Friday, December 25, 2009

Crafting a Good Protagonist

A Christmas Carol--Dickens What makes a good protagonist? This is a pretty subjective question since different readers like different types of heroes and heroines. But I see some common traits among the protagonists I admire:

They’re likeable. Now, I’ve read plenty of books with unlikeable protagonists (Catcher in the Rye, anyone?), but although I sometimes appreciated the talent of the author, I just didn’t care what happened to the protagonist. And that’s just a major problem. What if you have your whiny, unpopular protagonist and you’re building up to the major climax of the novel. He’s about to be thrown off a cliff….or is thrown off a cliff. If the guy isn’t someone I like, I’m thinking: “Eh. Too bad about him. Let’s see….what’s that next book on my reading list?”

If they’re not likeable (Ebenezer Scrooge) , they experience an epiphany and a radical change of heart.

Readers can relate to them. Or, if they can’t relate to them, they admire them, at least. Does anyone relate to James Bond? Anybody out there a crack shot, a pilot, a scuba diver, extraordinarily handsome, etc? But we can admire him. He’s one of the good guys.

They solve their own problems and, possibly, the problems of others. I don’t enjoy it when my protagonist gets rescued. Even in romances, that gets old (if they do get rescued in a romance, can the favor be returned at a later time? One-way rescuing all the time makes someone look weak.)

They’re intelligent. Or, if they’re not intelligent (Forrest Gump by Winston Groom), they have plenty of personality to make up for it. People who take the time to read are usually pretty intelligent. I think most readers have little patience for protagonists who aren’t too bright.

Related, but slightly different to the observation above: they behave intelligently. So, maybe they are smart. So why do they go down into the basement when they know the killer is down there? Why would they arrange to meet a murderer in a deserted location? Why?

Things happen to them. Maybe they have amazing luck—maybe they have amazingly bad luck. Maybe they’ve landed in a crazy family, or fall over murdered bodies all the time (Miss Marple), or have an interesting way of looking at the world. But they’re not boring and their life isn’t, either.

They have flaws. It’s so tedious to have a protagonist who is just too perfect. Unless they’re the Christ-figure in the book, they need to have some flaws. We’ll like them a lot better for it.

Do your favorite protagonists share common traits?

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone! I’m taking the day off to celebrate Christmas with my family (and then clear tons of wrapping paper off my den floor!) I’m reposting an older post from June 2009. Thanks so much to everyone for making my blogging year a happy one.