Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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February 24, 2020

10 Ways to Make the Reader Care about Your Protagonist

by Tiffany Yates Martin

Imagine you’ve been given a fabulous vacation—a trip to Bali, a luxury cruise of the Nordic countries, an adventure vacation across Asia, an African safari. The only catch is that you have to go with a pre-selected travel companion, and you have to stay with that person the whole time. Oh—and she’s whiny. Or he’s completely passive and just wants to hang around in the hotel room and write in his journal. Or smug, or abrasive, or grandiosely self-absorbed, or always feeling victimized, or just plain dull. How much fun does that trip sound like now?

Authors sometimes assume that if they have an interesting enough setup and plot, readers will automatically be invested in their story. But no matter how spectacular the journey you promise them, readers don’t deeply care what’s happening unless they care who it’s happening to.

Barbara Linn Probst's Friday post about likeability and relatability showed why these traits matter in hooking your reader, and how incorporating the gray areas in both can create faceted, layered characters. Let's build on her insightful thoughts and talk about some specifics for creating characters that hook readers from the very beginning of your story.

That doesn’t mean your heroes have to be likable—although that’s one excellent way to make us want to take that journey. But they do need to be engaging and relatable enough from the very beginning of your story that we want to spend hours of our busy lives traveling with them, and there are a variety of ways to accomplish that.

#1 - Likability

This is definitely one of the most common ways to draw a reader into your protagonist, but making protagonists likable doesn’t mean making them uniformly good—that’s dull and results in flat characters who don’t feel real. It means there’s something inherently appealing to us about who they are—for instance:

  • Humor
  • Kindness, goodness
  • Genuineness, sincerity
  • Great passion for something, loyalty, love
  • Great talent or skill at something
  • Great effort or dedication to something
  • Someone who is a plucky underdog

Story consultant Michael Hauge offers a perfect example from the movie Wedding Crashers—a story about two potentially repugnant characters: womanizers who invade strangers’ weddings. This film brilliantly uses almost all of the above techniques in its opening ten or fifteen minutes to make sure we like these two enough to invest in them.

Within the first few scenes we see them ingeniously brokering a peaceful divorce settlement between an exceptionally antagonistic couple (competence/skill) by reminding them what they once loved about each other (goodness/sweetness), and being completely hilarious while they do it (humor).

Then we see them excitedly preparing for wedding season (passion/effort), along with demonstrating their strong friendship (loyalty/love) with a sweet (and probably true) story of Vince Vaughn’s character's caretaking of Owen Wilson's as kids (kindness). After that we’d forgive these guys almost any outrageous behavior (and we do!) because it’s impossible not to like them.

And a great example of a plucky underdog? Frodo.

Traits that alienate readers

Conversely some traits may distance a reader too much to invest in a character, even if you have created other sympathetic or likable qualities in him—and even if overcoming these flaws is part of the protag’s journey:

  • Casual thoughtlessness or cruelty (especially to those weaker or in a “punch down” position: animals, children, servers, clerks); abuse
  • Extreme narcissism, self-focus, obliviousness of others’ feelings and desires
  • Self-indulgence and self-pity—for instance, a character who milks a tragedy or sorrow or simply collapses or wallows. A protag who’s at least trying to be strong and persevere or fighting tears is infinitely more affecting and invests the reader more deeply than a character who sobs and wails his pain.
  • Weakness or victimization without any effort or at least desire to be strong. Weakness in and of itself isn’t a negative—in fact it can make a character greatly sympathetic. But we have to see her fighting, trying—or at least aware of her inability to be strong at that moment for some reason, like depression or oppression (or handcuffs).

Making non-likeable characters engaging.

But, as the enduring popularity of stories like Lolita, American Psycho, or Catcher in the Rye shows (or shows like Breaking Bad and The Americans), protagonists don’t have to be likable to engage us as readers. You can create antiheroes or just reprehensible protagonists and still invest the reader in them using other techniques as well.

2. The hope of redemption

This plays on the common human urge to rescue and rehabilitate. The movie Leaving Las Vegas was built around this idea.

3. Righteousness

If a character’s motivation appeals to the almost universal human sense of justice or fairness, readers will be drawn into his cause even if he’s not a likable character, as with Tom Hanks’s ruthless mob enforcer who is seeking to avenge the vicious murders of his family in Road to Perdition.

4. The hope for comeuppance

This also plays on our craving for justice. Lady Macbeth taps into this desire in us, and Gillian Flynn created a riveting cat-and-mouse of it with both her unlikable protagonists in Gone Girl.

