There isn’t a set formula for whipping up a compelling protagonist. Endless hours go into developing them as they are the lens through which the author is able to display the fruits of their imagination – perfection in this aspect is key to a gripping narrative.
I love how every protagonist is unique in literature. I can drop into a new world with a new point of view with every title knowing that, as much as I am discovering a new place, I am also preparing to discover a whole new cast of characters.
There are, however, certain tropes which have stood the test of time. You can trace a line through the history of literature by looking at how new authors have learnt from their predecessors and twisted the base model into something unique and wonderful, adapting the classics for a new generation.
He is a man of books and letters rather than your typical hero but this makes him all the more endearing as a protagonist
One of my favourite types of character is the reluctant hero. Bilbo Baggins from Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth springs to mind here, but my favourite literary character is someone much more recent who has clearly been inspired by Bilbo to a certain extent.
Thomas Senlin from Josiah Bancroft’s series, The Books of Babel, is thrust into his adventure. Like the Hobbits, he much prefers the comforts of home. He is a man of books and letters rather than your typical hero but this makes him all the more endearing as a protagonist. His goal is simple, to be reunited with his lost wife but his path is anything but easy.
My favourite thing about Senlin, and where I think Bancroft’s skill really shows through, is the subtle development in Senlin’s character throughout the plot. Changes are imperceptible as they happen but when you compare his character at the start and end of each novel, the man is almost unrecognisable.
I think this is something every author should strive to achieve. It goes beyond growth and development because he is being changed against his will and in a very realistic way. I felt great sympathy for Senlin, seeing everything he has had to sacrifice and yet how he still grasps onto what little remains of his former identity. It serves as a clear mark of his devotion and makes him one of the most noble heroes that I can think of.
Another common type of protagonist which can be very powerful is the passive victim of an uncontrollable plot, someone helpless to alter their own fate.
She is such a powerful protagonist because she is paired so perfectly with the wartime setting of the novel
In this category, the most powerful example that I have read would have to be Pelagia in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Louis de-Bernière’s protagonist caused me emotional turmoil, the likes of which I haven’t felt since. She is such a powerful protagonist because she is paired so perfectly with the wartime setting of the novel. This novel is de-Bernière’s way of picturing war from an innocent perspective and through Pelagia he illustrates the battles beyond the front lines to great effect.
From this, readers should realise the protagonist cannot be seen as separate from the plot. The two must complement each other to have a truly lasting impact. The same story told from multiple perspectives can vary in its effect quite significantly.
My final choice of a powerful protagonist is a more classic example. Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein is such a great character for different reasons to the previous two. What makes Victor interesting is his ability to make the reader question everything.
Rather than being your morally righteous good-guy, Victor is the cause of much debate as a protagonist. His decisions are always questionable yet it is nearly impossible to ever cast definite judgement in favour or against him as there are hints of benevolence behind every action.
Flaws and questionable decisions really help to make a protagonist feel, if nothing else, a little bit more human
Shelley is a master in the way she creates such complexity in her character and he is all the more powerful for this depth and ambiguity. Flaws and questionable decisions really help to make a protagonist feel, if nothing else, a little bit more human.
What makes the perfect protagonist is a very personal question. For me, there should always be more than can be seen at the surface; if the characters aren’t questioning themselves, then I should be. We should be able to empathise with the characters in their distress and revel in their victories, building on the established framework to introduce the world to new, unique minds, knowing as writers that our stories are being received in the way they were intended.