There 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.
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.
On 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: