Your protagonist needs to be the most engaging character in your book. After all, the readers are going to witness the story through his eyes. Readers need to care about him enough that they won’t put the book down until they know he’s safe (which won’t be until the last page). That means he has to be relatable and multidimensional., with depth and complexity. If he’s nothing but a cliché, readers will put the book down and never come back to it.
A protagonist begins each story with a goal or wish. He’s soon called into action, and though might resist at first, he’ll eventually answer the call. He’ll face trials and tribulations before he accomplishes his goal.
Want to create the kind of protagonist who keeps readers engaged with your manuscript from the first page to the last? Here are 21 characteristics you’ll want to consider…
1) Evokes Sympathy or Empathy
There’s a reason I put this one first. I would argue that your responsibility as a writer is to create an immediate emotional connection between your protagonist and the readers.
If readers don’t care about your protagonist, they won’t care what happens to him.
The quickest way to get readers to care is through empathy or sympathy.
Those two words are often used interchangeably but there is some nuance in how they’re different.
Sympathy is sharing the feelings of someone else, whereas empathy is where you understand the feelings of someone but you don’t necessarily share those feelings.
Both are different than pity. Evoking pity can certainly help a reader care about your protagonist, but it’s a bit of a trick that keeps a distance between your protagonist and the readers.
After all, we pity people in terrible situations but most of us haven’t experienced something like homelessness, starving, or contracting a rare disease.
We can’t really get in the head space or someone going through those situations, so although we might be willing to support their GoFundMe campaign that’s where it ends.
We’ll feel good because we sent money and then we’ll go on with our day.
Sympathy and empathy are much different. Readers will understand what the protagonist is going through in such a deep way that they’ll be haunted by what they’re reading and they won’t be able to put the book down until they know your protagonist is safe.
Readers may not be consciously aware of this, but they want to see themselves in your protagonist.
The more they understand the internal motivations that drive your protagonist to risk everything, the more they’ll feel a personal investment in the quest that your protagonist takes.
Pro Tip: Once you’ve ensured that your readers have a strong emotional connection with the protagonist it’s your job to make your protagonist go through hell and back.
Just when it looks like things are about to go his way, pull the rug out. Even better? Give him two choices and make him take the logical choice only to have that blow up in his face as well.
Because the readers care about what happens to him, they’ll stick around until he’s okay. They’ll have actual anxiety for a fictional character, and that’s when you know that you’ve done your job.
2) Has a Strong Internal Motivation
One way to help create an emotional connection between readers and your protagonist is ensure they understand his motivation.
Strong goals drive the plot, but your story becomes irresistible when the reader understands why your protagonist is motivated to achieve those goals.
If your character is truly driven by what motivates him, there’s a good chance that he’ll do just about anything to achieve his goal.
That level of intensity will drive him to face his biggest doubts, fears, and insecurities whether he wants to or not. Who wouldn’t want to cheer someone on who is willing to do that?
As you consider what motivates your protagonist, don’t forget think about will happen if he doesn’t achieve his goals. Anxiety created by the fear of failure help create critical tension for your story.
Pro Tip: Desires are powerful motivators. They can push your protagonist to greatness, but they can also tempt him to do something that he’ll regret. Those mistakes will help give him depth.
And if they’re the kind of mistakes readers could see themselves making in the same situation, you continue to build on that emotional connection.
3) Is Complex
When life is predictable—even if things are going well—it tends to get boring. The same goes for the characters in your manuscript.
If the reader can predict what your protagonist will do in every situation, they’ll start to tune out. Readers want to be surprised. It keeps them engaged.
For instance, if your protagonist is always outspoken why not have him speechless when his crush walks into the room? Or maybe he has difficulty talking to kids his own age, but he’s comfortable around adults.
Giving your protagonist a quirk is another way to keep readers guessing. For something to be a quirk, it needs to stand out from the pack. You want to be careful with this one, though.
A little bit of quirkiness goes a long way. Too much, and suddenly your character becomes a cartoon.
Here are some 11 examples of quirks:
- Strange hair color
- Funky glasses
- Is always chomping on gum
- Neat freak where most kids are messy
- Drinks coffee despite being so young
- Musical prodigy
- Doodles all the time
- Tinkerer (likes to take things apart and put them back together)
- Agoraphobia (won’t leave the house)
- All his clothes are the same color
- Refuses to eat if the food on his plate touches other food
Another way to give your character has complexity is to make sure he isn’t great at everything. It’s one of the reasons that Superman stories often focus on taking away some of his powers.
When your protagonist is basically infallible, it’s not only unbelievable—it can get annoying.
So, if your protagonist is popular, try to avoid making her the most beautiful girl in school.
Or if she is the most beautiful girl in school, how could that beauty work against her in a way that it would relate to most readers? Maybe the other girls are jealous and they ostracize her.
Or what if her dad was recently laid off and they buy their clothes from second hand stores?
