Create a Relatable Protagonist

I started writing only a few short years ago and am currently working on the fourth installment of my series. Frankly, I was under the delusion that at this stage of the game I’d have this writing stuff down and would be churning out books. Not the case. Writing strips you down, exposes your vulnerable, innermost being, and kicks the living daylights out of your confidence. That’s my experience, at least. I hate writing most days, yet I’m compelled to keep on going, because it is when I’m struggling to express this adventure that is incessantly playing out in my head that I feel the most alive. Anxious and invigorated at the same time—go figure.

However, I have learned a thing or two thus far in this endeavor. I’m going to share an epiphany that I believe saved Cassidy Jones. Unfortunately, the female protagonist in another young adult series triggered the lightening bolt and awareness of a trap that many new writers heedlessly walk into when writing a first-person narrative, and there is no better way to ruin a protagonist, especially for a young reader, in my opinion. I won’t mention the name of this protagonist. The author does have feelings, after all.

Like millions of other readers, I devoured this book series, lost myself in the story, and loved every moment of it. Although I did not love the protagonist. I didn’t like being trapped in her head, privy to her thoughts, and seeing the world through her eyes. Essentially, she annoyed me. I found myself scratching my head over how any male would be enthralled with her, let alone the supernatural males who fought over her.

So what went wrong with her?

Actually, I didn’t explore this question, until I had finished and revised the first draft of Cassidy Jones and the Secret Formula. A conversation with my daughter about the series revealed that she didn’t care for the protagonist either. Curious, I asked her friends and mine who’d read and enjoyed the series their feelings about the protagonist and discovered she was their least favorite character, too. After mulling over why this was—what made the character who should be most appealing, not—it struck me: The author had made a rookie mistake and—oh my gosh—I was making it too!

So here it is, my epiphany (take it or leave it): The quickest way of ruining a first-person narrative is making your protagonist the source of conflict. In this particular case, the author had to get from “A” to “B” in the storyline and used her protagonist as the vehicle. Big mistake.

Now, if this series had been written in a third-person narrative, where the reader hovered over the unfolding story, detached, observing and catching snippets of thoughts from various characters and revelations, the protagonist’s flaws and shortcomings wouldn’t have been as impactful. Readers want to like the protagonist whose mind a first-person narrative forces them into, and who likes anyone displaying traits that are universally considered repugnant?

Trust me, I throw no stones, because I had fallen into the same pitfall. The original Cassidy Jones was my chosen tension driver and the end result was a person I wouldn’t want anything to do with. Almost frantic to fix Cassidy, I reached for the scalpel and removed or revamped behavior that made my upper lip curl in distaste, giving my superhero a complete personality-lift. Cassidy, like her creator, is far from perfect, but my goal wasn’t to make her so. I want her to be relatable to my target audience, someone a young reader enjoys hanging out with, gets a good laugh from, here and there, and would want to be friends with. The young reader wouldn’t have to agree with all of Cassidy’s choices and feelings, but I’d hope both would at least be conceivable and ring true.

Here is how I suggest creating a lovable and relatable protagonist:

(1)  Create a list of personality traits you abhor. Don’t inflict your protagonist with any of them.

(2)   Talk with members of your target audience and discover what they want in a friend. Tweens and teens especially want a likeable and down to earth protagonist. Your protagonist should display weaknesses and flaws, and should struggle with challenges facing young people, but you’d better darn well make him or her appealing!

(3)  Don’t put your reader at the center of the conflict by having your protagonist generate it. Allow the conflict and muddle to surround your first person character. Have him or her be an overcomer, not an instigator.

This wraps up my two-cents worth. Happy writing—and don’t forget, it is hard!

