The Most Important Trait of Compelling Protagonists

Your protagonist must grip readers. He or she must yank readers into your story and drag them along the twisting track that is your plot, never weakening their grip for a second. Under his/her spell, readers should have no hesitation about skipping meals (or sleep) if it means they can be with the protagonist a little longer.

Obviously there’s no one way to achieve this. You need to do a few things to make a captivating protagonist. But if you want your protagonist to be gripping, captivating and compelling, your protagonist must have one essential trait:

Your protagonist must make unusual decisions.

Your story will be staler than month-old bread if your protagonist makes predictable choices. You just can’t create suspense if readers know what’s going to happen.

So how can you get your protagonists to make unusual decisions?

First up, lets define what an unusual decision is. An unusual decision:

  1. Affects the plot.
    • If a character’s choice doesn’t impact the plot, don’t show it! Decisions are only meaningful when they evolve the story.
  2. Is a choice most characters and protagonists – from your story and from others’ – wouldn’t make.
    • Readers form expectations based on other stories they’ve read (or watched). When your protagonist makes a predictable decision, his decision is predictable because readers have seen it done before. In most cases, they’ll have seen it done dozens or hundreds of times! Your protagonist’s choices become unpredictable when they go against readers’ expectations.
  3. Isn’t a random. It’s a choice that rings true to your character.
    • Your protagonist’s decisions shouldn’t be unusual because they go against what he’s done before. They should be unusual because they go against what other people have done before.

Let’s say your protagonist is in a diner. He’s finishes his meal and strolls to the counter to pay. Another man gets there first and screams at the till operator to give him money, brandishing a gun. Everyone else in the diner hits the floor.

But what does our protagonist do? What do you expect him to do? Have a think. I won’t rush you.

Know what’s going to happen? Awesome.

I’ll be blunt with you. If the protagonist does what you think he’s about to do, this story is missing a great opportunity. Why? Because you expect the protagonist to:

  • Attack the gunman and save everyone in the dinner,
  • Or cower on the floor along with the other patrons.

Now, these choices might be okay within your story. If your protagonist is brave, it makes sense for him to attack the gunman. If your protagonist is cowardly, it makes sense for him to cower. But these decisions are not unusual, because readers expect them and have seen them done before.

So how can we turn the protagonist’s run-of-the-mill choice into an unusual decision? Here’s my favourite two methods:

  • Amp up your character’s defining trait to an eleven and watch where it takes him.
    1. Your character should have one core trait which forms the basis of their personality (i.e. loyal, hard-working, spiteful). This doesn’t have to be a positive trait, and it can be easier to make your character make unusual decision if this trait is negative.
      Once you’re clear on your character’s main trait, don’t settle for him being somewhat loyal or slightly arrogant. Make him so loyal he’ll trek across the Himalayas to recover his lost dog, or so arrogant that he’ll ask the police to take more mugshots so he can give them to his adoring fans in prison.
  • Do what hasn’t been done.
    1. Plop your character in a situation. Work out the most obvious way out. Think about what other fictional characters would do. Ask your friends what they’d do. Ask yourself what you’d do. Then make your character do something no one else would. Simple.

In practice, its best to combine the above methods. You want your character to make a unique choice, but you don’t want it to be an uncharacteristic choice.

Let’s come back to our earlier example. What’s the protagonist going to do when the gunman pulls out his gun and screams for money? Let’s say our character’s key trait is selfishness. A selfish character might hit the floor and cower under a table, but that’s not the most unusual decision he can make.

What if the protagonist pushes past the gunman and pays the shaking till operator for his meal, ignoring the gunman’s protests?

Unusual decision? You bet. Does it advance the plot? Heck yes – the gunman won’t be happy with your protagonist. Suitable for every story and every character? Not in the slightest. And that’s a good thing, because if it was, it wouldn’t be unusual.

It can be tough to make your characters make unusual decisions. It’s a lot of work, can go spectacularly wrong, and worst of all forces you to use that most elusive skill – creativity. But it’s worth it. And now that you’re aware of why you have to do it, hopefully you’ll be better prepared to do it. Once you start getting your characters to make unique choices, your story will become so much more exciting and unique for readers and for yourself.

What do you think? Are unusual decisions important? Have you written stories where your characters make unusual decisions? 

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2 thoughts on “The Most Important Trait of Compelling Protagonists

  1. Pingback: 4 Essential Elements of an Effective Love Interest Character – Jed Herne: Writer

  2. Pingback: 5 Reasons To Have a Likeable Antagonist – Jed Herne: Writer

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