I have heard and read a lot about how to write a good protagonist. Everyone has their philosophies. The top is that the protagonist must be sympathetic. Nobody wants to read about a character they don’t like. As readers, we have to buy into their story. We have to find ourselves caring. Therefore, introduction of said characters is imperative. For me, the start of a novel is the toughest. I often have editors tell me to cut the first scene down, or add in different elements to make it stronger. “Why should I care about so-in-so?” I don’t feel bad admitting this struggle. Many books begin with a fight scene, car chase, etc. Why? Because it is an easy way to grab attention, and—if done right—captures immediate sympathy for the main character…at least for a time.
Besides sympathy, the secondary trait I hear a lot is that they have to be relatable. As a reader, I have to be able to put myself in their shoes and experience their journey. At the very least, they have to feel like someone I could call a friend. Otherwise, why devote my time?
I’m curious if this second insistence is why I see so many struggling characters this summer. It seems like every book I pick up throws the main character into foreign situations—not unique considering this is the typical hero’s journey—and there are really only two avenues worth exploring. They typical “hero” story will have the character adapt and thrive in the new environment. They find hidden talents and train easy. They have street smarts they never knew and can outmaneuver their counterparts. This summer, authors seem to focus on weaknesses. They flounder, mess up and struggle to adapt while those around them (typically already of this new environment) protect and compensate for them—enter the love interest.
The first scenario is a little more fun to read, but the second is by far the more realistic. The question remains…do I want to read about reality? Typically, when I pick up a book, it is because I want to escape myself and the events surrounding my life—not that those events are horrific, but hopefully you get the point. If I were suddenly asked to fight demonic beings, I would probably not be very successful. I would scream and cry. I would try to fight, fail and probably get my butt kicked. But, do I want to read that…for the entire book?
On some levels, I like the struggle. The suspension of disbelief is stronger when the protagonist used to be a nerdy loner and suddenly turns into a confident warrior. I’ve discussed before how struggling—maybe even failing—actually creates suspense. But I think this can go the other way. If the protagonist has to be saved at every turn…that’s kind of boring. As always in literature, there has to be a happy medium. I just hope the trend in publishing agrees.