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Elise-2.Stokes.crop5x7.0045Elise Stokes lives with her husband and four children. She was an elementary school teacher before becoming a full-time mom. With a daughter in middle school and two in high school, Elise’s understanding of the challenges facing girls in that age range inspired her to create a series that will motivate girls to value individualism, courage, integrity, and intelligence. The stories in Cassidy Jones Adventures are fun and relatable, and a bit edgy without taking the reader uncomfortably out of bounds. Cassidy Jones and the Secret FormulaCassidy Jones and Vulcan’s Gift, and Cassidy Jones and the Seventh Attendant are the first three books in the series. Book Four, Cassidy Jones and the Luminous, will be released in 2014.

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About Michelle Isenhoff

MICHELLE ISENHOFF has been reader-nominated for a Cybils Award, the Great Michigan Read, and the Maine Student Book Award. She's also placed as a semi-finalist in the Kindle Book Review Book Awards and been named a finalist in the kid-judged Wishing Shelf Book Awards. A former teacher and current homeschooler, Michelle has been lauded by the education community for the literary quality of her work, which is regularly purchased for classroom use.

19 thoughts on “Create a Relatable Protagonist

  1. Great post, Elise. Because my series is in third person, I’d never considered what having your protagonist do in terms of creating the conflict could do to her likeability factor among readers. That’s great advice!

  2. That’s a wonderful insight – and just as I’m final editing my next book, with Victor narrating his own story. Fortunately he doesn’t suffer from the problems you cite – he’s mainly trying to make sense of the things going on around him (and missing the obvious!) Thanks for the extra help – it’s a great check for me..

    BTW my review of Cassidy Jones and the Vulcan’s Gift is out this Saturday (15th) on my blog..

    1. LOL, Jemima! You have to wonder why these characters of ours miss what’s plain as day sometimes. As you know from reading Vulcan’s Gift, Cassidy can be a bit oblivious. 😉 And thank you for reading it! I appreciate your giving Cassidy Jones a shot and look forward to your review. Thank you and best wishes with your upcoming novel. I cannot wait to get to the final editing stage for #4. I should finish the wrap up for the first draft today. That will be quite a relief!

  3. I had never thought of this in this context… I always felt that there needed to be conflict with your protagonist. So are you implying, let them be the “victim of their circumstances?” If so, I can see that – let the conflict come to them, versus them creating it… it’s a really interesting concept… Great post Elise!

    1. Thank you, Elyse. As I mentioned, this is just my observation and based on the feedback I collected on this particular character. What’s interesting is I’ve had private messages taking a stab at the protagonist I’m referring to. Some guesses were right. Tells me I’m not too far off the mark. Conflict instigators are especially annoying when they dig their heels in where it doesn’t make sense. Reactions have to be logical under the circumstances, if that makes sense?

  4. Great post, Elise, and I knew exactly who you were talking about. I couldn’t stand that girl either. What the heck was the author thinking? Seems like you’re thinking ahead and making sure you draw in your readers with likable and relatable characters. Kudos for your fab insight.

    1. Thank you, Sharon, and I’m so glad you didn’t mention her name, or I would have felt terribly guilty. 🙂 I feel bad enough that so many have guessed spot-on. We all make rookie mistakes, even debut writers who win the lottery. I’m sure she’d carve out her protagonist entirely different today.

  5. Wonderful post! I think it’s certainly okay for a protagonist to have internal conflict, but it has to be real. And it has to result in action. The old conundrum where the villain ties the leading lady to the train tracks and sets the town on fire can create internal conflict in the hero: who do I save? A decision gets made and an action is taken.

    No one wants to read about a hero who curls up in a ball and hopes it will all go away. 😉

    1. Thanks, Alan, and agreed. Internal conflict makes the character ring true. I’m talking about characters that create the problem, like digging in their heels and refusing to help where lives are at stake because their boyfriend hurt their feelings or something. An actual person wouldn’t behave that way (hopefully); only a character that the author is using to stir things up.

  6. Great post, Elise. Both of my series are written in 3rd–but I am toying with a third series written in first. I will keep this in mind. 🙂 Thanks

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