My view on creating the perfect protagonist is like my take on how to create the perfect villain – you shouldn’t, you mustn’t try to create perfection… ever!
Many people believe that a protagonist is a good guy or a gal who is squeaky clean with a perfect personality. The character’s hair is always brushed neatly, teeth are gleaming white. No bad history, no criminal record – never had a parking ticket and always… always knows how to deal with every situation morally and ethically.
I hate this character already! This character is not a true representation of real humans. No one has their hair brushed neatly all the time! No one!
As humans, we are flawed and make bad decisions, we hurt people, both intentionally and unintentionally – it’s in our DNA. You take this away, you are left with an emotionless robot. Which is not good… unless your protagonist is an emotionless robot, of course. But for those of you who have human protagonists, you need to make them realistic and relatable.
Readers are a longing to care about your protagonist. They want to get to know them and understand their reasoning, their good qualities and their bad ones. And once your readers start to care about your protagonist, they will read on and hopefully enjoy your story.
Don’t get me wrong, the protagonist is usually trying to do the right thing and that’s why it is a good idea to put him or her in difficult situations. If you have created and developed a character you fully understand and the reader can relate to, the character will make decisions accordingly and the story will just write itself, figuratively speaking.
Develop your character
You need to develop your character’s personality – what makes him or her tick. What they believe in, what they stand for, etc. You must also develop their vulnerabilities, fears and issues. Perhaps they have a nice and friendly character but if they get hungry they get incredibly hangry! They become moody and cranky and say things they regret later. Or maybe they are very good generally but make some questionable choices when trying to progress in their career. Or they’re scared of flying, spiders or clowns, or all three. You get where I’m going with this, right?
I love stories that when you first meet a character they are still learning, developing and making mistakes – kind of like observing Spiderman first use his powers and failing. It’s a fantastic way of making them relatable even if they are superhuman bad-asses! Readers will be far more invested in a character if they accompany him or her while they are on their journey of growth or self-discovery.
If you are creating a character who is already developed and at their peak, you need to get a little creative with how to show them. Perhaps they could lose what they had or maybe they want more and their ambition turns to greed and starts to destroy them.
Push your protagonist to his or her limits
Another way of developing your protagonist is to push him or her to breaking point and see if they make or break. This shows the reader exactly who they are. You see this in some great books; one being Gone by Michael Grant. When people are faced with incredibly difficult situations, another version of themselves surfaces. This version begins to define who they really are.
When I wrote The Refugee, I created a character called Ahmed, who was a proficient university professor. An upright, law-abiding citizen who was dead against violent resolutions, but when he loses everything and his son is kidnapped, something inside him snaps and becomes a completely different version of himself. He makes choices that his previous self would have never condoned.
The bottom line with creating a protagonist is developing them in a way that resembles a person in real life – and in real life, people do scary things in scary situations.