I was recently introduced to the Writing Excuses podcast. (“Fifteen minutes, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart!”) Always in the market for more tricks about building likeable protagonists, I picked out that particular episode.
This is my current recipe for a likeable protagonist:
- Something interesting about the person themselves, whether it be a hobby, a personality flaw, color-changing eyes, etc.
- A goal that the character wants very, very much
- A need that the character has that they may not know about
This has served me well in my own books. It even works for unlikeable protagonists–people will follow a jerk as long as they have a strong goal. It’s why The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is so fascinating–watching Bogart try to steal ALL THE GOLD is riveting, even though we despise him for it. (Also, “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”)
In the podcast, they pointed out a few more important ingredients that I’d never thought of:
They mentioned that you may have a character who is an assassin. They go out and kill people as part of their job. Yet they’re never held accountable for it–never brought to trial in whatever fantasy world they move in.
Responsibility is another big one. A character needs to have responsibilities, even if it’s something as small as feeding their cat. The character needs human connections, responsibilities, things to care about. This is a great way to make the reader to care about them, too. “They have to look after their disabled little brother? Awww!”
Last, we have the stakes. The character has to stand to lose something if they fail to accomplish their goal. James Scott Bell says that it always has to be death–either emotional death (the romantic couple break up!), professional death (if the young lawyer loses this case, he’ll be disbarred!) or physical death (he’ll be sleeping with the fishes).
In the podcast, they mentioned that in a lot of new authors’ manuscripts, the hero is the least interesting character. To my chagrin, here they dissected Harry Potter. They pointed out that Hermione has a very strong, clear goal (good grades). What’s Harry’s goal? Darned if I know. Same with Bella from Twilight (hey, if we knock one, we gotta knock the other).
So that’s my food for thought about likeable heroes. Heck, it works for an unlikeable character like Katniss. She’s not exactly somebody you’d want to friend on Facebook, but she’s got what it takes to break the Hunger Games, and that’s why we follow her adventures.
I’ve started dabbling in the world of video book reviews. Here’s my review of the Dragon and the Scholar Saga by H.L. Burke (dragon romance!)