Some more words of wisdom from James Scott Bell today, on how to make your protagonist someone the audience will bond with (see what I did there?). This is obviously pretty important and I mostly do it by instinct, relying on the idea that because I found the character’s story interesting enough to tell the reader will find it interesting enough to follow. But that’s not really enough – it’s relying on the action to suck people in, rather than having independently interesting characters. So let’s apply some theory.
Bell breaks it down into four key dynamics:
The ability of the reader to identify with the protagonist is vital because it’s usually how the reader accesses the plot. In genre writing that can seem like a bit of a challenge – how many of your readers are elven archers or goblin mercenaries? – but it really all comes down to the characterisation. Do they behave like other people? Do they get angry, confused, have a penchant for peanut butter on toast, or need the toilet occasionally? These are the things that people can connect with. Identification was a major problem for me in Spiritus because the protagonist was from a fairly alien culture. The way I made her empathetic was through her fear of rejection and her often strained relationships with her family. Those are two things that could transcend fantasy and foreign cultures, allowing the reader a way in.
This differs from identification because it’s about whether the reader cares, rather than connects. This is the point of emotional investment. The protagonist is in trouble (physically or emotionally), or suffering some ongoing hardship. This kind of ties into plot but it’s the character’s reaction to the situation that generates sympathy, rather than the situation itself.
The key to using hardship is not to allow the character to whine about it. Sure, there can be moments when the character lashes out emotionally due to the hardship, but don’t let her stay there. We admire those who take steps to overcome. ~ James Scott Bell
This can be a tricky one, especially if your protagonist is deliberately not a likeable person. I’m going to cite Thea, the protagonist from Spiritus, again here – she’s arrogant and has definite sociopathic tendencies. Combined with an alien culture, how do I get the reader to like her? I compensate. She does have some good qualities, such as loyalty or courage, which the reader can like her for. On the flip side, if your protagonist IS a nice person, be careful not to make them too nice. Nobody’s perfect and those that are portrayed without flaws often end up as the least interesting and likeable characters.
4) Inner conflict
Okay, all together now – ‘conflict is the key to stories’. But this isn’t about the action, this is about the character. Reason vs. passion, duty vs. desire, money vs. morals – these are the internal debates that bring someone to life and make them interesting. It’s also the keystone of the character arc, allowing them to struggle with their inner demons and then triumph.
By the way, there’s no harm in thinking about these four dynamics whilst considering your antagonist as well. Villains who are bad because they’re bad are boring and unbelievable. Give your enemy all the benefits that your protagonist gets and you’ll get a stronger character on both sides.