One of the most important aspects of a page-turner is a strong reader-protagonist connection. No matter what your protagonist goes through within your story world, tie your reader emotionally to the lead and his or her outcome, and you have a book a reader won’t be able to put down. Here are some writing tips and techniques for creating a protagonist and help you do just that.
Does your protagonist have a “Save the Cat” moment?
“Save the Cat” came from the movie industry. Save-the-Cat guru Blake Snyder has three books (Save the Cat!, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies, and Save the Cat! Strikes Back) focusing on marketable screenwriting, but no matter what form your fiction takes, his advice on audience-protagonist connection is invaluable. The Save-the-Cat scene is near the beginning of the movie or book. The reader (or audience) experiences the hero doing something good and brings the audience to his side to root for him. A Save-the-Cat scene forges exactly what you (as the writer) want—a strong connection between the reader and protagonist.
After I read Save the Cat! I noticed this while watching an old movie, Romancing the Stone. There is a scene where the Michael Douglas character aims his rifle at the bad guy who is running away. Douglas has a chance to kill the man by shooting him in the back, but he doesn’t. Despite his rough, rude, threatening ways, the audience knows from that moment on, deep down inside he is a good guy.
In The Hunger Games, the author puts an ironic twist on the Save-the-Cat moment when the lead character, Katniss, decides what to do with an actual stray cat. Katniss’ (who is responsible for her family’s survival) can’t afford the extra food it would take to feed the cat. The fact that it’s a surly, smelly, ugly, beat-up cat doesn’t help. However, her sister, Prim, takes the cat into her heart and loves it so much, Katniss learns to tolerate it. This decision shows the reader that Katniss cares deeply about her sister, a motivation that will come in handy as a plot driver through the entire series of books. Plus, the cat continues on to have an important emotional subtext throughout the stories.
Blake Snyder uses Cinderella Man as an example of a classic Save-the-Cat moment when the lead character (the story happens during the Depression) gives his daughter his only food—a slice of bologna. This Cinderella Man example is not only a great Save-the-Cat moment, it incorporates the next tip—make the protagonist care about someone more than himself…
Does your lead care about others? Does he care about someone or something more than himself?
Show your protagonist cares about others and we begin to fall in love. This aspect of the lead also gives you (the writer) a tool to make the reader worry. You can build suspense by putting the loved one at risk and give the protagonist (as well as the reader) some constant internal angst as the story stakes rise.
In Odd Thomas, Odd cares about his girlfriend, Stormy Lewellyn. He puts her first. Adores her. His caring reveals to the reader his gentle, sweet side. He puts Stormy and her well-being before his. Who doesn’t fall in love with a guy like that?
Katniss cares so much about her sister, Prim, that when Prim is chosen in the Hunger Games lottery, Katniss volunteers to take her place. One decision/action and the story begins. The reader is not only on Katniss’ side, but a main character trait is revealed—protecting those she cares about or who are weaker than her. This will cause her a huge internal dilemma as she needs to kill such people to survive the games.
If the one thing the lead cares about is a moral belief, this will drive the story and motivations from deep within the character. Like Katniss, Harry Dresden (in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books) cares about those weaker than himself. He believes it is his moral duty to protect those weaker, which gets him in trouble time after time. This trait also paves the way for a story that gets him deeper into trouble (the make-it-worse part of plot) with every page.
In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, journalist and magazine owner Blumkvist cares about the truth and stops at nothing to uncover and spotlight the wrongdoing and foul play of men who abuse their power. He shines a journalistic light of truth, no matter how ugly or what peril he might cause himself.
Does your lead have high human value and worth?
The previous techniques feed in to a character having high human value, certainly, but think of other ways to give your character value and worth in the eyes of your reader. A journalist or detective who has the integrity to go after the truth, a cop or anyone who has a need to protect the weak, a parent with a family depending on him, a judge who rules fairly and for justice no matter what it might cost her politically or personally, the bread-winner of a poor family, a caregiver who puts others first, a volunteer, someone with a dangerous job who helps people (firefighter, police chief, trail guide)…brainstorm until you hit on yet another reason for your reader to connect to your lead. Give a character a higher purpose…one who is after the truth, or justice, or any number of qualities that will forge a connection between the reader and your character.
Use any one or better yet, all of these three techniques and you are well on your way to writing a bestselling protagonist.
Award-winning novelist Kathy Steffen teaches fiction writing and speaks at writing programs across the country. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, Between the Lines. Her books, FIRST THERE IS A RIVER, JASPER MOUNTAIN and THEATER OF ILLUSION are available online and at bookstores everywhere.