5. Lesser of evils

The book series (and TV show) Dexter is built on this premise: that the protagonist is bad, but those he’s working against (or who are working against him) are worse. (Dexter is also redeemed partly by his loyalty to his sister.)

6. Outcome trumps means

If the “bad guys” are fighting for good, for whatever reason, we root for them—as in the movie Suicide Squad (though notice that in this DC Comics movie each character is also given a sympathetic backstory to explain their “badness”).

7. Vicarious thrill/power

Humans are complicated, and even when we strive to be good there is a fascination with the dark side. Art allows us to indulge that. It can be exhilarating to see characters exercising freedom of bad behavior we feel strictures against. The TV show House of Cards traded on this guilty pleasure, as do The Godfather and The Sopranos.

8. Sheer charisma

If an antihero has enough élan, readers/audiences can’t help but be drawn in (this can actually play powerfully into the theme of the seductive, destructive lure of evil). Hannibal Lecter is a delicious example of a fascinating bad guy we may find ourselves drawn to. Sherlock Holmes is a moody, drug-addicted narcissist—but his uncanny genius for solving crimes makes him larger than life.

9. Sympathy/empathy/relatability/universal truth

These are powerful ways to invest readers in a protagonist, whether or not we like her. If we can relate to a character’s situation, struggle, challenges, pain, we will follow her journey.

Paula Hawkins took advantage of this in The Girl on the Train with her unpleasant alcoholic heroine in whom we nonetheless invest as she tries to seek justice, solve a mystery, right a wrong, all common human urges we can relate to.

In Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, protagonist Amir can be entitled, cruel, dismissive, and resentful of Hassan, the disadvantaged son of his family’s caretaker who is raised almost as a brother with the privileged Amir and offers Amir nothing but unconditional love and support—and Amir commits an appalling betrayal of Hassan. Yet we can sympathize (perhaps empathize) with the lack of love Amir feels from the father he idolizes, his feeling that his father loves Hassan more, his inadequacy and pain, and we stay invested in his journey.

Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces is irascible, lazy, judgmental, and full of resentment for the world and its treatment of him—and yet many readers can sympathize or empathize with his grudges, even if we don’t let that worldview take us over, as Ignatius has. (We may also sympathize with author John Kennedy Toole’s story—falling into depression and alcoholism, he committed suicide at 31 and never saw his novels succeed, yet they were published after his death and Dunces won a Pulitzer. Though I don’t recommend this as a writing strategy.…)

10. Effort/striving/sacrifice

Even a “bad” character may invest us if we see him fighting his dark side or demons. For instance, spoiled, self-centered Darcy spends a lot of time in Emily Giffin’s Something Blue ranting about her former best friend who stole her fiancé, but also realizes her own part in her broken relationships and tries to do better. Kristin Bell’s character in the TV show The Good Place begins as a morally reprehensible soul mistakenly sent to heaven, but comes to genuinely want to learn to be a good person.

You can also show your character craving or fighting for something better for herself or others, like Katniss working for a better life for her family and to save her sister Prim in Hunger Games, or the father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road who will do any terrible thing and make any sacrifice—including his soul—for his son.

Finally, you can hook readers by showing a character willing to give up or actually sacrificing a selfish goal for someone or something else, or for the greater good: like Gandalf falling to the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring to allow Frodo to escape with the One True Ring, or Cyrano de Bergerac sacrificing his own happiness for his love Roxanne’s, or Oskar Schindler risking his freedom and his life to save persecuted Jewish people.

Reader engagement hinges on character investment. The author’s job is to find reasons for us to buy in.

What techniques do you use to invest readers in your protagonists? What unlikeable protagonists do you love?

* * * * * *

I’m excited to share that my book for authors to learn to self-edit their writing, Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing, releases May 5! You can learn more and preorder here.

Summary: Whether you’re writing fiction, narrative nonfiction, or memoir; whether this your first story or your fiftieth, Intuitive Editing will give you the tools you need to edit and revise your own writing with inspiration, motivation, and confidence.

About Tiffany

Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and bestselling authors as well as newer writers. She's led workshops and seminars for conferences and writers' groups across the country and is a frequent contributor to writers' sites and publications.

