Ever read a book or watch a movie and find yourself hating a protagonist almost more than an antagonist? In short, it’s awful. Who are you supposed to root for if the main character isn’t even likeable?
As you begin planning your novel, it’s never too early to begin thinking about how to make your protagonist lovable and your antagonist (a little) sympathetic. If you want to keep your readers from putting down your book too soon, add a couple of these key elements to your characters’ personalities.
Real Life Values for True to Life Characters
Start with the basis for your main characters’ actions: their moral compass. Every character should have a set of morals, even if they’re very general, like the belief that one should always be honest or a healthy amount of respect for human life. They can have morals with a little bit of twisted reasoning, like an antagonist robbing banks as they need to pay for life-saving treatment for their sick daughter, but all your characters should have some variation of a code of honor.
If you’re stuck on what set of morals your character should have, think of your own. What would make you take action in your character’s situation? Wealth, love, a desire to right an injustice? This would also be a great time to begin a little bit of research. Dig into the lives of some of the most famous characters on screen and in print and piece together their moral values. This should leave you with at least a few ideas.
Your characters’ moral reasoning doesn’t have to be the most logically sound, but they need to at least have a set of values, no matter how corrupted they may be.
Humanity for All
Even if your characters are indeed in-human, they need some degree of humanity. Humans are flawed. We get facts wrong, act on impulse, let our emotions blind us, and essentially make mistakes every waking hour. When we’re reading a book, we want our characters to at least do some of those things too.
Your characters should not be impenetrable. They must have some way to be beaten because that’s what we, real life humans, are like. Your bravest characters should fear something, your most devious characters should love something, they should feel like real people.
When working out the moral compass of your character, use this as an opportunity to also find what makes them human. How did a big mistake or loss transform their morals into what they are today? Consider how your characters’ morals hint at both their strengths and weaknesses.
Part of this humanity is also giving your reader a glimpse at each character’s perspective. How do they perceive their own actions? For a protagonist, they may just think they’re saving the world, but it is more complicated for an antagonist. Chances are, they aren’t murdering thousands of people senselessly, they have to see some good in their actions. They could see their actions as bringing “balance” to the world’s system of good and evil, or they could see those they’re attacking as people who have also done something wrong and need to be brought to justice. Your reader should be able to look at them and without agreeing, maybe say, “Hey, I see where they’re coming from”.
If your reader can identify with the villain of the novel, even for a second, you’ll know you’ve given them a little humanity.
An Ever-Present Threat Level
From stories about elementary school bullies to galactic dictators, both your protagonist and antagonist need to pose some threat to the other. One threat may be way more obvious than the other, but both need to exist.
Your protagonist means nothing if the villain isn’t at least a little afraid of what they could do. Your villain may be the more preeminent threat, but they should be looking over their shoulder every few minutes, worried if that protagonist has been taken out yet or if they’re still out there, lurking in the background.
Something should always be at stake until the end to keep up the suspense.
Best Friends in Tough Times
Everybody needs a few good friends, even big bad guys.
Surround both your protagonist and antagonist with some support characters. This doesn’t mean the focus has to be lifted from the main characters, but friends will help build up your world and liven up the story line.
Your support characters don’t have to be best friends with the main hero either. They can be mentors, colleagues, or even close family. It can be easy to get wrapped up in the main character’s struggle, but remember not to leave them lonely for too long. Friends can be what drives the protagonist or they can come to the rescue when he or she has landed in a sticky situation.
If you wouldn’t want to be stranded without anyone by your side, neither would your characters.
A Healthy Dose of Ambition
Nobody really wants to read about a couch potato who spends their day debating on whether or not they should get involved with the plot. A good protagonist (and antagonist!) should want to tackle an obstacle and achieve their goal.
Before the main conflict even arises, build up your character to be someone with purpose and goals. They don’t have to be a world-changer, just someone who takes action about things that matter to them.
Find out what does matter to your character and how that aligns with their morals. Figure out what they are ambitious about in their daily life, what their goals are before the main plot of the story. Maybe they want to create a better life for their family, obtain some promotion at work, or finally win the heart of their romantic interest. When you find out what drives them, relate that to the main conflict of your story. What are they sacrificing if they don’t act, or what can they achieve by getting involved?
Lazy characters won’t catch the reader’s attention, but active ones will!
Active, not Passive, Characters
Directly related to ambition, an interesting character is someone who is a do-er. Your character should always be active and looking for a new challenge to tackle.
This isn’t limited to your hero either. Your antagonist should always be moving towards an objective, even if they’re moving slowly. An antagonist who just sits on his pile of gold cackling all day is no fun. He or she should always be seeking more wealth, conquering more planets, or crafting a new plan to foil the plans of their archenemy.
Both characters should always be on a path towards something through the duration of the story. They should actively be changing the direction of the story line rather than just letting the events of the plot happen to them.
A Little Something Special
Your protagonist must have something that makes them unique. If your character is really just an average dude, why is the story about them? They’ve got to have something that makes them specially equipped to tackle the challenge at hand.
Depending on the genre of your novel, your character could be harboring a secret piece of information that nobody else knows, they could have a concealed superpower they only use when necessary, or they could have a few inside connections that help them get the job done.
You want your character to be normal enough to be relatable to the reader, yes, but without a special ability or unique secret, they can become too normal to add anything interesting to the conflict.
Their special something may only be a little extra determination, but give your protagonist something that makes them a novelty.
As you design both your antagonist’s and protagonist’s goals, take a moment to consider why they are at odds with each other. No matter how different they may be, they need to share something. Ideally they know each other in some way or both share a unique desire. Something must connect them.
Often times, the protagonist is seen as someone seeking revenge on the antagonist for something they did to hurt the protagonist or someone the protagonist loves. The two could be competing with each other in order to win a contest or gain control over a resource. Maybe the two were even friends at some point and one betrayed the other, leaving him or her to seek revenge.
Encounters between your two characters should never feel random. There should be some underlying reason the two are brought together again and that should be exposed by the end.
In the end, creating lovable (and hate-able) main characters is all about humanizing them to the readers and giving them unique personalties and goals, just like real people. The plot is important, yes, but the characters are what you’ll want your readers to remember. Remember, the plot of your novel will be temporary and passing, but if you have a few great characters, your readers will remember them forever.