What is the number one factor that keeps people turning pages to read on? The characters. But most importantly, the lead character or protagonist. Once a reader is urged to read because they are hooked by the idea of the book (see Writing a Page-Turning Novel: What’s the Big Idea?) why do they continue to read on into the night? Because they care about what happens to the characters, specifically, the protagonist.
As you write a novel, making your reader fall in love with your protagonist is tricky business. Write your protagonist too perfect, and they will come across as flat and unbelievable. Not to mention, boring. But in the attempt to write them as interesting and conflicted, they may become unlikable and your reader will disassociate—which means, they will get bored and stop reading. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of putting down a book (or turned off a movie) because you just didn’t care what happened to the characters. You don’t care, you have no connection to them, so you get bored.
Notice the common denominator in the above balancing act? Bored. As Mark Twain once said: “Thou shall not bore the reader.” Remember, the goal when you write a novel, especially a page-turner, is to entertain the reader and keep them engaged page after page.
So how do you create a captivating lead character and cause your reader to fall in love with your protagonist? Here are some writing tips.
Create an immediate opportunity for your protagonist to show his true character.
The phrase Hollywood has coined for this is a “save the cat moment” and Blake Snyder has written a fantastic book on screenwriting (that is terrific for writing fiction as well) called Save the Cat! This refers to the moment, early on in the story, that calls for us to sympathize with the protagonist. Does he or she really have to save a cat? Or something or someone? Nope. Simply put, he does/says/thinks something that reveals his true (good) character. This is extremely important if we are going to be immediately introduced to this character’s dark side—see him act less than honorably. Or not so bravely, or kindly. It is important to give a glimpse of the protagonist’s good side, so we (the reader) know that redemption is possible.
In The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, we meet Enzo, an old family dog. He’s decided it’s time to let go of his life—such as it is—mostly because his owner, Denny, needs to be free so he can “be brilliant” and Enzo, as an old dog, saddles Denny with his medical problems. Enzo also loves humans and hopes to be reincarnated as one. When the story then goes back in time to when Denny brings Enzo home as a puppy, we love, love, love that dog. (And if you think an animal can’t be written as a fully realized, developed character, check out this book.)
Odd Thomas, a character who is a medium (communicates with ghosts) in Dean Koontz’s novel of the same name, wants nothing more than to be left alone to live a quiet life. In the first chapter, we see him go after a child-molester/killer with no plan, weapon, or regard for his own safety. Throughout the book, he insists to us (and himself) that he is just an ordinary guy, not anyone special or brave, yet we have proof from the beginning that he is far from ordinary. So when some unknown force threatens the small town Odd lives in, we know he’ll step up.
A funny twist to “save the cat” is in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. From the first page it’s clear the protagonist, Katniss is a survivalist in a harsh world. Her sister and Mother depend on her for food and their survival. When an ugly, mangy kitten comes into their lives, the last thing Katniss needs is another mouth to feed. She decides to drown him. Because her little sister, Prim, loves the kitten and begs her not to, Katness spares the kitten and lets him stay. Not so much save the cat as don’t harm the cat.
Give your protagonist high value or worth.
This is important to hook your readers, because the more needed your character is, the more we’ll worry about their well-being. In The Help by Kathryn Sockett, we meet Aibileen, a black woman who, as a maid, also looks after her employer’s little girl. In just a few pages we see that the only true, unconditional love for the child comes from Aibileen, which makes her of immense value in the reader’s eyes. We find out this little girl is the eighteenth child Aibileen has raised, and we know every one of them benefited from Aibileen’s love and care.
In the three novel examples from above, we see the high worth of each protagonist. Katniss’ family relies on her for survival. That’s high value on the first page. Enzo is a beloved, highly insightful family dog who is an integral emotional support piece to a family with big trouble. And Odd Thomas—because of his gift as a medium—is the only person in his small town who realizes something terrible is going to happen and countless innocent people will die unless he stops the unknown threat. Each of these characters shows their value and worth from the first chapter.
Make your lead care about someone other than himself.
Going back to our examples, we see Katniss’ sister chosen to participate in the Hunger Games—and we know before she does it, Katniss will step up and take her sister’s place. Enzo the dog definitely puts his human, Denny before himself. We watch as Denny’s family grows and Enzo welcomes each one—even the new wife who makes him a bit jealous, but he puts their needs first. Aibileen loves the little girl she takes care of even though she knows her attachment will most likely break her heart. In every above example, the protagonist cares about someone or something more than themselves. Do this, every time you create a protagonist and begin a story, and we will fall in love with the protagonist, or at the least, forgive him a multitude of sins.
If you can hit all these marks with your lead character, you are on your way to writing a page-turner with a captivating protagonist your reader won’t be able to put down.