Character Traits Every Reader Wants for the Protagonist

In fiction, your main character or protagonist is the center hub, around which your story turns. Most of us have heard that this character must be likeable, but how does the writer accomplish this? With thanks to Ray Obstfeld, (Fiction First-Aid), I’m going to broaden this target–your protagonist must be at least one of the following : likeable, compelling or redeemable.
Let’s start today with likeable.
You might make your protagonist morally good, smart, brave or dedicated, yet the reader may not care about him or her. Why? Because as in politics, most of us prefer someone with charisma. We are reading to be entertained.
Writing Tip for Today: How can you make your protagonist more likeable? Here are three ways.

  • Give the character a sense of humor. You will showcase your character’s sense of humor through dialogue and internal monologue (interior thoughts). A reader who is laughing probably will keep reading. Recently, two different student writers working on historical romances learned in group feedback that their heroines were a bit timid and seemed inactive or blah. Both writers did a fantastic job of “spunking up” their lead characters through the addition of dialogue and interior thoughts with attitude. The customs of the era prevented the characters from doing “spunky” things, but when their attitudes were pumped up through their comments and thoughts, we as readers suddenly cared about those characters.
  • Give your character a seemingly impossible task. Improve your protagonist’s likeability by adding some type of competition, a deadline (time is running out) or making him face overwhelming odds (like David & Goliath).
  • Give your character an emotional motive for his actions. This is the “emotional gut appeal” Donald Maass writes about in Writing the Breakout Novel. Some examples would be: justifiable revenge, attempted reconciliation after estrangement, a promise made to a dying loved one.
  • Give your character intelligence that promises insight. Use internal monologue (thoughts) to develop this trait with the promise that the hope of a “wisdom” payoff is what keeps us reading.
  • Tomorrow: Making Your Protagonist Compelling.

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4 comments on “Character Traits Every Reader Wants for the Protagonist

  1. Hey Linda, thanks for posting this as i’ve had real difficulty trying to give one of my two main characters in a mystery novel a sense of humour that will engae my reader.

    So far your posts have helped loads but i commented on this one because it has exactly what i’m looking for,Thanks again and happy writtig.

  2. I need help with my protagonist. My one act play has just completed a 2-week run, I want to do a rewrite and add a second act. However, My protagonist is not likeable. In fact, there is disagreement over several people who saw the play about who is the protagonist or main character. I’m not sure where to go from here.

    • Hi Gerry,
      Is there a way for you to name what people are objecting to? If they say, “The character’s situation didn’t seem urgent,” try raising the stakes of the play. All main characters must pass the “so what?” test. If not and if the above tips don’t help, I suggest you read the Breakout Novel by Maass and Story by Robert McKee. McKee uses film to illustrate his points. Hope this helps! ~Linda

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