What Makes for a Compelling Protagonist?

Blowhard, Esq. writes:

A while back The Question Lady asked:

Question: Do you as a reader or writer need a “likeable” protagonist? We just read a blog review of a Donald Westlake Parker novel. Now, we LOVE Westlake. But they complained that Parker’s not “likeable.” My attitude: Uh, he’s an anti-hero. And is Lady Macbeth likeable? Would you be BFF with Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca?”

Usually, I hear writers say that readers don’t really want “likeable” characters, they want “relatable” ones. I think that’s true, but words like “likeable” and “relatable” are mere conclusions, right? What makes a character “relatable”? Here are a few traits that are usually good hooks for me.

1. Confidence. Characters possessed of confidence are always intriguing. People like spending time with other people who know what they’re doing, who seem to have it all figured out. This trait is usually possessed by evil characters, which is why they don’t have to be likeable for us to spend time with them.

2. Adept at their job. This is closely connected to number 1. Don Draper in Mad Men and Jimmy McNulty in The Wire on paper should not be likeable. Draper is a liar, emotionally distant, and a serial adulterer. McNulty is a selfish, self-destructive alcoholic who makes life miserable for almost everyone around him. But both are great at their jobs. Ebert said in his review of Cast Away, “I find it fascinating when a movie just watches somebody doing something. Actual work is more interesting than most plots.”

3. Funny. Funny forgives almost everything. People will put up with a lot so long as you’re funny.

4. Weaknesses. This is what makes a character relatable since we all have them. No one wants to read a story about perfect people who encounter no obstacles. There’s no conflict in that. We want to see people struggle against their weaknesses. If it’s a Hollywood movie, the weaknesses are overcome. If it’s an independent movie, people remain prisoners to them.

Going back to Holmes for a second, I was reading Kyle Freeman’s introduction to volume 1 of The Complete Sherlock Holmes. He asks, “Just what is it about Sherlock Holmes that has captivated people for so long?” His answers illustrate my rules pretty well:

  • “His intelligence, his self-assurance, his mastery of every situation, and his unerring judgment are all enormously appealing.” In other words, his confidence that springs from skill at his profession.
  • “We are also attracted by Holmes’s sense of humor…This quality goes a long way toward humanizing him, making it easier to feel affection for a character whose abilities could well make him seem more machine than human.”
  • “His eccentricities add to his appeal…Devoting his life to fighting crime, for instance, is surely unusual.” Furthermore, “Holmes’s attitude toward class distinction is also unusual for his time…His judgments about people arise from the content of their characters, not from the color of their coats of arms.”
  • “Lest he seem impossibly superior, Holmes is given some counterbalancing weaknesses.” For example, he’s sometimes wrong, can be overly critical of others, and he’s manic-depressive.

About Blowhard, Esq.

Amateur, dilettante, wannabe.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, Movies and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What Makes for a Compelling Protagonist?

  1. Natalie says:

    Pat Bateman in American Psycho. Johnny Truant in House of Leaves.


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