One of the most important aspects of writing a novel is creating a protagonist and develop a strong reader-protagonist connection. Following are some details to consider. And by details, I don’t mean these aspects are small—not by a long shot. Added up, they mean the “it” factor for your protagonist. They will add excitement and will help ensure your reader gets behind your main character one-hundred percent.
Creating a Protagonist with a Compelling or Unforgettable Introduction
Whether big or quiet, an unforgettable introduction is important to hooking your reader and getting him or her behind your protagonist. In 11-22-63 A Novel, the high-school teaching protagonist, Jake Epping “not a crying man,” reads an essay from one of his GED students. The essay is about the night when the student’s father came home and killed his mother, sister and brother with a hammer. The child (now an adult) barely escaped and was injured for life. The story and its consequences bring Jake to tears, and from that moment on, the reader is hooked. A small moment—reading an essay and tears—but definitely powerful and unforgettable.
In The Art of Racing in the Rain, we are introduced to Denny Swift and his elderly dog Enzo (through Enzo’s point of view). Denny finds Enzo collapsed and dying. As Denny scoops Enzo into his arms, the reader is instantly connected to the two characters in highly charged emotional terms. When Enzo recounts his and Denny’s story, the reader jumps in for the ride, without hesitation.
Creating a Protagonist, Give Your Character Guts
We readers love a protagonist with flaws to remind us they are human but don’t forget the guts. Katniss in The Hunger Games, Jake in 11-22-63 A Novel, Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny in The Help, Harry Dresden in The Dresden Files series, Lisbeth in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Of course, the famous Harry Potter. These are all characters that readers root for until the end and beyond. No matter if he or she shows courage in big ways or small, funny or serious, a character with guts keeps us reading and remembering long after the last page has been read.
How do you give your character guts? Have them do things (as opposed to things happening to them). Katniss isn’t recruited to the deadly games, she volunteers to save her sister. Minnie doesn’t let Miss Hilly get away with firing her for no reason, Minnie bakes Miss Hilly a pie (if you don’t know why that takes guts, read the book). That pie goes on to have great importance in the later part of the story. Lisbeth shows guts with every page because she’s constantly doing things to advance the plot. When someone is in trouble, Harry Dresden goes in, blasting rod (what he calls his magic wand) blazing. Guts. Readers love ’em.
Creating a Protagonist with Heroic Qualities
Make sure your protagonist has heroic qualities but make sure he doesn’t know it (in other words, keep your protagonist humble!) Jake, the mild-mannered high-school teacher in 11-22-63 lives an unremarkable life. As his life slips quickly into extraordinary, we see him step far out of his comfort zone (and do things!) all the way through the story. Not only does Jake show us his courage as the story progresses, but his compassion for others and his internal moral compass show clearly as he considers what he must do as he goes into the past to stop the assassination of Kennedy.
Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games reveals her courage immediately as the story begins. She has taken on the responsibility of feeding her family and accepts a surly cat she doesn’t like, but does so because of her sister’s love for the animal. Katniss’ responsibility and courage is instantly admirable, but to her, she’s just doing what needs to be done to keep her family alive (there’s the humble part). The reader believes the moment she steps up to take her sister’s place in the games-to-the-death and roots for her all through the three-book series.
Creating a Protagonist with the “It” Factor
Generally speaking, if a character has the “it” factor means he or she is someone special. Memorable. A character with charisma. If you develop your protagonist to have guts, heroic qualities, then add high human value and worth (from Compelling Protagonist Part 1) and if your character cares deeply what is happening in the story and has a compelling inner struggle (from Compelling Protagonist Part 2), then trust me, he or she has the “it” factor.
In case you missed the first two blogs in the Compelling Protagonist series, click here for The Compelling Protagonist: Three No-Fail Writing Techniques and here for Look Inside Your Character to Hook Your Reader (Compelling Protagonist Part 2).
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.
Pitch perfect post, as usual. :o)
Thanks Bobbi 🙂
Kathy- You ALWAYS teach me! Thanks so much!!!
Wow, perfect and detailed! Super 🙂
Thanks Alice! Glad it helped:)
Julie Tallard Johnson
Thank you once again for these helpful reminders and written in a way that isn’t scary. 🙂 The voice of my protagonist is coming through more and more, now and again i think, “I wouldn’t say that!”
You’re a gem of a resource and i shared this with others. julie
Thank you Julie! Don’t you just love it when your protagonist’s voice takes over? That is writing feels like something bigger than me and a place I love to be 🙂
Fascinating, thank you!
I have been a curious student of charisma for many years, and it seems to me that we are magnetically drawn to people who are deeply connected with and quietly accepting of their inner workings and traits/gifts. Inside, they honor themselves first, and that leaks through into all they do.
It sounds like we need to (1) know who our characters are, especially in terms of their inner values and personal philosophy or ideals/morals. Then (2) have them make choices and react naturally in ways that expose their INNER workings, especially (memorably) when at odds with the outside, contradicting:
– how they (claim to) think of themselves,
– the stated goals or rules they hold,
– the apparent danger of their decision,
– typical behavior expected in polite company.
Lots of food for thought, thx!
Terrific thoughts Daria, and your points give lots to think about! I love when a character thinks one thing on the inside, but acts in a different way on the outside, showing a “mask” to the world—who they want the world to see vs. who they really are inside. Makes for some fascinating character dilemma and gives the reader even more insight into who they are through how they want to be seen and therefore act.
Sort of true in real-life too, isn’t it?
These are all great points to keep in mind! Thanks for sharing.
Protagonist Hook: Unique Job and Lifestyle - How To Write Shop
[…] with murder investigations. Being a character with guts and the “it” factor (see Give Your Protagonist the “It” Factor) and with a job that puts her right into the action, how can she do anything but jump in and drive […]
Revision Checklist for Compelling Characters - How To Write Shop
[…] why we love ’em. (For ideas on how to make your readers connect to your character, read The “It” Factor for Your Protagonist or Character Flaw: Make it […]