Not all protagonists are created equal. Some are overtly heroic, while others can look cowardly or even villainous.
There are ten primary middle grade protagonist archetypes for you to choose from:
- Classic Hero
- Willing Hero
- Everyday Hero
- The Prodigy
- Reluctant Hero
- The Misfit
- Tragic Hero
- Lost Soul
The choices you make about your protagonist will either draw readers closer to your story or they’ll push them away. Here are ten different protagonist archetypes for you to consider as you prepare to write your manuscript.
1) Classic Hero
The classic hero is the stuff of myth and legend. He’s courageous and he always does the right thing—especially when the odds are stacked against him.
Often these classic heroes have divine genetics or extraordinary super powers.
They are symbols of hope whose very presence allows mere mortals to sleep peacefully. In Greek mythology, we get the stories of Hercules. Comic books give us Superman.
Writing characters with god-like power can be fun for a while, but the excitement doesn’t last long.
After all, there isn’t much drama when it comes to classic heroes because nothing can defeat them. Without drama, readers will become disinterested and then drift away.
Pro Tip: Think about characters like Percy Jackson in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & The Olympians. As he ages to an adult, he’ll likely become a classic hero.
However, a great way to make a classic hero relatable is to explore the years when they are coming into power. It’s the perfect subject matter for a middle grade book series.
After all, your readers might not have powers but they understand what it means to struggle as an adolescent who is quickly turning into a young adult.
If your middle grade protagonist already has reached maximum power, then give him inner-conflict to make him more relatable to your audience.
2) Willing Hero
Willing heroes are willing to run into danger without thinking twice. It doesn’t matter if they have the skills or ability to succeed (or even survive for that matter), the willing hero will jump into action while everyone else runs away.
Oftentimes the willing hero believes that a life without action isn’t a life worth living.
He’s an adrenaline junkie who needs a fix. The greater the obstacle, the better. If there’s a challenge to overcome, he’s first in line to take it on.
From the outside looking in, it may appear like bravery and fearlessness. However, upon closer inspection the willing hero can be a bit foolhardy as he takes unnecessary risks.
Pete Mitchell is an example of a willing hero. You probably know him better by his codename: Maverick. In the movie Top Gun, Maverick is the best pilot in the Navy but other pilots think he’s dangerous because of the risks he takes. Those risks arguably killed best friend.
Another fun example is Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) in Big Trouble in Little China. He’s cocky but somehow between Russell’s performance, John Carpenter’s Direction, and Gary Goldman’s script, he’s more than tolerable—he’s actually lovable.
Pro Tip: The willing hero isn’t relatable to many heroes. After all, how many people are willing to risk their lives to free climb El Capitan or to walk a tight wire across the Grand Canyon.
If you decide to go with a willing hero as your protagonist, you can make him relatable by allowing your readers to understand why he’s willing to risk everything.
Give him a vulnerability or make him tortured so the only reason he feels alive is when he risks his life.
3) Everyday Hero
The everyday hero is just what is sounds like—an ordinary person who gets caught up in a heroic tale.
It makes for a relatable protagonist considering that most readers are ordinary people living ordinary lives. However, rarely do they get the chance to go on a high adventure, and that’s why an everyday hero is so compelling.
In a sense, the readers start to imagine themselves as the protagonist. When that happens, the story becomes personal.
The challenge with an everyday hero is that they don’t make terribly interesting protagonists.
After all, their pathetically average by definition and people who are reading your book to escape reality might prefer a story about someone who is a bit more aspirational.
My favorite everyday hero is played by Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan. His character, Captain John H. Miller of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, is actually a history teacher.
He doesn’t look extraordinary, and for most of the movie he doesn’t do anything extraordinary, either. However, when needed, he rises to the challenge in the most extraordinary ways.
An underdog can come in all shapes, sizes, genders, ages, and ethnicities. They all have one thing in common, though—they’re expected to lose. And why wouldn’t they?
They’re either too short, too skinny, too fat, too ugly, too slow, too poor, too old, or worse—none of that matters because no matter what someone is always taller, stronger, faster, or more attractive.
A protagonist who’s an underdog is easy to overlook, which will relate to just about any reader.
After all, most everyone feels like an underdog. Sure, some more than others. But think about it, there can only be one of the following:
- John Newbery Medal Winner
- Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize
- President of United States
- Richest man in the world
- Academy Award Winning Best Actress
- Academy Award Winning Best Actor
- Grammy Award Winning Best New Artist
- National Football League (NFL) MVP
- National Basketball Association (NBA) MVP
- Major League Baseball (MLB) MVP
Our culture has taught us that second place is first loser. That means all those fabulous authors, actors, and athletes who finished second—or worse, weren’t even nominated—likely walk away feeling terrible. Somehow, despite all that talent, they’ve become an underdog.
The good news is that being an underdog often pushes people with talent and drive to great heights.
The same goes for underdog protagonists. Being overlooked can be the catalyst the need in order to overcome obstacles that should have destroyed them.
The tension will be monumental, and the audience will be along for the ride—worried that your protagonist is in danger, but cheering when he comes through in the end.
5) The Prodigy
Though many heroes are made, ther are those who are simply born. The prodigy is often overlooked at first, but once in a while there is a flash of greatness that lead people to think there may be more to him than meets the eye.
