I’ve cautioned in the past regarding making a protagonist in a story a “Mary Sue” type of character. In short, you don’t want to make a character that lives out your own power fantasies and to whom the plot offers little resistance to the character’s overwhelming power.
It’s good to avoid characters like this, but sometimes writers tend to go too far in the opposite direction, creating wimpy, base, or unlikeable characters that the audience doesn’t really care about. In order to avoid having a character feel too super-powered, they instead make them weak or detestable. This is not wise; even an anti-hero should have some qualities that the audience likes.
To even this out, I’ve created a few “Dos” and “Don’ts” to consider when creating a main character that your audience will root for and care about.
What to avoid
I get asked this question all the time:
What kind of flaw should I give to my main character?
You want to make your character human. Humans have the capacity for sin and mistakes of judgment. Capacity for sin and total depravity are miles apart.
You want to avoid categories of “mortal sin” for most characters. I generally advise against, for instance, making your character an addict, a cleptomaniac, a philanderer, rapist, or violent sociopath. You can rebel against this advice, and indeed some good works have been done with significantly unlikeable characters (Like Thomas Covenant, which I have talked about in the past), but if you do choose to have your main character have some extreme negative trait, you must have some other things in the story which are much more powerful than the trait.
If your character is an addict, he must not only have a compelling reason for the addiction (such as extreme tragedy, which will get the audience on his side), but also have some other extreme virtue which makes the addiction more tolerable or a cause to which he is committed that the audience wants to see fulfilled
It’s much better to humanize a character by giving him or her venial sins or small flaws the audience easily identifies with. A short temper, a naive outlook, a tendency to over-eat, or difficulty talking to the opposite sex are all flaws that the audience will find forgivable or even endearing.
Virtues and Flaws to Make Your Character Loveable
- Bravery (virtue) or Foolhardiness (flaw). People like risk-takers. Having your character take risks is a very easy way to get people to root for the character’s goals, and bravery is easy to turn into foolhardiness – an excess of risk-taking. Audiences tend to like even foolish risk takers.
- Wisdom (virtue) or Naivete (flaw). Audiences rarely find naivete annoying, but instead, find it (often) child-like and endearing. It’s also an easy way to put your character into danger early on. Rodriguez and Cameron pushed this one up to 10 for Alita, and it worked well (they even sized up her eyes like in manga, just to make her extra doe-eyed). Beware, though, that naive characters need to grow out of it, or else the audience will get annoyed. Wise characters are better in the secondary role, but as main characters, they can work very well, as long as they are suitably challenged.
- Pursuit of Justice. If the protagonist has a goal that is primarily motivated by a sense of justice or retribution, the audience will root for him, even if he has some other flaws that hold him back from his success.
- Romanticism (can be both virtue and flaw). People identify with hopeless romantics, especially when things don’t work out.
- Victimhood. Making your character a victim of some sort – orphan, slave, abused child, wrongly convicted criminal – is a quick and easy way to get the audience on your side. Roald Dahl used this in almost every children’s story he wrote.
- Disability. This isn’t used too often but making a character disabled in some way can make the audience care about the character and also gives an avenue for impressing them. This can include mental disability, as long as the character is treated with respect and acts honorably, like in Forest Gump.
- Beauty (strength) or Plainness (flaw). Avoid making characters outright ugly. People naturally like attractive people, and will identify with people who are of average beauty. This can set up all sorts of stories – the plain girl gets a makeover and scores the hot guy, only to realize her likewise plain male friend is a better man.
- Ruthlessness or a Forgiving Nature. Audiences appreciate characters that are ruthless. They make great villains but can also be great for protagonists, particularly if they have a just cause or they are ruthless with evil characters. Likewise, a forgiving nature makes the character much more likable, even if they are too forgiving.
- Charm (strength) or Awkwardness (flaw) – We love charming James Bond-style characters, and we can identify with people who have a little trouble flirting or having romantic success. Generally, though, omega-type characters, who are total outcasts, are better villains than heroes.
- Caring for Others (virtue). People love heroes who care about others. Having a character be the caretaker for a sick relative, for instance, will get the audience on their side immediately. This the trait the classic “save the cat” is trying to exploit. If you have a genuinely caring protagonist the audience will forgive all sorts of other blunders. Superman’s failure state is usually failing to save people, not to die or be harmed himself.
Some popular examples
Harry Potter – He’s an abused child that is also an orphan, has a moderate amount of naivete (once he goes to Hogwarts), is generally foolhardy, a little socially awkward, and has a strong sense of justice. He is not, however, very powerful, and his only real natural talent is flying a broom.
Bella Swan – She’s a “plain” girl that is also beautiful (her perception is different than reality), an awkward girl that is also charming (she feels awkward, but makes friends), she’s romantic, and she’s extremely caring. Overall, a great vehicle for the feelings of the target audience, which is primarily adolescent girls.
Indiana Jones – He’s attractive, brave, and when he says, “This belongs in a museum,” he is evoking a personal ethic that is admirable, if not exactly “just.”
Elric – One of the classic antiheroes from fantasy literature, Elric is physically disabled, both ruthless and forgiving at different points, a victim of politics, and is supremely concerned with human morality. He’s a character full of conflicts that the reader hopes will be redeemed.
Spider-Man – Stan Lee knew what he was doing when he made characters, and Peter Parker is no exception. He’s a high school nerd that is a bit of a social loser, he’s an orphan, and as a hero he certainly doesn’t lack courage. The audience is already on his side when he acts selfishly and his uncle is killed as a result of his inaction, turning him further into a victim and driving his quest for justice. He even has his own charms and becomes a bit of a romantic in later arcs.
Yes, I am a writer. Here are a few of my latest books: