Who Are We Rooting For, Part 2: The Protagonist

Yesterday I talked about ensuring that the audience is rooting for the character you want them to, with techniques focusing on the antagonist. But as came up in one of my points, the protagonist is often—if not predominantly—a good part of the problem. So what can we do with protagonists to keep them in the audience’s favor?

The most logical choice is the moral high ground. Yes, even if you’re dealing with a gray on gray antihero dogpile. A couple of admirable virtues in among the moral gray, a strong code, and you at least have something to point to and say “This is why we are rooting for her”, assuming you present it well. It helps to have a legitimate moral high ground as well—in gray and gray situations, this is often done by invoking the More Evil Fish. Another good plan for stories that already have a clear good and evil dichotomy is to keep the character from being overly black and white about it—even if the plot doesn’t nuance, characters themselves can and often do.

More important, though, is to have them do something. There is nothing that kills audience interest these days like a character being more motivated by the plot’s needs than by her own. Yes, I know, it’s a narrative pattern that evil acts and good reacts, due to some sort of Issue involving ambition having become the root of all evil… but that’s not what I mean. At some point, your main character needs to stop being Done To and start Doing. It can be difficult to make this clear, since some things that seem to you like character agency might seem otherwise to your readers—one thing that I find helps is to take a situation, look at what your character’s doing, and ask, “Does she have reason to do this? What does she think it will accomplish?” This last part is particularly important; there are a lot of times when you know that the character doing something will do her some sort of narrative good, but there’s no reason for the character herself to have any idea.

Don’t make her situation too easy. A character who’s always ahead is likely to come out as the big overbearing favorite to the antagonist’s underdog—particularly if her lead is in large part due to deus ex machina twists, abilities that were always there since two minutes ago, and other means of the narrative twisting itself around to accommodate her. On the other hand, if the protagonist is working for her victories—and working harder than her opposite number, at that—it usually helps, and almost never hurts.

If you’re dealing with a first-person narrator, give them an interesting voice. Note that much though I love the type, interesting doesn’t necessarily mean snarky these days (particularly not in urban fantasy, where most of the genre seems populated by snarky first-person narrators, so that for some people the snark actually makes the character more generic). Attitude helps a great deal, as does an idiosyncratic way of looking at the world.

Show their virtues, don’t just tell them. It’s not that I think every character should be selfless and pleasant and so on and so forth—but if they’re going to be unselfish, loving, intelligent, or whatever it pays for them to actually be that way rather than just having the narrative say they are. When a character’s positive qualities come across as informed attributes, and particularly when they’re contradicted by the character’s actions, it’s a quick turnoff.

Last of all, if you’re not sure which of these tactics you need to prioritize, run both characters in context by someone else. Preferably several someone elses. It’s easy for us to miss the kinds of mistakes that turn our protagonists into annoyances and our antagonists into the unsung heroes.

3 comments

  1. Michael says:

    Excellent points. Another important one is: don’t make them too perfect. There are obvious reasons for this aside from the current topic — imperfection is more realistic, and it adds a lot to the suspense if the audience can doubt whether the character will make the right choice — but it’s also true that a character being too perfect can really stop the audience rooting for them.

  2. UZ says:

    Identity! You can’t root for someone if you don’t know who they are, and the more complicated the world gets the more we need to know who this person would be without all the technical stuff. Many fantasy characters turn into hatracks for the metaphysics, defined largely by the way they reflect them (see Jedi, Order Mages &c).

  3. Ravyn says:

    Michael: No kidding. “Things are going wrong for this person how, again?” “Dang it, does she ever mess up?” I know that I have a huge soft spot for the characters who get screwed over by making completely logical mistakes, and then work through it anyway, and those perfect characters are anything but.

    UZ: Good one! (I think from now on, whenever I see one of those metaphysical hatracks, I may have to imagine them with an odd collection of hats stuck willy-nilly on them. Probably undignified ones.)

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