There’s a certain type of protagonist I can’t stand, who will always make me (and many other readers) toss the book before leaving the beginning. Sure, there’s lots of reasons to feel for this protagonist. Sure, they may face plenty of conflict and even have a clear goal early on. But they’re nothing but a bad situation.
What do I mean? Well, let’s say we’ve got a character whose house has been blown clean off the planet by a tornado. The reader is concerned for him. And let’s say he has a sick father and seven young siblings to care for. The reader feels for him. Then maybe he’s spent the last three years working two jobs to cover his youngest brother’s expensive medical bills, even dropping out of high school in the process. Man, the reader is really worried now. This guy is clearly undeserving of all the horrible things that have happened to him. How on earth will he find a house and keep his struggling family alive?
But… he has no personality. And just like that, the reader doesn’t care.
Most readers would care about this guy in real life, but in a story, where the reader knows this is all pretend, the protagonist has to be someone interesting to follow. (Note that this does not necessarily mean nice or likeable.) At this point, you might be wondering if you can ever have a protagonist begin a story in a terrible fix. After all, wouldn’t their thoughts focus on the trouble? Well, not all of their thoughts would. Even in the worst messes, people will find distractions, even humor. They have to do so in order to stay sane. Additionally, everyone reacts to tragedy and worry in different ways; these reactions show character. A great example is a book I recently read—no, gobbled up over one night—Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys.
Josie, the protagonist, starts out in a pretty rotten situation. In 1950, her abusive mother is a prostitute in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Josie works at a bookshop and does cleaning work for the brothel, all the while saving money so she can leave the city and make a new life somewhere far from crime and depravity, and somewhere nobody knows what her mother does. With a setup like this, the book could have been pretty depressing, but it wasn’t. It was fun because Josie had spunk. She worried about the bad, yes, but she also planned and hoped. She reacted in her own special ways. How many bookstore clerks keep a gun strapped to their leg? Josie’s proactive, smart, and funny, and she makes a mean martini. All of these qualities are demonstrated in the very first chapter.
If you’re trying to achieve a similar bad-situation-but-awesome-character combination, here are some questions to ask yourself.
• What’s special about the protagonist?
• What distracts the protagonist from the bad situation?
• What are the protagonist’s coping mechanisms?
• If the bad situation hadn’t happened, how would the protagonist act? What details can you pull into the actual scenario when the bad situation has happened?
It’s okay for a protagonist to start out pretty unhappy, but the personality can’t be only doom and gloom. The protagonist might be funny or serious, a nice guy or the town bully, but they have to be one crucial thing: interesting.