Will Readers Find Your Protagonist Worthy?

worthy3There are many facets of a strong protagonist. And as we juggle the different pieces of characterization with the goal of building someone truly exceptional, one of the biggest jobs is to make sure readers connect to the protagonist, understand his or her goals, and most importantly, find them worth rooting for.

Stating the obvious here, right? Sure. But achieving worthiness is easier said than done. Deeper and more complex than simple likability, worthiness means delivering on meaningful character qualities that will elevate your protagonist in the reader’s eyes.

Any Character Can Be Likeable, But Your Protagonist Must Be Worthy

There are many attractive traits and behaviors that hold universal appeal. Recently I wrote a post discussing how the Love Interest in a romance novel needs to capture not just the heart of the protagonist, but the reader’s also. Why is this so important? Because if an author does their job correctly, readers will want the protagonist to get what they deserve, and in romance, that’s a likeable match…the perfect partner.

The stakes are even higher when it comes to the protagonist, however. To win over the reader we need to stretch past likability and achieve true worthiness. We want readers to believe there’s something compelling and special about our character so they root for him. To do that, not only should the very best bits of a protagonist’s personality shine throughout the story, but something even more meaningful.

Your Hero’s Center: Their Moral Compass

What really resonates with readers is when a character shows deep convictions–a passion for something meaningful. Why is this? Because buried deep within each of us is our moral center, a belief system that influences our every thought, action and choice. And, for characters to be authentic, they too must display a highly tuned set of beliefs that guide their motivations.

While it’s easy to assume that “good” or “worthy” characters must all have a similar moral compass, the truth is that this part of an individual is truly unique. How a person was raised, who and what influenced them, and the positive and negative lessons learned along the way will shape their moral code.  This is true of life, and so should be true in fiction.

In light of this, do you know what represents right and wrong to your hero or heroine? What moral lines will he or she never cross? What moral belief stands above the rest–kindness? Loyalty? Justice? Equality? Something else? Understanding your hero’s moral center is key to knowing which attributes will naturally line up with his beliefs.

Target blank(WHW Target Tool Printable)

Think of your character’s personality like the “bulls eye” target. The innermost circle (the eye) contain positive attributes that go deepest, influencing which other traits will also likely form. In The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Attributes, Becca and I refer to these as Moral Attributes as they are tied directly to the character’s belief system. For example, if kindness is a core belief, it becomes one of the character’s moral attributes, and will help dictate what other attributes form. A kind person may also be perceptive, courteous, unselfish, and tolerant, because these traits are supportive of this central trait and moral belief.

Positive Trait ThesaurusOn the other hand, attributes like analytical, flamboyant, and persuasive may not be personality stepping stones. An analytical person studies and weighs, and only then chooses to act (or not). A flamboyant person isn’t afraid to be themselves, even if it means making others slightly uncomfortable. A persuasive person likes to be involved and drive decisions rather than wait to see where a need might form. So in some way, each of these attributes doesn’t quite line up to a person who prizes open giving and goodwill above all else.

Understanding the character’s moral center helps you build a protagonist that sticks to who he is deep down no matter what. To peel back the layers on your character’s morality, think about the person’s backstory and which people and events taught the character something about life and how the world works, in good ways and bad.

Here are a few more articles on this important aspect of character building:

Building Authentic Heroes Using Attribute Categories

How Morals and Basic Needs Influence a Character’s Positive Traits

Deepen Conflict By Forcing Your Hero To Embrace The Grey Areas of Morality

Justifying Evil: Understanding Moral Ranges as a Writer

Creating a Moral Villain

image: Nile @ pixabay




Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Character Traits, Characters, Empathy, Positive & Negative Thesaurus Guides, Show Don't Tell, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.
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Lichen Craig
4 years ago

This is very good, Angela. I have often had this convo with editing clients: you can (and many do) have a protagonist that is unlikable (anti-hero), but he must have some admirable beliefs and be worthy of the reader’s respect for some reason, or the story won’t hold the reader and won’t work. If he’s just a jerk, no one will care what happens to him..

Anne Marie
5 years ago

This is a great post! I feel like my MCs hit a lot of these points, but the story can always be deeper.

Cathleen Townsend
5 years ago

Hi. I love this post and would like to reblog it on my blog. Usually, it’s an intro by me with a few hundred words of teaser from your original article, followed by the link for the rest of the article.

However, I would like permission to do this first. Please let me know what you think. 🙂

5 years ago

Hi, Cathleen. Absolutely, please do reblog it. All that we ask in this circumstance is that you link back to our blog. Thanks for checking. Best of luck!


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Ellen Mulholland
5 years ago

Each time I dive into your books, I understand their value more and more. I love this idea of focussing on your protagonist’s moral compass. Something I’ve been told by school psychologists: in adolescence, it is natural and vital for a child to sway from his moral compass. It’s how he finds his true self in the world. Also, though he may steal, lie, or cheat as a teen, if his values were in place prior to puberty, they will return once he emerges from adolescence. Good to know for writers of YA; a long struggle for some parents!

Thanks for your amazing site, Angela and Becca!


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Mart Ramirez
5 years ago

More awesome tips! Thank you! Love how you referred to it as a moral center/moral compass. And thank you for link to previous post and handout. XO

Carol Gonzalez
Carol Gonzalez
5 years ago

I am agree whit you, all it’s true, that’s because I love write it’s so intuitive. The people nedds identify whit the characters not only the principal, understand why the characters act they do,which leads to understanding and affection. Sorry for some mistakes my native language it’s spanish and I am still learning English. 🙂

Traci Kenworth
5 years ago

Awesome blog!! A moral compass is the most important and intriguing piece of a character we can give them. And I love the line about “peeling back the layers,” it so says it all.

PK Hrezo
5 years ago

I just had an epiphany about my MC while reading this. Yay!

Robyn Campbell
5 years ago

Love this, Angela.Excellent. I realized something about my character. The WHY she is lying is just as important as anything else in the story. Maybe more. She is someone who would NEVER lie under normal circumstances. Thanks, buddy. Howdy to Becca. 🙂