Characterization: How to Create Believable Protagonists

While growing up in the 1960s I, like most boys, read lots of comic books. Batman was my favorite superhero. I never much cared for Superman, however, because he was just…well…not someone I could believe existed. At least Batman, behind his cape and cowl, was an actual person named Bruce Wayne.

Even so, our novel’s protagonist (hero) must be believable and someone with whom readers can identify and care about. In other words, they should be likeable. Also, introduce them in the story’s first scene.

Give the protagonist weaknesses and flaws. They can be major flaws, such as having them be workaholics, or minor flaws. For instance, in the series Columbo, Peter Falk’s character is usually unkempt and almost always wears a raincoat, even when it’s not raining. His sloppy exterior, though minor, is a flaw. Yet, we all love him and pull for him to find the murderer.

Another way to make our protagonists believable is to have them break a stereotype. This also adds more reader interest. One example would be an athletic hero, a former Olympic boxing champion who grew up in the slums and is now a detective. He enjoys reading highbrow novels and can quote Shakespeare. Have him do something likeable in his first scene. For example, let him deliver roses from his garden to one of his elderly neighbors before he deals with a homicide. Then, as the story progresses, bring in other positive traits. Does our champion love children? Does he take care of an autistic son? Such positive traits can create subplots and help deepen our story as well as our protagonist. And they make him likeable.

Once again, don’t make our hero perfect. Imperfect but likeable—that’s the key.

9 thoughts on “Characterization: How to Create Believable Protagonists

  1. I can’t remember the street name of Superman, but wasn’t he in love with Della Street?

    Dave

    Dave Parks

    On Thu, Jul 1, 2021 at 7:11 AM The Author’s Cove: John Jack Cunningham

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent post, Jack.

    I’m in the last couple of chapters in Nelson DeMille’s Plum Island. The protag, John Corey, is a perfect example of what you’re talking about. John is a smart and dedicated investigator, but also a wise-cracking pain in the butt to both friends and enemies. He admits it, and I guess that makes him even more likable.

    Like

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