What Makes a Successful Protagonist?

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.” 
~Joss Whedon

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.

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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?

Let’s Chat!

Danielle ❤

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59 thoughts on “What Makes a Successful Protagonist?

  1. I have a book series in which I am the protagonist. I found that in the first few books, my character is somewhat capable, but distant. As the books go on, the more inept my character, the easier it is to relate and empathize with him. The same is true with my female lead. At first, she is completely imperturbable, but in the later books, it is when she gets her feathers ruffled that she is easier to relate.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I LOVE what you said about conflict! I hate when I’m reading a book and the protagonist doesn’t grow, doesn’t doubt, doesn’t do anything. I like when a character is in conflict with themselves, especially if they have a hard time figuring out what to do.

    For me the number one thing is definitely that I have to be able to relate to them. Even if they make decisions I wouldn’t have made or if they are different from me, I have to be able to empathize with their choices. 90% of the time if I don’t like the book it’s because I couldn’t connect with the main character.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you sum it up beautifully! We need something we can latch onto. It can be emotions, reactions, etc. But there has to be something within the character that we get. Internal struggles are a wonderful way to allow the reader an opportunity to really explore a protagonist. They are my favorite and add much more depth! Thank you 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  3. My favorite protagonists are usually flawed in some way. (Aren’t we all?) They are ‘human’ to me with all that entails. I can’t stand if the writer portrays a protagonist as perfect, or indeed if they portray them as one dimensional. Human beings are infinitely varied. They can be compassionate, cold, guilt ridden, loving, revengeful, despairing, empathetic, etc. If I cannot imagine them as REAL, then the book fails for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I could not agree more with what you are saying. I harbor a strong dislike for those perfect characters. They feel less human and too fictional. There is nothing for the reader to connect with or empathize. Flaws are a must. We are all certainly flawed in our own ways and still exhibit strength 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I ADORED reading this post. I agree with all of it!! I think it’s so important to empathize with characters and I’m like you in how they don’t have to be just like me. I like reading about personalities that are totally different from my own and watching how they react. I also love how you brought out consistency . For me this plays an important role in the realism. I have to believe that a particular character would behave in a particular way. Thanks for another thought provoking post!! ❤️ 😍😘😁


  5. I agree with your list Danielle! Your point about a character being viable is one of the reasons I’ve never enjoyed Superman as much as other superheroes. He’s just a little too perfect, you know? I would say my biggest sticking point is consistency. Once a character becomes a puppet of the plot or radically changes for no discernible reason, I tend to lose interest in the story. I’m not as much of a stickler for backstories; characters don’t need them for me to like reading about them, but if you’re going to fill in their history I’d prefer it not feel slapdash.

    Great discussion post! It really made me sit and think for a couple of minutes about the protagonists I’ve been reading lately 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you JJ! I always fail to connect with flawless characters. Superman is a stellar example! He was a bit too good for me. There was never any real internal conflict. I do enjoy history and back story though. For me, it adds depth. But I admit, the mysterious and vague works beautifully in the right situation 😉


  6. I definitely agree with everything you said! In general I need relatable and realistic characters for a story to work… Unless it’s fantasy maybe, then it’s just relatable that is truly important. Perfect characters are not my cup of tea; I like mine with flaws. 😉 And while I like surprises, I’m not a big fan of unreliable characters. They have to be very well presented and relatable for me to be able to connect to them. (which doesn’t happen often)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Flaws are a must! I find it impossible to relate to those perfect characters and then there is no connection, which spells doom for the book. I think in fantasy, the author usually achieves that element of the realistic through the emotions and rections more so. The end result is equeally rewarding, but a unique experience. I do love fantasy! Unreliable characters are normally a hit or miss with me. It really depends on the concept, but they are certainly harder to connect with, although they can make fantastic villians 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I love how you definite relatability. I agree. I don’t have to be like the protagonist at all. They can be a blue male alien who is super rich and has a personality that is the opposite of mine. But if they are experiencing loneliness or grief or excitement over reading a new book and I can put myself in my shoes in that moment, that generally makes a successful protagonist.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I 100% agree that relatability is #1. If I can’t genuinely see where the character is coming from, the character, and story, loses me. They don’t have to be like me, I just have to understand their motivations and reactions.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Flawed protagonists who act their age and have the ability to stop and think about a problem. Quick wits and a sense of humor are great traits, too.

    Realistic changes, are necessary, too, whether they’re for better or for worse. Part of what has me hooked on the Vorkosigan Saga is how realistically Miles changes through the years– from semi-careless teenager who wants his father’s approval to a thoughtful adult who is capable of accepting the consequences of his actions. He still makes mistakes, though, and he still seeks his father’s approval. He’s charismatic throughout the series, but that charisma goes through subtle changes from one book to the next.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah yes! You have named some of my favorite traits. And I find flaws to be an absolute must. Withiut them, a character is doomed to fail in my eyes. I do not connect with or enjoy the “perfect” protagonist. They make no sense and offer little in terms of growth or expectations.

      I am very curious about Miles. You have mentioned him a few times 😉 I love that the reader is taken on a journey of actual growth and maturation in the series. He sounds like the ideal, well balanced MC honestly.


      1. Perfect protagonists are pointless. Who can relate to them? If you know they’re going to do everything well and win All The Things, then where’s the suspense of the book? If I already know they’re going to win, then why should I even read the book? Flaws make a character real and relatable.

