In a recent class that I delivered online about self-editing, I touched only briefly on the subject of character development. It is, of course, a vast subject, and there is so much to say. In later posts, I'll analyse some characters, but first, I want to share my checklist of what makes a compelling protagonist.
'Compelling' is the best descriptor, I think, since it does not mean the character must always be likable. But however hard the protagonist may be to like, it’s imperative that the reader is rooting for them by the end of the book.
For me, a character is compelling if they are sympathetic, expressing a unique worldview, and doing things that are admirable.
First, what does it mean to be sympathetic? I believe that this simply means that we understand why they are who they are, and the reason they want certain things. We might not agree with the protagonist’s actions or ambitions, but we can see where they’re coming from. This understanding means that we feel sympathy for the protagonist throughout their journey, even when they are getting their just deserts. This is a core quality of the classic antihero, from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Breaking Bad’s Walter White, but I think it should also be a factor for every kind of protagonist.
Sympathy (or, often, empathy) stems from vulnerability. Think about the folk on social media who only present their lives as a Shangri-la of splendiferousness … annoying, right? Vulnerability is what makes people likeable, and most of us root for the underdog because we can identify with his/her/their fears, weaknesses, or disadvantages.
For some, this might be about the character's 'flaw', but I’m not too keen on the word because that is too value-laden. Most vulnerabilities are not the protagonist’s fault, per se; they are simply the outcome of their personality (e.g., fear or rejection), physical affliction (e.g., serious illness), cognitive or educational disadvantage (e.g., illiteracy), or social factor (e.g., homelessness). Whatever their vulnerability, the protagonist’s journey should be focused on overcoming it, turning it to their advantage, or coming to terms with it.
Having an unusual perspective lifts a protagonist from forgettable to compelling, and sometimes into the category of controversial. I’m thinking here of Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Whatever you think of his actions, the way he ‘justifies’ them is incredibly articulate and highly challenging to the normal worldview. You don’t have to create anyone as morally bankrupt as Nabokov’s antihero to present an unusual perspective, but the greatest writers (and ergo their protagonists) are often pseudo philosophers or anthropologists who have something groundbreaking or surprising to say about the human-centred universe (think George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Octavia E. Butler).
Of the four components, this is probably the hardest for writers to incorporate because it requires of them the ability to see the world differently also … or identify people who do. I based a key character in my novel on the late Bill Hicks, my favourite comedian, because I love his acerbic, cynical take on politics and consumerism.
Finally, I believe great protagonists are admirable in how they behave. This might involve a grand act of selfless heroism, a quiet determination in the face of overwhelming odds, or anything in between. In essence, the character must do something that we can see is very difficult for them and which makes us wonder how we would act in similar circumstances. Again, with reference to antiheroes, they often redeem themselves with an act of great self-sacrifice or humility, or they deal with defeat in a way that endears us to them in the end.
There are many other qualities you can throw into the mix, but I feel that these three comprise the base ingredients. I’m curious to know what your core qualities for great protagonists are, too, so share them here, and let's improve the recipe!
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith