…or how to make a hero likeable without making them perfect.
We all want to root for a hero, a person that has an enormous amount of pressure on them to “save the day”. There are certain things to avoid when writing your protagonist and how to make your hero relatable.
The un-killable, all-powerful hero
When most of us were little, we wanted to be heroes, people who couldn’t fail and were loved by all. If we, as the hero, ran into something that we couldn’t conquer, we simply stated our hero could do “x” and we were out of the situation and off to the races, an ex-machina. That works when you’re little and playing pretend but not when you’re writing a story.
You can’t mysteriously add abilities to your hero and expect the reader to suspend belief and keep reading without wondering how that new skill came to be. There has to be a journey, some training, an arc –if you will.
This is becoming more and more prevalent in writing in this day and age. The urge to put emphasis on what the character is and not who the character is, and this is not good writing. A female character doesn’t have to constantly throw in the reader’s face they are female. A gay or lesbian character does not have to center their whole world around their sexuality. This leads to pitfalls of writing stereotypes that many complain about. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans character in the story. It just means you can’t make that the ONLY thing that makes the character stand out. You can even write a racial minority into your story as the hero without their skin color or ethnicity being the forefront. They have to be well-rounded.
Every protagonist needs to have a journey, if you will. This is the major character arc in the story. They have to have a reason to step up, a way to improve who they are, and a point where they learn how to do what they are meant to do. As this is usually a daunting task, many protagonists are written as reluctant. (Frodo in The Lord of the Rings) What few understand is they can also be conceited and think they are invincible, learning during their travels this is not the case. There is a certain enjoyment in self-centered characters who learn humility. (For an example, the first Thor movie.) Both types of heroes journeys can be written to pull the reader in and keep their attention.
Making the Hero Relatable
In my humble opinion, the main trick to making a protagonist likeable is to make them relatable. They have to be well-rounded. They have to have flaws, personality traits that are negative and need to be changed. They can’t be perfect and well-liked by all. This is unbelievable to the reader who is looking for a good story. This is also where flaws don’t have to be all mental. You can have a hero with a physical disability, just don’t play it up to make it the main flaw.
Let’s take Toph from Avatar, the Last Airbender. She was a strong earth bender, but she was blind. Because of her handicap, her family treated her as a helpless little girl, something she was not. This led her to be resistant of anyone helping her for fear they were trying to be like her parents. Her arc was her finally realizing she, indeed, needed help from time to time. Her handicap was not the main focus of her personality flaw. It was her unwillingness to recognize she needed help sometimes. This was also how she learned to grow as a person, hence a character arc. You can relate to Toph and not feel sorry for the fact she was blind, making her a very well-written character.
You can even work racism into a story without it being in the forefront and taking over the story. A great example of this is the character Drizzt in the Forgotten Realms stories. He is a drow, or dark elf, traveling in the surface world. Drow are treated with superstition and disdain, but it isn’t the main focus of any story Salvatore puts him into.
The Hero Fails and Failings
We don’t want to think about this aspect of character development, but heroes are not undefeatable. Superman had Kryptonite and magic; Batman had his mortality. Captain America had to learn how to fight and even then, he lost fights. Heroes don’t have to be super-powered or genius level. Take a look at Sherlock Holmes. In literature, he was an opium addict and his powers of deduction came from studies and experimentation. He wasn’t rich and was often look upon as a self-centered individual.
Your protagonist can’t be a perfectly crafted badass from page one who everyone loves. Their struggles define who they are, not their sexuality, gender, race, or disability. A good protagonist fails, falls, and learns from their mistakes and misgivings in order for us to be able to relate to them and rejoice in their success.
Until next time,