        He is! Bujold is so good at character development and growth across individual books and series. She is an underrated master of the her genres.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. I couldn´t agree more! My expectations are always set high for a protagonist and it´s a pain in the bum when those expectations aren´t met. Through the years I´ve become so picky when it comes to a main character. I want growth. I want flaws. I want something I can identify with ( even if it´s something as simple as driving a beat up car ). I actually like being confronted with a more imperfect than perfect character because those tend to feel more realistic. I was thinking the other day how cruel it is to constantly shove overly beautiful, 10 / 10 characters under a readers nose. Reading isn´t only about finding roll models. It´s about growing to love the crooked nose, the poor eyesight, and even the filter-less mouth. Cute idiots who actually walk this earth.
    You´re also right about a protagonist having a past and history. There needs to be something to work on. A writer can´t just throw in characters and paint them out to be literary Gods without some background info. Not knowing how a character evolved into whatever kills it for me.

    Overall, I think without a successful protagonist there is no successful story. Without characters to connect to any story becomes flat.

    I loved this post. Well done, my dear! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! I often DNF titles where I discover the protagonist is this shining, flawless being. I cannot accept or connect with that. There is zero room for evolvment or surprise and it is infuriating. It seems like we saw this a lot in YA with female MCs for a spell. It was terrible haha. I am so glad authors are embracing flaws and opting for elements of realism. A story completely falls apart if the protagonist is a fail! Thank you ❤

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are so right. But…YA protagonists are then better than romance MCs are. The romance genre is still stuffed with perfect jobs, appearances, and what not. I´ve been missing the normal folks for a long time and would love nothing more than for a Hero to work as a mechanic, an electrician, etc. Bah, * wave off * who am I kidding? I´d be happy if they´d have jobs at all, as many of them seem to not work. That´s also a turn off for me. It´s the subtle things that make a huge difference. ❤

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It really is ❤ And maybe what you have mentioned right here is one of the reasons I have never been able to embrace romance. The few encounters I have experienced were "perfect" and hardly realistic. I do not get along well with those scenarios. You may be onto something here. Maybe I need to locate a romance with flawed MCs! – xx


  11. This is so interesting! I hadn’t really thought about this before, but your post got my brain to thinkin’. I realize now that I definitely don’t have to like the character. I can enjoy reading about some truly awful people if the story is good. I guess that would put me in the conflict camp? Because to me that’s really the key to a good story. Consistency is important to me as well, because that’s just bad writing if your characters start doing stuff that they wouldn’t really do.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Fantastic post and I agree with it all. I’d also echo what others have written about being perfect, people aren’t perfect in life and as such, we don’t want to read about perfect people as they don’t seem real and if they do they make us see the imperfections in ourselves. Flawed is where it’s at as we all have our flaws.👌

    Liked by 1 person

  13. What a great discussion post Danielle! Relatability is certainly important for me too… sometimes I can’t relate to the MC but I can to the relationship she’s in or the abilities she has. Viability though is maybe #1 for me… there are many protagonists I don’t relate to… I’m not really a fan of morally grey peeps for example. But if they work… if their background, motivations and relationships are shown properly and come together… then I can certainly appreciate the skills developing them. Sometimes though a Writer will tell a character’s history and say that is why x = y but I just don’t buy it because in the present the characters don’t come across as if that history makes sense! ♥️

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Yes to all of the traits you pointed out! Your post did make me think on why I loved some characters so utterly and completely… Frank Friendship for example is one of those characters that I would follow to the end of the Earth; mainly I loved him because he was never saying or doing anything that a reader could expect-so, full of surprises! This character kept me on my toes with wit, humour and completely unexpected actions whilst doing so through the prism of humour as well as personal health issues. That mix somehow worked really well for me. In a way I do tend to love a misunderstood character and not only because my heart goes out to them but by the show of personal strength they show…
    Another type of character I like is the grim kind… the ones that are completely and utterly confident.. I don’t mean the billionaire boyfriends, I mean the ones like Jorg. Just whatever is thrown at them, they will get to the other end, no matter how much dirt they have to crawl through. so- a show of strength and a confident backbone. I think I like this type if character because I tend to draw strength from them and apply it to my every day life (albeit in different situations with different tactics, of course!) 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Excellent point about drawing strength from characters. I have yet to read about Jorg (soon!) but as long as he is well balanced with a few flaws to remind us he is human, I think that it will be instalove haha. I do enjoy and often favor underdogs or the uncanny. So Frank Friendship sounds stellar honestly. Predictability totally works when it is the characters natural trait 🙂


  15. What a great list, Danielle! I agree with all of the above points. I don’t expect any protagonists perfect. I like the anti-heroes and goody two shoes as long as they are viable. I like reading scenes where a protagonists actions lead to bad consequences and reading how they fix it. I find it’s very revealing not only to the character but also the author.


  16. The internal hurdles are a big thing with me and it pains me when readers give bad reviews on Goodreads for stories containing characters who were more mentally than physically present. That sounds weird, but I know you get what I mean. Somewhere along the line a lot of people have gotten the notion that books need to have a big helping of action scenes to be interesting. 📚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! I think that mental presence can often be more rewarding than the physical in terms of protagonists! I adore internal conflicts and diving into the characters head. We get to know them so much more. It seems odd to me that readers would find this warranting a lower review.


  17. I agree with all five, but mostly with the way you describe relatability: “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.”

    Also, I love me a sassy character who doesn’t try too hard. It has to feel natural, not like “now I’m pulling this badass move for all of you to see”.

    Liked by 1 person

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