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.