave room for them to grow and evolve.
This evolution usually marks a key turning point in the story. Maybe your character had to overcome a paralyzing fear in order to take action, or maybe they must do something that compromises their moral beliefs in order to get closer to their goals.
These turning points and dramatic changes can enrich the plot and help build the story’s climax.
Great Stories Need Great Protagonists
Take time to develop strong, multi-faceted characters. Remember that the more relatable and accessible they are, the more invested your readers will be in the story.
If you need a little inspiration to start writing, try using writing prompts to get your creativity flowing.
Do you have a favorite protagonist from literature or film? What made them unforgettable? Share your thoughts in the comments below!