Last month we looked at three no-fail writing techniques to build a compelling protagonist (if you missed the blog, find it here). A strong reader-protagonist connection is one of the most important aspects and integral to the success of a book. Once a reader connects to your main character, they will go along for the ride and won’t be able to put your book down. Here are two pieces that will help your protagonist hook your reader with character and draw them into the story.
Does your protagonist care deeply about what is happening in the story?
If he or she doesn’t, change it! Seriously. If your answer to “what does your main character care about in the story” and the answer is nothing, guess what? A protagonist that doesn’t care won’t engage the reader. Even if a main character appears on the outside to not care (like Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson) as the story unfolds we do find out everything that happens in her story world affects her deeply as she fights the injustices that have plagued her throughout her life. She doesn’t admit this to herself, though. We read as she convinces herself it’s no big deal, but then takes great pains to correct the wrongs done to her. The reader senses the moment they meet her that beneath her façade she is in turmoil, and we watch helplessly as she keeps other characters away—even those who want to help her.
No one cares more about what is happening around him than Enzo in The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. He cares deeply about his owner Denny Swift, and as the story progresses, Enzo’s concerns in the story grow along with the conflict. He is fully invested in the outcome of the story. We see his emotional involvement (as the author shows us with Enzo’s observations and actions) and this is just one of the reasons the reader falls in love with him from the start.
An important piece of this is to be sure the external goal of your main character is immediate and obvious. Scarlett wants Ashley. Bad. Although the reader knows that is not a worthy goal (and Scarlett changes her goal throughout the story—thus her character growth), fiddle-dee-dee, Scarlett cares and we know it.
Does your protagonist have a compelling inner struggle or dilemma?
One of the most powerful pulls into a story for a reader is the protagonist’s internal dilemma or struggle. Connect the inner struggle to the character’s core fear or need to give the struggle power.
In The Help by Kathleen Sockett, Skeeter, the protagonist, is working on a clandestine project—writing about the lives of black maids in her town. Her fiancé/boyfriend, Stuart Whitworth, is the son of a senator whose political views are completely opposite. If she continues with a project that has become personally important to her as well as her moral compass, she will ruin any chance she has with Stuart in addition to alienating most of her friends. For a girl who has always wanted to fit in, this makes her choices all the more difficult. The reader understands and is drawn in by Skeeter’s inner dilemma.
Give your main character two choices in the story, and make neither one the perfect outcome. For Skeeter she has to give up her chance to fit in and have the life her mother wants for her if she is to do what she knows is right. The more difficult the choice, the more the reader will engage.
Can the reader identify with the protagonist?
The answer is a resounding “YES!” if you complete the two steps above (and the ones from the earlier installment of “The Compelling Protagonist“) your reader will. Guaranteed.
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.