What’s in a Protagonist?

I’m back! November has been insane but here’s a new post ready to be read for December since I’m getting back on track with writing.

My Thanksgiving weekend consisted of the standard relaxing and eating good food. But one little point stood out to me. And that was the movie my brother and I went to see.

Nightcrawler. I’d never heard of it before, but I decided to check it out in the name of spending time with family and enjoying my evening. To sum it up it tells the story of a man who takes up work as a “freelance journalist” filming crime and accidents in the area and selling them to major news organizations. Slight spoiler alert…he ends up taking things a bit too far.

Really, he ends up being a bit of a psychopath… but as I’ve read many psychopaths are, he’s charming and kind of funny in his own quirky kind of way, and he knows how to draw people in with ease. So in spite of it all, it’s difficult to really hate him the way you’d think would be so easy.

As I sat there that evening thinking over my emotional reaction, I wondered about what really makes a protagonist an audience can follow. I recently read Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure for class and had trouble stomaching it simply because I hated all of the main characters. I didn’t find anyone I really liked or admired. So I brushed it off as disliking the characters as my reason for not having any interest in the play.

But was that the cause? If I can become interested in the story of someone with such low morals, then does character really play that big of a role? Or is simply a matter of story, or other elements that form my opinions?

I was recently working on a book and thought about how my character’s low self-esteem might negatively effect readers opinions of her. I was worried maybe because the classic “to get others to love you you must love yourself” might ruin my story. But now I’m not really sure anymore.

If you google greatest literary characters you end up with types like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Hermione Granger in Harry Potter, Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, Sherlock Holmes, Tintin, Gatsby from The Great Gatsby, Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, Hamlet, Matilda, Jane Eyre, The Cat in the Hat, Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, Beatrice in Muchado About Nothing, Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables, Frankenstein’s monster, Captain Ahab from Moby Dick, Peter Pan, Pip from Great Expectations etc etc etc . Try it yourself and see what pops up or check out NPR’s 100 best listed here.

What are the similarities between all of these? Nothing other than all being entirely dissimilar. We have little girls and old men, romantics and obsessed madmen, lawyers and detectives, monsters and men, magical and utterly normal, super smart and somewhat dull, animals and humans, royalty, millionaires, crooks, orphans, and more. Everyone has their own favorites, but those who seem to be universally recognized in some capacity still remain quite different, not the standard heroes one might think would first be listed.

So is there an ideal main character type? Audiences often hate larger than life perfect ones, but someone selfish and rude or utterly prideful might push them away too. How does one build a perfect character? That is a tricky question to be sure.

Does anyone have any smart ideas on what makes for a good main character? Is there a way to build an ideal type that most people will like, or is it just a random process? I’m tempted to start doing character studies after this and find out what seems to be a common theme amongst them. But for now I’m simply left to ponder.

Any thoughts from my readers? Is there a certain character you love the most? What characters on mainstream lists do you most agree are legendary fictional achievements? What do you like to do in making your own characters.

Well, hoping to be back writing regularly for the rest of the month. Be on the lookout for more!



Filed under Reading, Writing

7 responses to “What’s in a Protagonist?

  1. Great post! My favorite book of all time is To Kill A Mockingbird, which I read in junior high. And, of course, Atticus Finch is my favorite character. What I loved about him was how he stayed true to what he believed in. It made him seems self-confident and comfortable with himself. Then we can throw in kind and wise, etc. But the knowing himself for who he was, and what he believed was right and wrong, those are the things that drew me to him. I love a character who is at home in their own skin.

    • I adore Atticus! Definitely one of my favorites as well. 🙂 If not for the fact that I personally knew a very obnoxious frustrating person named Atticus it is probably the name I would choose for my son. Definitely a fantastic one, thanks for responding!

  2. So you’ve been browsing for characters! In answer to your question, I think good characters write themselves. They acquire a voice and you have to respect that. And they don’t have to be nice – cf Gone Girl, the Magicians trilogy – you wouldn’t want to have coffee with those people but you do want to know what they do next, even if you have to peep through your fingers…

    • I love reading posts about characters. I think they are fantastically interesting to examine in detail. Great answers! I definitely would have to agree.

  3. heatherjacksonwrites

    Character is a tough one. I’ve been mulling over a potential main character for months now! Actually, I’ve been trying to choose between two. (Blogged about that today too: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/choose-main-character/.) Often it comes down to personal taste. I have books I LOVE that friends of mine dislike because of the main character, and vice versa. Just like not everyone gets along in real life, not everyone enjoys the same characters. Suffice to say, the only thing you can do is make your characters interesting and compelling, not necessarily likeable, so that the reader must find out what they do next.

  4. Not liking – or rather, not caring enough – about any of the characters seems a great reason not to enjoy a play or a book. But having a self-depreciating hero or heroine is another thing entirely. So I would guess it all comes down to whether you can see beyond their own perception of themselves (low self-esteem) to something more. Good luck with the writing and thanks for visiting my blog!

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