Top photo: Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

23 comments on “10 Ways to Make the Reader Care about Your Protagonist”

  1. What a fantastic post, Tiffany! I especially appreciate your iteration of ways to foster empathy and attachment to "unlikable" characters. I think we could add the curmudgeon with a heart of gold (cliche but it works) and those rogue-ish characters whom we sort of know we "shouldn't" root for, but do because they're so damn clever! Ken Follett is very good at this, though I have to say that those sort of anti-heroes are always male. Mostly, we can root for an unlikable character because we see that he or she wants to change and be better, yet I think there does have to be a very clear sense, early on, that she is capable of that. In an early book I wrote (never to see the light of day, thank goodness), my protagonist was too angry and self-pitying. It just didn't work. Your post shows why = nothing strong enough to balance that! Such a complex topic for us as writers! Thank you again for bringing so much light!!

    1. Thanks, Barbara! Interesting observation about the clever character you root for often being male--that's one reason I think Victoria Helen Stone's sociopath Jane Doe protag in that series has captured so many readers. Really enjoyed your post Friday as well on the same topic!

  2. Love this, Tiffany! I had to have a 'save the cat' with my heroine in my WIP. She's a closed off 'ice queen', but I didn't want to do a backstory dump to explain why in the very beginning.

    So I introduced a homeless girl she runs into, and she gives her one of the $50 bills in her purse, rubber-banded around a business card for the Runaway shelter she supports. The fact that she has a bunch of them in her purse hopefully shows she's a good person, in spite of her demeanor, until I can show why she is the way she is.

    1. That's a great "marker," Laura! Little actions and gestures like that are perfect for giving readers a reason to invest--as in Wedding Crashers. It doesn't have to be anything big or even a focus...just a flash of insight for the reader that there's more to this character than we may think we see thus far. And that contrast--seemingly cold versus that caring action--creates a fantastic story question as well. The more you raise a reader's radar and make us ask questions, the more we invest. Thanks for the great example!

  3. Wonderful post! Thanks, Tiffany. Like many, I've found myself struggling with creating early empathy and/or relatability for a character with particular flaws. I'm not sure though, that all successful writers with successful stories get us there at that early stage.

    There have been times I ended up sticking with a novel simply because I read something in the blurb that gave me hope--let me know that an engaging change was coming and that I shouldn't miss it.

    Take Oskar Schindler for example. At the beginning of the story, he was an egotistical, profit-hungry man doing business with the abhorrent Nazis. Quite a bit of story had gone by before Oskar showed heroic traits. Without a compelling blurb telling the reader or movie watcher that a character like Schindler will become a hero, how do we keep our readers reading through the first parts of a story like that?

    I am still struggling to dissect effective stories to try to learn how the author pulled off reader interest while introducing us to the everyday life of a character like Schindler, but your post has given me more insight to think about.

    1. Thanks for your comment, DL. It's a great and interesting point. One thing that stories can trade on in this regard--at least once published--is the back cover copy. If we know that this is a story about Oskar Schindler, a man who helped hundreds of Jewish people to safety during the Holocaust, then what creates a compelling story question early in that invests us, even if Schindler himself doesn't yet hook us, is the "how" of that--especially if Schindler isn't immediately heroic or even admirable, readers' curiosity may propel them to read on to find out how a guy like that becomes a hero.

      There's also a bit of redemption in there, perhaps--our hope or expectation of it. And I have to admit I haven't read the book and it's been years since I saw the film, but I suspect there's some vicarious reliability in there too--I imagine many of us (especially in the current sociopolitical environment) may have wondered what we'd do if we'd been alive during the Holocaust. Showing a man with similar worldly concerns and shortcomings we might see in ourselves facing that situation is a fascinating hook as well.

      The journey of a character often takes him or her from a point A that may not be fully likable or even relatable, so this is a great question--it's not enough to hope the reader will trust that you're taking the character (and the reader) somewhere; we have to see and feel that for ourselves early in. As Barbara Linn Probst points out, there are more ways to do this than are listed here, but I'm glad to hear this offered food for thought, and I'd be interested in hearing some of your techniques for this, if you have others. Thanks for weighing in!

  4. Thanks so much for this post, Tiffany. I struggle with the balance of likeable and real. Plus, unlikeable characters often up the tension of the story because the reader wants to know if they get redeemed. It seems like cheating to have the villains be the most unlikeable people in the book. What are your thoughts on that?

    1. It feels like "cheating" meaning it's too easy to make villains unlikable, as villains? I see your point--I do love me a sympathetic, "gray-area" villain, and I think some of the most memorable ones fit that mold, as I mentioned above. Plus they're just damn fun to write! Exploring all that moral ambiguity is fascinating. I got into a long discussion with a friend once about Thanos, in the Marvel universe. He's the uber-bad guy of the Avengers series, and he's awesome to hate and fear because he wants to kill great swaths of the population in an effort to make the world sustainable, but as my eco-conscious friend pointed out, "He's not entirely wrong." Horrific as the idea is, the end goal is understandable--and that I spent an evening with a friend parsing out that gray area I think is one of the strengths of this kind of ambiguous villain.

