What’s the best way to initiate a solid protagonist character?
“You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, then you find out who they really are.” – Joss Whedon
Recently, it has become a running theme in the Under the Microscope series where I think a lot about how to create a rapid connection between the reader and the characters. I often find that it takes a chunk of time (sometimes a chapter or more) for the reader to get hooked onto the plot; even setting can take a handful of pages. I find that a compelling character is the quickest way to connect to a reader.
“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” -Ray Bradbury
I’ve talked a bit about what not to do in first chapters, but in this post, I’d like to focus on one area of what to do. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. There are books that have stunning settings and immediate plot twists, but even in those, I personally connect with the character the most. For every page that I don’t feel some sort of connection with the protagonist, the chances increase that I put the book down.
So, what is connecting to the character? What does that mean exactly? A lot of writing advice blogs will tout that sort of power phrase, leaving it up to you to figure out what it means. With this blog, I strive to give as many examples and concrete illustrations as I can. As a new writer, it frustrated me when vague terms were used without anything to back it up.
My only disclaimer before continuing is that none of this is an exhaustive list, in case someone was keeping track of something else I may have missed. There’s always something else, which is the beauty of writing stories. There’s never one definitive list for anything.
“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” – W. Somerset Maugham
I believe most aspects of a reader connecting with a character comes down to four things: empathy, relatability, idolization, and intrigue. Some of these blend together a little, and still, others are difficult to establish immediately, but in my opinion, these are the different tools in your character toolbox. When I start a story, my goal is to introduce at least one of these elements as soon as possible. Let’s take a look at each:
Empathy for your characters is created by having the character go through something that makes the reader feel sorry for him/her. I once heard a Hollywood story formula that described the first act as the part where you chase the character up a tree, the second act is when you throw rocks at him/her, and the third act is when he/she finds a way down. Nobody cares much about the bruises left by the rocks unless the reader cares or empathizes with the character. Think back to a movie you’ve watched where the story really gave the protagonist a hard time. Here are three examples off the top of my head:
- Star Wars: when Luke Skywalker finds the bodies of his aunt and uncle
- The Hunger Games: where the protagonist faces desperation and hunger
- Frozen: where the protagonist faces loneliness while struggling with the danger of her powers
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You can make your characters relatable when they have that “everyman” type of feel. This type of character often has no special powers or abilities, but still accomplishes something great. It appeals to us because we humans have no special powers, yet we all want to do the same thing. With relatable characters, we see a piece of ourselves in them. Here are some examples:
- Frodo from the movie The Lord of the Rings
- Homer Simpson from the television show The Simpsons
- Peter Parker (before he gains spidey powers)
- Christian in the 1678 book The Pilgrim’s Progress
- Pam Halpert from the television show The Office
- Peter LaFlaur from the movie Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. Heck, his gym was even named Average Joe’s Gymnasium.
This one is pretty straightforward. This is where the reader looks up to the character because the character holds some sort of quality that the reader wishes he/she has. It could be anything, like courage, super abilities, humor, leadership, power, beauty, etc. Pardon my French, but often this has to do with the “badass” quality of the character. Who doesn’t want to kick butt like Batman? Here are some examples:
- Walter White from the television show Breaking Bad
- James Bond from any James Bond movie
- Alice from the Resident Evil series
- Jason Bourne from the Bourne series
- Jim Halpert from the television show The Office
- William Wallace from the movie Braveheart
- Vivian Ward from the movie Pretty Woman
The last item concerns characters that are simply gosh-darn intriguing. They don’t have to be empathized with or admired, only interesting. Villains often fall into this category, where they might not fit otherwise. Few people idolize villains, but villains are some of the most intriguing characters in books, television, and movies. Intrigue can come in many forms, anywhere from wondering what made the person who they are to what their plans might be.
Of course, take any advice with a grain of salt. If you focus entirely on character without any movement in the plot or setting, the story would be horribly boring. This is certainly not an article debating whether plot or character is more important. For any successful story, it takes a combination of different spices without allowing any one spice to overwhelm the taste. It takes some talent and a lot of practice to blend them together. But with a gripping character, it can surely increase the odds that your readers will continue flipping the pages.