4) Is Unique
Creating a truly unique protagonist is no easy task. Books, television, and movies are filled with stereotypes and overdone character tropes, but you don’t have to fall into the trap.
Let’s look at a few stereotypes found in middle grade books:
- The protagonist has no idea he’s special
- The protagonist is meek and poor
- The protagonist’s crush is dating the biggest jerk in the school but she’s actually sweet
- The protagonist’s sidekick is nerdy and awkward
- The protagonist’s sidekick has asthma and his mom is overprotective
- The smart kid has glasses and isn’t good at sports
- The nerdy kid’s dad is also a nerd
- The nerdy kids play video games and read comic books
- The popular kids are rich, attractive, and are good at sports
- The best male athlete is tall and has broad shoulders
- The most popular boy in school is a handsome, rich jerk
- The most popular girl in school is a beautiful, wealthy, and mean
- The mean girl’s mom is also beautiful and mean
- The bully’s dad is also a bully
- The school bully is really big and gets bad grades
- The antagonist is snarky and has a bruiser for a sidekick who does all of his dirty work
Do any of those descriptions sound familiar? Of course they do! If you want your manuscript to break out, you need to find a way to break the stereotypes.
If you want a unique protagonist, try to imagine the stereotype that best fits how you envision him, and then do something different.
That doesn’t mean you have to avoid every trope. At his core, a bully isn’t going to be sweet or have good intentions.
He’s a bully for a reason, but what if he was more of a psychological bully than a physical bully. For that matter, what if he was a she?
5) Has a Relatable Character Flaw
One of Superman’s nicknames is the Big Blue Boy Scout, and it’s rarely meant as a compliment. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big Superman fan but he has his detractors, too.
The reason? He’s the perfect combination of unlimited power and altruism. He has no flaws, and because of that, people think he’s boring.
A relatable character flaw can actually endear your protagonist to readers. Take Batman, for instance. Where Superman is always hopeful, Batman is dark and brooding.
After all, he witnessed the murder of his parents when he was just a boy and he’s carried that emotional baggage his entire life.
Batman will push the boundaries of right and wrong, but he only does it is to stop criminal masterminds like the Joker.
The audience not only understands why he does it, but most Batman fans take it a step farther. They love his brand of vigilante justice and think that the villains deserve what they get.
Pro Tip: Flaws don’t have to be negative. What if your protagonist always sees the best in people? At the surface it’s a great quality, but that level of trust can lead people to take advantage of your protagonist.
6) Has a Problem That Needs to Solved
A compelling protagonist is the only person that can solve his own problem. Harry Potter is the perfect example.
I mean, I always wondered why Dumbledore did hunt Voldemort down and kill him. It is certainly plausible, but it would have turned an epic series that changed the entire publishing industry into a forgotten short story.
J.K. Rowling made a masterful decision when she decided that Harry Potter was the final horcrux.
That meant Dumbledore couldn’t kill Voldemort and be done with it. He’d have to kill Harry Potter, and no sane adult is about to kill a child.
That mean Harry was going to have to sacrifice himself to defeat Voldemort and not only save his friends—but his action would save the world.
That’s a great example of creating a problem that only the protagonist can solve.
7) Is Driven by Purpose
Every protagonist is driven by purpose, and that purpose affects their choices and their actions.
Think about Frodo Baggins from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. He is driven by a cause that has enormous personal and global stakes! He has to destroy the One Ring so it doesn’t get into Sauron’s control.
If it does, Sauron will destroy all of Middle Earth, and the weight of that threat drives virtually every choice that Frodo makes in the entire trilogy.
8) Has Something to Lose
Internal motivation isn’t enough to create a compelling protagonist—he needs something to lose. I’m talking something so powerful that he’ll risk everything to save it.
Readers will worry that your protagonist might make an irrational decision and risk too much. That level of tension will keep them turning the pages until they know that your protagonist is safe.
Since that doesn’t happen until the last page, you have them right where you want them—hungry for more!
9) Has Leadership Qualities
A leader acts! He doesn’t just sit around and for something to happen. He’s insightful, strategic, and perhaps most importantly, he cares about the people he’s leading.
He understands that his failure would put everyone at risk, and he’ll do anything to stop that from happening. That helps build critical tension for your story. It also creates accountability.
After all, he’ll no longer take unnecessary risks that he might have taken if he was alone.
10) Is Loyal to Friends, Family, and Allies
Loyalty is a valuable trait for any protagonist. Sure, it’s an admirable quality, but it also sets your protagonist up to be let down. That drives tension, and tension is one of the keys to a great story.
We’ve all placed our loyalty in people who have disappointed us. If you’re protagonist remains loyal even after someone has let him down, that says a lot about his character.
Still, trusting that person might be difficult moving forward. After all, if trust has already been broken, there’s a good chance it could happen again.
Pro Tip: Gratitude will often drive someone to be loyal, but on the flipside people who are not grateful likely aren’t going to be loyal.
What if your protagonist has done something that would earn loyalty from another character, but instead that character is bitter and decides to be anything but loyal to your protagonist?
