The Best of the Best: Making Believable Protagonists

While not all protagonists are good, it’s true, they are nevertheless an essential ingredient to any story (with a few abstract exceptions). It might seem easy to make a lead character who is generally likeable, and for some it is. But for others, creating a character out of thin air who is both interesting and believable can be a real challenge. This is easily overcome, however, if you practice following a few simple guidelines.

The protagonist is the character or entity that your story is going to spend the most time dealing with, so naturally you want him or her to be well rounded and interesting. There are instances where the lead player does not suit these criteria and yet the story still maintains interest (I give you Vergil’s Aeneid), and there are instances where one can have several protagonists sharing the spotlight (one might make the case here for Aragorn and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings). However, the safest bet for beginners is to make a single likeable protagonist and go from there.

So then, how does one make a character “likeable”? The answer, as with so many things in writing, is that it depends. It depends on such factors as your audience and genre. A teenage dinosaur in space is probably not going to fit in well in a romance book aimed at middle-aged women (exceptions to every rule, I suppose!). But more on audience later. There are some traits that make a universally appealing character. Foremost among them is personality.

It may seem obvious, but if your lead character is dull and 2-dimensional, then readers are not likely going to find him or her of much interest. Of course, you can make up for this with interesting side characters or antagonists, but as the focus here is the protagonist, let’s assume you want readers to like him. Therefore, there has to be something to like. For this, a basic description is a good place to start.

Describing a character can be fun, but it can also be challenging. If you are like me, you like to really go in depth when brainstorming lead characters, thinking of such things as their physical appearance down to the most minute detail, their clothing/armor (every little stitch and curve), and perhaps even their genealogies for several generations back. While this is good, it is also important that you don’t throw too much out there at once. There may be things about your hero that your audience neither needs nor wants to know. So, the skill here comes in letting out info on a need-to-know basis. That is, give your audience a basic overview to begin with, then fill in details as you go–ideally through your character’s actions rather than mere dialogue or description. (This is called ‘showing’ instead of ‘telling,’ and is a good rule to follow for narrative writing in general.)

Once you have established who your protagonist is, it is important to be consistent. This applies to all story details, but especially to characters. If you say your lead character’s hair is red, don’t change it halfway through without explanation. This confuses readers awfully, and can ruin the rest of the book for them depending on how big a booboo it is. The same goes for a character’s actions. If your lead player hates or for some reason can’t consume meat, don’t have a scene of her eating a beef roast and complimenting the chef ten pages later. It’s obvious, but people make these little errors all the time. That’s what editing is for.

One more key aspect (especially for longer works and series that feature the same lead character) is development. While it can get fairly easy to design a satisfactory character with practice, taking that same character and having him or her change over time is a component that even some of the best authors seem to struggle with at times. The fact is, people do generally change over time, if not always a lot, and having a dynamic character (whether in attitude, physical appearance, or anything else) will make him seem much more like a real person, and thus make him more relatable to your average reader.

There are infinite directions you can take development of a lead character. The longer your work is, the more likely you are to take him in more of these directions. Character creation is one of the most fun aspects of fiction writing, and as long as you keep your protagonists consistent and dynamic, your audience will have just as much fun learning about them and the things they do.

Be sure to come back next week for the flip side of the coin: How to make believable villains!

Published by J. S. Allen

J. S. Allen is an author, linguist, historian, and nature-lover based out of Kansas City, Missouri. He has previously published several short pieces in various local and online venues. Among these are the short stories "The Buck" and "The Otter Kit Streamer", which won 1st and 2nd place respectively in the 2015 and 2016 editions of the academic journal, 'Shorelines'. His first novel, 'Sauragia', was published in October of 2020.

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