Many, if not most, authors love their main characters because to some extent they are a more perfect version of themselves. Your protagonist may be the person you wish you were, particularly if you made him or her brave, resolute, compassionate, and clear-headed. However, after sharing your hero’s story with the public, have you been surprised when readers don’t love your character as much as you do?
Have readers said they liked your plot, but were not sold on your protagonist? There’s a reason this happens and there are things you can do in your next book or short story to create characters your readers will love––perhaps even more than you.
Let’s start with the understanding that success or failure of any particular work ultimately rests on whether the intended audience is wowed by the result. So whether you love your protagonist or not is irrelevant. It’s your readers who count.
What do readers want?
No matter what genre you’re writing in, readers want a story that engages them with characters they can identify with. But they want those characters to be challenged in a meaningful way so they can shine in the face of adversity. No one is going to read a book where the toughest task a character faces is getting to work on time, unless of course doing so involves travelling through seven layers of hell.
Yet even if the obstacles you set in front of your protagonist are huge, readers may not come away with that wow feeling if your character starts out as superwoman or superman. The reason adults get bored with super hero stories is that they can’t identify with characters who are all-knowing, all-powerful and look like the cover girl/boy on this month’s fashion magazine.
Protagonists need flaws.
The problem with creating a perfect version of yourself for your book’s hero is that you may have trouble coming up with big enough obstacles for that character to overcome to engage your readers. That’s why your character needs flaws. If s/he likes to sleep late, can’t say no to a third vodka martini, or is deadly afraid of snakes (vide: Indiana Jones), then your reader will wonder whether s/he will rise to the occasion and that will keep them turning the pages.
Your protagonist’s flaws must tie into the plot. If s/he has a weakness for jelly doughnuts and that has nothing to do with the story, your readers are going to skip the paragraphs where said protagonist stops off to buy a bag of doughnuts when s/he should be trailing the suspect. If they’re afraid of snakes, then make them have to go into a mine pit full of them; if they have trouble staying sober, throw them into the middle of a party where the drinks flow freely; if they have doubts, physical limitations, or fear of failure anxiety, great! That means you can create situations where they have to overcome their weaknesses as well as overpower the villain.
How to create a winning protagonist
The time to develop a protagonist readers will love is when you first get an idea for a new story. While you key in some of your story ideas take some time to focus on your main characters. I recommend writing a brief biography of each character, noting his/her background, accomplishments, current status, and also his/her life goals, strengths and weaknesses. Then make sure your protagonist has to face those flaws at a crucial moment in the story in order to succeed. Doing so will add tension to your story and create a character your readers will love and remember.