The Pitfalls of a Perfect Protagonist (by Sarah-Jane Bird)

There’s nothing wrong with a protagonist that falls into the nice category. After all, it’s you who gets to choose their personality traits.  But something to remember is that in order to make your character likeable, and to make readers root for them – you don’t have to make them nice. Shape them in any way that you want, just don’t make them perfect.

In order to create a protagonist that we will ultimately root for, we have to be able to relate to them. Throw in some baggage, history, regrets, give them some vulnerability. And don’t forget the F word. Flaws. Readers are much more likely to relate to a character that has flaws, because – let’s face it – none of us are perfect either. And they need space for growth, for their character arc.

A character who is ultimately perfect is less likely to have substantial internal conflicts to keep the reader engrossed until the end. We can’t help but switch off when we hear about their stunning long hair, perfect lips and sparkling eyes. It’s okay if other characters notice such things, but if you’re protagonist speaks about themselves in this way they are only going to come off as vain. Which is okay if that’s your intention.

Personally I’ve always been a sucker for the less than perfect characters, and I highly doubt that Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, or Bridget Jones would be as memorable as they are if they were perfect. We love them because we can relate to them. And this works for characters on the opposite ends of the spectrum too, Dexter is an incredibly flawed character – he’s a serial killer. But his internal conflicts are huge, his moral code and glimpses of humanity battle a darkness so brutally honest we still manage to understand him.

But like I said already, there’s nothing wrong with a protagonist who falls into the nice category. My most favourite urban fantasy books feature a girl whose biggest concern is what nail polish to choose, until her sister is murdered and she’s thrown into a world she never knew existed. But that was her flaw. She was unprepared, naive and needed to toughen up pretty fast and the murder of her sister gave her the baggage she needed to draw us in. Despite her fluff she toughens up and makes a brilliant protagonist.

Make sure your character’s flaws are exactly that, and not a weakness that conveniently leaves them blameless. Avoid setting your protagonist up with a character flaw that they can conveniently overcome early on. Yes we want the character to grow and adapt but if you make it too easy you lose parts of the internal conflict that’s so engaging in the first place.

Ultimately, your character is about to embark on the biggest event of their lives, and by the end of it they will be a different person. He or she needs space for growth, to adapt and to overcome their internal conflicts, and while all of this is going on the reader needs to root for them.

So make them flawed, vulnerable, less than perfect and ultimately very human.


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