Characterization, On Writing

Novelists: How to Create a Compelling Protagonist

October 25, 2012

Creating a hero? Here are the ‘Dont’s’

You need to make your hero engaging (likable and/or interesting) from the start of your narrative.

After all, he needs to capture our interest from his first appearance – and then be someone who can hold our attention for 200+ pages.

You can do this by making your hero funny in an endearing or fascinating way. In the television series Monk, for example, the title character is cheap, socially inept, and suffers from OCD. But his quirks give rise to various comical situations and the actor who plays him makes him very watchable.

A common way to make the hero engaging is to show what a great guy he is. Good writers do this in  interesting and creative ways.

But your hero doesn’t always need to be an admirably good person.

It’s more of a challenge to create an antihero – but Scarlett O’Hara is one example of how it’s done. Scarlett does not fulfill the typical requirements for a halo – but she fascinates readers. Impetuous, passionate, daring, and driven, it’s mesmerizing to follow her various exploits.

Beyond being engaging, your hero also needs to fulfill certain requirements, if he aims to keep a reader’s attention for the span of a novel. Specifically, most heroes need to be:

  • goal oriented – actively pursues a goal, makes things happen, is not afraid to engage in conflict in pursuit of what he deems is right
  • passionate – if he doesn’t care deeply about achieving his goal, why should the reader?
  • real – he should have some flaws and shortcomings
  • unique – use your creativity and make him memorable in his own right
  • decent – does the right thing, stands up for what’s right
  • admirable – courageous, someone we can respect, someone who acts boldly and takes risks


Remember: a bold hero is a vulnerable hero (one willing to take risks). And vulnerability equates to story tension and suspense. A hero can still be admirable, even if he’s an underdog or down on his luck, so long as he isn’t dumb or a loser or a jerk. The reason for this is the reader would lose respect for the hero. When that happens, the reader closes the book and walks away.

Happy writing!


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