By Rachel Keller
You’ve written a novel that you love (ironically) beyond words and handed it to beta readers to prepare it for the final editing stage. You’ve aced all the details (characterization, plot, theme, setting). You’re sure this is the novel that will launch you into publishing. Then you receive disturbing feedback from your beta readers:
“I didn’t care about the protagonist.”
“The protagonist won too easily.”
“I couldn’t help feeling more drawn to the side character or villain.”
Your momentum slows as you read their comments again and again. What happened? Your character suffered greatly! She dragged herself to the end! You spent considerable time developing her story. How can they dislike her? What did you do wrong?
I had this experience on the flip side as the reader. Excited to delve into a new book, energized and intrigued by the plot. Yet, I repeatedly slammed the book down in frustration.
In Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass series, the characters, world building, plot, and climaxes were impressive, but I despised the protagonist.
Whoa, whoa, what?
At first I thought I was being ridiculously picky. The protagonist was, after all, an assassin. I wasn’t supposed to like her.
But the more I read, the more I realized that wasn’t the reason. I love flawed, realistic characters. The protagonist sometimes acted like a jerk, but that made her interesting. She fought for good (usually) and helped people. She suffered much, sacrificed much. So why couldn’t I bring myself to root for her?
Then it clicked. The author annoyed me, not the protagonist.
Maas had the power to bend the whole story to her will, and she gave her protagonist a blatant and unfair advantage. She allowed the protagonist to triumph when she would otherwise have lost because of her wonderfully flawed nature.
What’s the point of flawed characters if they don’t have to endure the repercussions of their mistakes?
Why and How You Should Avoid This Problem
Although readers yearn to see the protagonist ultimately succeed, people tend to favor the underdog. They prefer to watch the protagonist struggle to achieve her goal and earn it—not just in the literal, physical sense, but morally as well. The audience instinctively knows when a favorable outcome is merited and when it isn’t. When a character gets her comeuppance (whether positive or negative), readers cheer, and when she doesn’t, readers groan.
If you aid your protagonist in her journey, you could easily omit consequences that are necessary to satisfy readers’ moral compass of your story’s justness. Victory is meaningless if readers can’t sympathize with your protagonist.
Fortunately, this issue isn’t too difficult to fix. Below are a few tips based on my experience and a TV show that I believe handles this well: BBC’s Sherlock.
1. Be Invisible
Pull the strings like a puppet master, hidden and unseen. Don’t let the reader detect who you favor. It’s more obvious than you assume and a definite hindrance to reader engagement. If readers perceive that the protagonist is facing the world without any special advantage, they will usually side with her.
Sherlock is extremely intelligent, but also socially inept. This plays out naturally; the writers don’t seem to be manipulating the circumstances. He fends for himself, stumbling into his own pitfalls, making his own blunders, claiming his own victories. He is a strong yet imperfect character, and I like him enough to at least root for him.
2. Be Realistic
Let’s be honest, we want readers to think our protagonists are amazing. What better way to accomplish that than to orchestrate the cast of characters, scenes, and entire world to the protagonist’s benefit?
Subtly, of course.
I’ve found that this method is hard to pull off. The results are often opposite of what we had intended.
If you allow the protagonist to be herself, and you have excellent character development and plot, she’ll shine on her own. She won’t need you to be her crutch and readers won’t feel pressured to adore her.
The protagonist will fail, but she will mature through it. Then, when she reaches her goal, readers will applaud her all the louder because they witnessed the toil it took to get from A to Z.
Sherlock experiences plenty of moments when his intelligence doesn’t appear worth the cost of the disadvantages. His stories aren’t all glorious triumphs and clever dialogue. He fails. He learns. Victory tastes sweeter because it contrasts with the sting of defeat.
Don’t coddle your protagonists. Force them to work for their awesomeness.
3. Be Fair
Our books seem like perfect places to express our opinions unchallenged, but that isn’t how fiction is meant to be done. Both sides must be represented equally and granted an honest shot at winning.
The ideal your protagonist embodies must be tried. It can’t always reign supreme, or it will feel cheap and fake, as if the author is biased.
Depict more than one viewpoint impartially. Open your mind to other possibilities. Don’t abandon the truth and grab any worldview for the sake of diversity, but don’t deny a different perspective a fair chance either. Readers can sense when you’re pushing your own opinion, and it will irritate them. They won’t feel satisfied any more than they would watching a rigged contest.
In BBC’s Sherlock, John and Sherlock have opposing opinions on all sorts of matters. Neither one is always right. They teach each other throughout the show, slowly changing as they learn and develop.
They sharpen each other with their different opinions.
Be careful as an author not to favor your protagonist—at least not “on screen.” You shouldn’t use your story as a staged battleground for your own opinions. Let your characters and themes stand on their own feet, without extra nudging. Otherwise, their struggle is worthless.
Don’t cause readers to wish the protagonist would fall off her high horse. The story loses weight and emotion if readers don’t care whether she wins or not—and it’s even worse if they hope she fails.
This is only one facet of creating well-developed, three-dimensional characters, but it’s a big one. If readers like your protagonist, they will forgive many other mistakes.
To succeed, take the reader’s side, not the protagonist’s.
Rachel is a Christian and an amateur writer who enjoys just about anything pertaining to story—beyond writing, that includes reading, digital and traditional art, photography, and watching and analyzing movies with her siblings. She feels especially inspired while it’s raining, but maybe that’s because it seldom rains where she lives. She’s written three novels and is working on a fourth, but has yet to attempt publication. Soon. =)