20 tips for creating relatable – and lovable – protagonists

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Photo by Alex Brown

Photo by Alex Brown

Keep them reading. That’s our mission, right? And there’s nothing that can hook any reader faster and stronger than a protagonist they can relate to, like, and therefore care about. This is one half of the D in AIDA:

The D in AIDA

So what makes a character likeable?

I took inventory of the most likeable attributes of some of my favorite characters. I also borrowed some of the best advice from the Internet, and compiled it all here for your reading pleasure! Not all of this will apply to every character, but pick the right handful of traits for your hero, work two or three of them into your first page, and you’ll be well ahead of the average aspiring novelist.

Stuff that makes us connect with them

  • They enjoy things – especially the simple things. People who don’t enjoy anything are whiny. People who like things are fun to be around, both in real life and in books
  • They have flaws, but not unforgivable ones – flaws they must realize and overcome (Donald Maass writes about flaws and strengths here)
  • When they make bad choices, there are consequences – otherwise it’s a Mary Sue
  • They express universal truths – this doesn’t have to be deeply philosophical, just a little detail that everyone notices but nobody has put into words yet. Like how hard is it to drive in high heels (okay, maybe that one’s semiversal).
  • They want something deeply for personal reasons – this is the most important trait. They are in love. They are slaves. They’ve never met their real father. Etc. Even if your protagonist is a villain trying to take over the universe, he should have a personal reason for doing it (e.g., so that no one can ever hurt him again). We should feel this on the first page.

Stuff that’s just plain likeable

  • They have pets – especially if the pet is stupid, ugly, or smelly
  • They have the chance to be mean but aren’t – even characters who are jerks most of the time, but nice to one person (who must be weak or an underdog), or are nice when it matters most, are lovable (Blake Snyder calls this “saving the cat“)
  • They don’t realize how awesome they are – other characters like them better than they like themselves (this doesn’t mean they need to be totally insecure – just a little)

 

Stuff that makes us root for them

  • They are unlucky – Stanley Yelnats from Holes is unlucky but perpetually hopeful anyway, and it makes us love him
  • They defend the innocent – and/or stand up for the underdogs
  • They want to run away from danger, but don’t – the definition of courage
  • They are loyal – even a character who lies, cheats, and steals, but still sticks up for his friends, is likable

Book Country advises:

  • We don’t have to like what they do: we have to understand why they do it
  • Never let coincidence help a good character

Elise Broach adds:

  • They should be in love or in trouble (or both) on the first page
  • Avoid whiny, passive or cruel
  • Shoot for: spunk, persistence, courage, kindness, ingenuity, loyalty, humour
  • But be careful with spunk/sass – now getting overused
Neil Landau and Matt Frederick suggest these devices for getting to know your character:
  • Create memorable entrances – what would you notice about them meeting them the first time? Their charm, or clumsiness? Their laugh, or their uneasy silence?
  • Use props – what your character carries with him everywhere, or keeps in an honored place in his bedroom, can tell you a lot about him

QUESTION FOR THE COMMENTS: What protagonists do you connect with most? What makes you like them?

Stay tuned: next week, we’ll talk about more stuff you need to include in the first pages.

puppy dog

Ways to make your readers love your main character.

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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24 Comments

  1. Very useful thoughts, as usual. This is closely tied into where to start your story, isn’t it? At least in part. What scene you start with has to show a lot about the protagonist. It’s not an easy balance, though. A lot of books I read have boring protagonists, or unlikable ones, and it is the secondary characters that keep me reading.

    • True! Very closely tied. And if all goes According to Plan, this Friday I’ll expound further on opening scenes and what to include in the first few pages (I’m still doing research). Hopefully it’ll help you decide where to open your WIP. I know I’m already rethinking mine.

      I usually like the protagonists in the books I read. But there have been a few books in which I didn’t. It usually boils down to specific decisions they make that make me mad, though, rather than a bad personality, or a lack of one.

      • I’m still trying different things… because of the story’s intended tone, I am playing with an intro that sets more atmosphere than action. It might not work, but I am going to see if it does. One of my problems is that I am working on two stories, one of which is the sequel to the other, at the same time… in some ways this helps, while in others it complicates matters.

        I am picky about personalities of protagonists. I get attached to secondary characters most of the time, usually the ones who get killed, which can make reading a painful experience.

        • Two at once! It does sound complicated, but it also sounds like a good idea. You’ll be able to sync the themes and motifs in both books as you come up with them. I’m not writing two at once, but I always keep the next two books in the trilogy in mind, frequently work at the plots of all three, and occasionally can’t resist writing a scene or two. That seems to help, since the three books aren’t strictly chronological. Why do we have to make things so complicated for ourselves???

  2. really helpful.
    Rosie

  3. It’s helpful to me to work on both at once because I get burnt out on one and can switch to the other. I write scenes, or possible scenes, to several stories at once, but I am trying to go chronologially with these two to prevent my insanity from increasing. 😉 Of course, the tone of the two stories are very different, which is making things tricky… there is a different main protagonist in the two stories too, which I guess accounts for some of the shift in tone.
    Not strictly chronological! I like it when a series mixes things up like that. Is it possible not to make things more complicated for ourselves? If so, I would love to know how.

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  7. Short, to the point, and very helpful. Thank you!

    Iulian

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  10. As proof your words don’t just lie there doing nothing, I’m leaving this comment on a post you wrote years ago. I found it while searching for inspiration on characters I’m developing for my newest novel project. This is real, actionable advice, something unfortunately lacking in most material I’m finding on the topic. Thanks!

  11. Great info! Thanks for posting this!

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  14. Another thing that makes a character likeable is humour. Unfortunately this is underused in too many protagonists. Having a main character (especially in first person) who can really make you laugh makes them a rare treasure 🙂

  15. Wow, this is really helpful advise. Thank You so much! 🙂

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