11) Has Empathy
The first characteristic on this list is that your protagonist needs to earn empathy from your readers, but it doesn’t end there.
A protagonist worth cheering for also has empathy for others. That means at times he’ll act simply because he wants to help people, and that’s admirable.
12) Has Conviction
A protagonist with strong conviction demands the respect of your readers. The more they’re aligned with his convictions, the more they’ll be drawn into the story.
The human brain perceives uncertainty as a threat, which triggers the release of a stress hormone. Memory is disrupted, the immune system is depressed, and there is increased risk of depression.
A protagonist with conviction creates an environment of certainty for everyone around him. When they’re convinced that he’s picked the right course of action, they’re put to ease.
13) Is Curious
That last thing you want is an idle protagonist. The good news is that a curious protagonist will take action when he’s missing critical information. He engages with the world instead of simply sitting back and observing it.
14) Is Hopeful
I can’t think of many feelings that are more powerful than hope. It’s not a mere wish. Instead, it’s an absolute believe that our circumstances are going to get better no matter how overwhelmed we may feel in the moment.
There is a difference between being hopeful and being an idealist. An idealist might not believe someone is capable of being evil, leaving herself susceptible to predators. But hope still allows for an honest look at the circumstances.
15) Has a Formidable Adversary
What if I told you that your protagonist is only as good as his adversary? After all, without someone actively working against your protagonist there isn’t going to be a lot of tension.
Adversaries who create overwhelming obstacles for your protagonist are going to force him to stretch and grow. And when he overcomes those obstacles, your readers are going to cheer.
After all, if his life was easy, there would be no drama—and ultimately no reason to read your book.
So, give him at least one worthy adversary—an antagonist who appears to be more than a match for your protagonist.
16) Has a Weakness
Giving your protagonist a weakness helps make him more dimensional. Dimensionality makes him more believable and that’s what you’re aiming for.
Even comic book publishers try to ground their most powerful characters by giving them weaknesses. Superman is vulnerable to kryptonite and magic. Martian Manhunter is terrified of fire, and Green Lantern is vulnerable to the color yellow.
Middle grade characters have weaknesses, too. Think about Harry Potter. Hermione outshines him in just about every class.
He loses his temper more often than he should, and he’s more than willing to put his life at risk to save his friends—even when it’s unnecessary.
If your middle grade protagonist is just shy of perfect your manuscript isn’t going to be very interesting. Weakness makes him vulnerable, and vulnerability is critical to drive tension.
You don’t want a reader putting your book down after a few pages because you’ve created a character who is more than a match for any issues he’s about to face. It’s just plain boring.
17) Just Might Fail
If there’s no risk that your protagonist might fail, why read your manuscript? Readers want the twists and turns.
The crave the tension that will keep them on the edge of their seats, but if there’s never a doubt that your protagonist will reach his goals then you’re going to lose your readers.
Pro Tip: Outline at least three times when your protagonist will make what seems to be the write decision, but it blows up in his face. He needs to continuously try and fail before he makes his ultimate triumph in the end.
18) Is Courageous
The odds should be stacked against your protagonist. He should be such an overwhelming underdog that the reader isn’t sure how he’s going to come through in the end.
It doesn’t matter if he’s facing an angry wizard, a zombie horde, an army of killer robots, or if he’s scared to death to ask his crush to a junior high dance—things are going to look bleak.
But instead of running away, he needs to face the challenge head on. That takes courage.
19) Can (and Will) Fail
Not only does your protagonist need to fail, he needs to try and fail over and over again before he comes through in the end.
There’s nothing more inspiring than to watch someone stand up after he’s been knocked down. It doesn’t matter if he’s been literally or figuratively knocked down, it’s exciting to watch him shake off the failure and continue to fight.
I know it doesn’t seem logical, but readers love emotional rollercoasters. As the writer, your job is to get them to fall in love with your protagonist, and then to force your protagonist to go through hell and back.
He has to suffer—and not just a little bit. You need to take your protagonist from the highest heights and plunge him into the lowest depths. His suffering will help to prove their mettle, which will endear readers to his cause.
Character growth is critical. Your protagonist needs to learn from what he’s gone through, which means he’ll be different by end of the manuscript. It’s up to you to determine how he’ll change.
Conflict will be key, since working through both physical and emotional conflict will give your protagonist the opportunity to change throughout the story.
Pro Tip: Make sure your protagonist changes through initiating the action, rather than passively allowing the plot to drive his change. Readers want the protagonist to take charge and lead the way.
What Age Are Middle Grade Readers? It is widely accepted that middle grade readers are between 10-12 years old, or are in fourth-sixth grade. However, lower middle grade readers can be as young as eight years old and are in second grade.
What is an antagonist? The antagonist is an opposing force that introduces conflict to your story. Villains are antagonists who are intent on harming others. However, not all antagonists are villains. Antagonists simply work in opposition of the protagonist.