The prodigy if the perfect protagonist to pair with a wise sage who can help draw out his heroic nature.
After all, he might show promise but he’s raw. He needs training. In fact, he needs to be built from the ground up. As the story progresses, he continues to grow under the guidance of his mentor until he’s ready to face the big bad villain alone.
If it sounds familiar, it’s simply Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Examples include:
- Harry Potter with Dumbledore
- Luke Skywalker with Obiwan Kenobi and Yoda
- Max Sumner with Ivar and Logan
- King Arthur with Merlin
- Batman with Alfred
Like the underdog, the prodigy is a fantastic protagonist if you want to connect with your readers.
Everyone has something special about them, and most people think that under the right circumstances they’d have the chance to do something incredible. Watching it in others—even in fictional characters—can be inspiring.
6) Reluctant Hero
The unwilling hero is riddled with doubt and trepidation. When trouble comes, he doesn’t know what to do. And the moment he finally decides, he starts to second guess himself.
He never wanted to be a hero to begin with, and the moment people start to look to him in any heroic capacity he feels uncomfortable.
In fact, he’d be perfectly willing to give the mantle of hero to anyone else, but he also knows that he can’t wish the role away. He’s been chosen for a reason, and he needs to step up.
Most unwilling heroes don’t have magical abilities or super powers. They haven’t been trained, and for the most part, they are ill equipped for the role.
All they want is to be normal—to slip back into the anonymity of their old life, but they can’t.
It’s actually exciting for readers to watch the reluctant hero grow into his heroic role.
Pro Tip: Readers can relate to a reluctant hero, but you need to make sure he starts to come around before they get tired of his complaining.
If he spends the bulk of your manuscript lamenting that he’s been called on to fulfill a destiny, you’ll lose your audience.
7) The Misfit
The misfit makes for an unlikely protagonist, but that might be exactly what you need for your manuscript to stand out from the crowd.
Misfits are typically characterized as social outcasts because they don’t fit the norm. That could mean anything from a speech impediment or a physical disability to a proclivity for video games, Dungeons & Dragons, or bad haircuts.
Misfits typically struggle to trust others. They might even be bitter and want to withdraw. After all, they’ve been ostracized.
Think about Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney and Wonder by R.J. Palacio. A misfit protagonist could be a fantastic choice for a middle grade protagonist. After all, schools are rife with people who are ostracized for being different.
8) Tragic Hero
A tragic hero is a protagonist who makes an error in judgment that leads to his own destruction.
Romeo from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, is definitely a tragic hero. He believes that Juliet is actually dead, so he ends up killing himself.
Then, when Juliet wakes up to find that Romeo is dead, she kills herself as well. Talk about tragic!
Though she isn’t the protagonist, Leslie Burke is a tragic hero in Katherine Peterson’s Bridge to Terabithia.
Despite a storm that caused the rushing waters of a river to swell, she decides to cross because she wants reach her imaginary world of Terabithia. Tragically, she’s swept away and killed.
The downfall of a tragic hero elicits compassion from readers, but you have to be careful. There’s a danger that instead of empathy or even sympathy, the reader will be left with a feeling of pity.
The antihero makes for an interesting protagonist. After all, he’s no traditional hero. In fact, he can look a lot more like a villain, which can make for a tough sell when you’re trying to get the readers to care about him.
If he’s unsympathetic, it’s going to be difficult for readers to make an emotional connection. One way to accomplish that is to allow readers to see his weaknesses sooner rather than later.
Like any other protagonist, an antihero needs to show vulnerability if he’s going to be sympathetic. That won’t be easy to do if he’s only loyal to himself.
Here are a few antiheroes that fit the archetype…
- Artemis Fowl (Artemis Fowl)
- Severus Snap (Harry Potter)
- Jamie Lannister (Game of Thrones)
- Han Solo (Star Wars)
- Wolverine (Uncanny X-Men)
- The Punisher (Marvel Comics)
- Dexter Morgan (Dexter)
Pro Tip: Help your readers see that your anti-hero is just a hero in disguise. He might be a bit rough on the outside, but his intentions are pure—or at least he’s trying.
10) Lost Soul
A protagonist who is a lost soul is someone who once lived in darkness, but now they’ve seen the light and they’ve decided to act on it.
This type of protagonist is brimming with internal and external conflict alike. Internally, there may be a pull where your protagonist feels drawn back to his old ways but he is fighting hard to do the right thing.
Externally, there’s a good chance that few (if anyone) trust him. After all, he likely has a track record of some pretty terrible things.
He could have been expelled from his last school for setting one of the buildings on fire. Or maybe he hit someone until his victim had to be rushed to the hospital. Or he was in a gang.
There are any number of sins he could have committed, but now he wants to repent.
The only problem is that people won’t let him forget his past, so he starts to believe the worst in himself despite his desire for repentance
This type of character can be difficult to write, but wow—talk about tension and conflict. You’ll also be able to build up a great deal of empathy when people start to misjudge him. Your readers will be firmly in his corner!
What Age Are Middle Grade Readers? Middle grade books are primarily targeted at children between the ages of ten-12. However, lower middle grade books will target advanced readers as young as 8-years-old.
What is an antagonist? An antagonist is the opposing force that stands against your protagonist. Although Villains are antagonists, not all antagonists are villains. Antagonists simply work in opposition of a protagonist.