      On the other hand, my husband and I have been binge-watching all six seasons of the original L-Word TV show, and the arrogant, narcissistic Jenny is about as black-and-white as villains get--almost a caricature. And yet it's like eating popcorn--we can't stop. Hating her--and rooting like hell for her comeuppance--is almost gleeful.

      Or do you mean it feels like cheating not to write unlikable protagonists as well? Here again, both ways have so much to recommend them. An antihero can be powerful--look at the success of he Joker. But I think there's something wonderfully universal, hopeful, and palliative about living vicariously through the challenges and battles of characters who reflect the way many of us probably see ourselves--as basically decent people doing the best we can.

      This is what I love about art itself--all the permutations possible, all of which elicit different responses in different audiences. It's fascinating and so freeing. What kind of villains and heroes are you writing, Jenny?

      1. In my memoir, I have hero-doctors and villain-doctors. Our villain doctor actually asked my husband and I (at the end of our crazy-high-risk pregnancy), "So you're okay with fetal demise?" Almost 10 years later, it STILL gets my back up. I will turn that woman into a fictional villain one day.

        But in my fiction, my villains are often more of the life variety than the character variety. I have a three book women's fiction series with some very unlikeable antagonists. Example: Book 1, my best description of the antagonist's character is "crunchy." She is extremely challenging and unpleasant to the protag - but her reasons are golden. And my crunchy girl is actually the heroine of book two, where her mother's diabetes is the villain, but the mother herself is the antagonist.

        So, for me, this villain business is always kind of in the gray area.

        1. Horrible story about your doctor--I'm so sorry.

          And yes, that's the kind of villain ambiguity that can be so tasty. Love that you turned a "villain" of one story into the hero of another! Like Emily Giffin's books, Something Borrowed and Something Blue.

  5. Even for memoir writers like me, these are great tips, Tifffany. Not that I would invent a trait that doesn't exist, but I can be sure to dig for scenes that show those traits in my "characters."

    1. I love that you point this out, Karen. I couldn't agree more that conveying "character" in memoir is very aligned with creating it in fiction. Mostly the same principles--digging out context and nuance and depth, only in the case of memoir (or narrative nonfiction), working to reveal the actual person. And we're all just a big old frappe of contradictions and layers, "good" and "bad," aren't we? And we all show all those facets every day, in every tiny thing we do and say and think, how we comport ourselves, how we interact. I read a lot of psychology books, and I always think those are juicy training ground for character work. Thanks for your comment!

  6. This seems so obvious, and it reflects the reality of everyone's personality, but in practice it takes conscious effort and planning. I found that interviewing my "clients" (characters) gave them free rein to tell me about their hidden fears, longings, shames, resentments, and thus they grew in complexity and relatability.

    1. First off, it tickles me stupid that you refer to your characters as "clients." I love that! I've heard authors say that this interview technique is useful for them--I haven't tried it myself, but I like the idea. And may in fact borrow it to pass along in the future. 🙂 Thanks for the insight, Ann!

  7. Hey, you! I have some hateful antagonists in my novel, but my squishy sense of empathy fights me to fix them. I have to give them some small act of redemption. It kind of mirrors my protag’s loveable, yet totally misguided acts of civil disobedience. She rescues unloved items, mistreated animals.... She may do it after dark. And she’s an outcast and saves other damaged souls.

    I try to look for the good in people. I’d find a way to have that holiday in Bali. Find a way to turn it around. At least on paper. X j

    1. I have to agree with you--it seems to me that people aren't all good or all bad, and that's what makes us human (and fascinating). I really like a complicated villain--and one that makes us feel sympathy or empathy or even understanding. It's that old saying about most villains not thinking they're villains, right? They just have goals that oppose the protagonist's, and in their mind their actions are justified--even if their reasons are twisted by scars or wounds or fallacies of thought.

      That said, I wouldn't really want to go to Bali with, say Frank Underwood. 🙂

  8. I love redemptive characters, especially those working hard to achieve it, whether or not the he/she realizes the forgiveness will actually be the reward. The want to be a better person is the endearment of worthiness.


    1. Yes! I totally agree with that. There's something so foundationally human about the power of redemption, isn't there? The chance that someone can always do better. That's the human condition, I think.

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