Let’s face it, we have all most likely encountered that dreaded experience, where a potentially great story is spoiled by our inability to connect with the main character(s). We rely on characters to carry us through a book, and when we fail to become dedicated followers, the end result is a tragic disappointment.
But what makes a successful protagonist?
As readers, what do we require to become engaged with a character enough to not only see them through to the end but want to? How do we define effective growth and development? Since reading is such a unique and personal experience that cannot truly be lumped into any specific set of “winning” guidelines, I wanted to look at the top 5 traits I require in my favorite characters and see how they compare to other readers’ own preferences and needs.
“You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are.”
Relatability is number one for me. Always and forever. A character does not have to share many common factors to achieve this either. It boils down to finding myself able to relate on a more emotional and reactional level. Can I understand or empathize with them or what they are going through? This is affected by a character’s morals, motivations, and even flaws. There must be something present that I can attach myself to.
Are they viable? Characters must bring something to the table that presents as realistic. This will not only aid in establishing the above relatability but help ensure their growth and journey is worthy of my time. I want to see them as an individual, so it is imperative that main characters come not only with a set of strengths, but unique flaws and weaknesses. They must have a defining voice and specific traits or behaviors (good or bad). Perfectly, imperfect. If the balance is not there, more often than not, the connection is also missing. It simply must feel real.
Every character needs a past and a history. This is often what drives them and helps explain their actions and dilemmas to us. Without a past, it hard to see growth. Whether this is revealed with a solid backstory or a slow revelation of events, I need to know where they are coming from.
Conflict, be it internal or external. With challenges comes change and growth. More often than not, I find it is the internal hurdles that really draw me to characters. Through their attempts to face and resolve these, we learn the most of who they are and develop a deeper connection.
Consistency is key but not always necessarily the forefront. I want to become familiar enough with characters to hold them to expectations. There needs to be enough of an understanding to make them accountable and anticipate specific behavior during most circumstances while still allowing for growth and change.
What do you look for in a protagonist? Are the above qualities important or do you find that you look for other elements?