‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them’ wrote the Bard of Avon. For an author, his protagonist belongs to the third category. A persona that they create and upon whom they need to thrust greatness. Easier said than done you may say but it ain’t really rocket science. So how do you do it?
First and foremost, make sure your protagonist is singular enough. In other words he or she must be such a unique specimen of humanity that instantly attracts attention. He must be an individual with qualities physical, mental or emotional that compels reader interest. Having said that, your protagonist may also be someone with no striking traits at all and he may gain them on the way like a coming of age tale. But even a Plain Jane can have a certain virtue that puts her in the spotlight. Your reader must establish a relation with your hero and sympathize or at least empathise. Anything unusual will always generate curiosity and that’s what you want at the beginning of the book. Think of the Spanish hero Don Quixote created by Cervantes and how he is fascinating because he is so hilariously misguided.
Give your hero a good balance of good and bad virtues. Excess of either can alienate your reader. The protagonist cannot be a model of perfection or a pit of vices (unless you are deliberately creating an exaggerated character). Give him human imperfections and he will come across as real and identifiable. Traditionally protagonists have all the moral values in place, though we are increasingly witnessing characters who are blurring the lines between good and evil. Flaws create the scope for problems that lead to character development and conflict. Shakespearean heroes like Macbeth and Othello are fabulous case studies since they are great characters but with that one tragic flaw that leads to their downfall.
Your protagonist must be consistent. Once you have moulded them in a certain way, they should act within that framework. Any irregularity can irritate the reader and he might start doubting the integrity of your central character. It is this uniformity that familiarizes the protagonist to a reader. Of course once in a while, your hero can do something totally unexpected and unpredictable but keep these spurts within acceptable boundaries. There’s nothing more attractive than the protagonist at times contradicting himself or going through a sudden internal conflict. Remember we are human and can fall prey to unforeseen dilemmas.
Make sure your protagonist has a motive or a problem that needs to be tackled. An aim or ambition, that becomes the driving force for the character as well as the book’s narrative. It is this dream or goal that will be the plot of your book and the pivot around which all events shall revolve. The conflict will also make the protagonist an active trigger to cause things to happen. His actions and choices must direct the course of your tale. He might change along the way or come out unscathed but he must act. The grander his trial by fire, the more majestic he becomes. The hero Frodo’s final triumph in The Lord of the Rings is spectacular because he perseveres on and fulfils a task most gigantic.
While it’s imperative that the protagonist must act, he must have good reasons to do so. Make sure that the events in his life compel him to stand up and react. Unless you give them a good reason, the credibility of your story will come under the scanner. The one that works every time is that he will stand to gain something or lose something priceless unless he acts. Everyone likes a hero to keep going despite odds and be rewarded in the end. The eighty years old detective, Miss Marple trudges on and on to smoke out the murderer simply because the author Agatha Christie makes Marple’s moral beliefs about murder crystal clear for us. Of course you can make the hero lose everything and stand alone and desolate if you are going for an absolute tragic ending.
Your protagonist must have the capacity to change and grow. Character development is the bloodline for any story. Whether it’s for the better or worse, your hero should be a different person in the end than waht he was when his journey began. Create experiences and events that react with your central character and mould him as he travels through your book. To what extent you can change him depends on your vision but keep it within the realms of believability. Think of the heroes of Charles Dickens like Pip or David and how they evolve through the book from boys to men.
Keep in mind that your protagonist is the foundation on which your entire edifice rests. Make him paper thin and your entire book will collapse. Thrust greatness upon him and your book will spread its wings and soar sky high.