Imagine you’ve been given a fabulous vacation — a trip to Bali, a luxury cruise of the Nordic countries, an adventure vacation across Asia, an African safari. The only catch is that you have to go with a preselected travel companion, and you have to stay with that person the whole time. Oh — and she’s whiny. Or he’s completely passive and just wants to hang around in the hotel room and write in his journal. Or smug, or abrasive, or grandiosely self-absorbed, or always feeling victimized, or just plain dull. How much fun does that trip sound like now?
Authors sometimes assume that if they have an interesting enough setup and plot, readers will automatically be invested in their story. But no matter how spectacular the journey you promise them, readers don’t deeply care what’s happening unless they care who it’s happening to.
That doesn’t mean your heroes have to be likable — although that’s one excellent way to make us want to take that journey. But they do need to be engaging and relatable enough from the very beginning of your story that we want to spend hours of our busy lives traveling with them, and there are a variety of ways to accomplish that:
This is definitely one of the most common ways to draw a reader into your protagonist, but making protagonists likable doesn’t mean making them uniformly good — that’s dull and results in flat characters who don’t feel real. It means there’s something inherently appealing to us about who they are — for instance:
- Kindness, goodness
- Genuineness, sincerity
- Great passion for something, loyalty, love
- Great talent or skill at something
- Great effort or dedication to something
- Someone who is a plucky underdog
Story consultant Michael Hauge offers a perfect example from the movie Wedding Crashers — a story about two potentially repugnant characters: womanizers who invade strangers’ weddings. This film brilliantly uses almost all of the above techniques in its opening ten or fifteen minutes to make sure we like these two enough to invest in them: Within the first few scenes we see them ingeniously brokering a peaceful divorce settlement between an exceptionally antagonistic couple (competence/skill) by reminding them what they once loved about each other (goodness/sweetness), and being completely hilarious while they do it (humor). Then we see them excitedly preparing for wedding season (passion/effort), along with demonstrating their strong friendship (loyalty/love) with a sweet (and probably true) story of Vince Vaughn’s character’s caretaking of Owen Wilson’s as kids (kindness). After that we’d forgive these guys almost any outrageous behavior (and we do!) because it’s impossible not to like them. And a great example of a plucky underdog? Frodo.
Conversely some traits may distance a reader too much to invest in a character, even if you have created other sympathetic or likable qualities in him — and even if overcoming these flaws is part of the protag’s journey:
- Casual thoughtlessness or cruelty (especially to those weaker or in a “punch down” position: animals, children, servers, clerks); abuse
- Extreme narcissism, self-focus, obliviousness of others’ feelings and desires
- Self-indulgence and self-pity — for instance, a character who milks a tragedy or sorrow or simply collapses or wallows. A protag who’s at least trying to be strong and persevere or fighting tears is infinitely more affecting and invests the reader more deeply than a character who sobs and wails his pain.
- Weakness or victimization without any effort or at least desire to be strong. Weakness in and of itself isn’t a negative — in fact it can make a character greatly sympathetic. But we have to see her fighting, trying — or at least aware of her inability to be strong at that moment for some reason, like depression or oppression (or handcuffs J).
But, as the enduring popularity of stories like Lolita, American Psycho, or Catcher in the Rye shows (or shows like Breaking Bad and The Americans), protagonists don’t have to be likable to engage us as readers. You can create antiheroes or just reprehensible protagonists and still invest the reader in them using other techniques as well:
2. The hope of redemption
This plays on the common human urge to rescue and rehabilitate. The movie Leaving Las Vegas was built around this idea.
If a character’s motivation appeals to the almost universal human sense of justice or fairness, readers will be drawn into his cause even if he’s not a likable character, as with Tom Hanks’s ruthless mob enforcer who is seeking to avenge the vicious murders of his family in Road to Perdition.
4. The hope for comeuppance
This also plays on our craving for justice. Lady Macbeth taps into this desire in us, and Gillian Flynn created a riveting cat-and-mouse of it with both her unlikable protagonists in Gone Girl.
5. Lesser of evils
The book series (and TV show) Dexter is built on this premise: that the protagonist is bad, but those he’s working against (or who are working against him) are worse. (Dexter is also redeemed partly by his loyalty to his sister.)
6. Outcome trumps means
If the “bad guys” are fighting for good, for whatever reason, we root for them — as in the movie Suicide Squad (though notice that in this DC Comics movie each character is also given a sympathetic backstory to explain their “badness”).
7. Vicarious thrill/power
Humans are complicated, and even when we strive to be good there is a fascination with the dark side. Art allows us to indulge that; it can be exhilarating to see characters exercising freedom of bad behavior we feel strictures against. The TV show House of Cards traded on this guilty pleasure, as do The Godfather and The Sopranos.
8. Sheer charisma
If an antihero has enough élan, readers/audiences can’t help but be drawn in (this can actually play powerfully into the theme of the seductive, destructive lure of evil). Hannibal Lecter is a delicious example of a fascinating bad guy we may find ourselves drawn to. Sherlock Holmes is a moody, drug-addicted narcissist — but his uncanny genius for solving crimes makes him larger than life.
9. Sympathy/empathy/relatability/universal truth
These are powerful ways to invest readers in a protagonist, whether or not we like her. If we can relate to a character’s situation, struggle, challenges, pain, we will follow her journey. Paula Hawkins took advantage of this in The Girl on the Train with her unpleasant alcoholic heroine in whom we nonetheless invest as she tries to seek justice, solve a mystery, right a wrong, all common human urges we can relate to. In Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, protagonist Amir can be entitled, cruel, dismissive, and resentful of Hassan, the disadvantaged son of his family’s caretaker who is raised almost as a brother with the privileged Amir and offers Amir nothing but unconditional love and support — and Amir commits an appalling betrayal of Hassan. Yet we can sympathize (perhaps empathize) with the lack of love Amir feels from the father he idolizes, his feeling that his father loves Hassan more, his inadequacy and pain, and we stay invested in his journey.
Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces is irascible, lazy, judgmental, and full of resentment for the world and its treatment of him — and yet many readers can sympathize or empathize with his grudges, even if we don’t let that worldview take us over, as Ignatius has. (We may also sympathize with author John Kennedy Toole’s story — falling into depression and alcoholism, he committed suicide at 31 and never saw his novels succeed, yet they were published after his death and Dunces won a Pulitzer. Though I don’t recommend this as a writing strategy.…)
Even a “bad” character may invest us if we see him fighting his dark side or demons. For instance, spoiled, self-centered Darcy spends a lot of time in Emily Giffin’s Something Blue ranting about her former best friend who stole her fiancé, but also realizes her own part in her broken relationships and tries to do better. Kristin Bell’s character in the TV show The Good Place begins as a morally reprehensible soul mistakenly sent to heaven, but comes to genuinely want to learn to be a good person.
You can also show your character craving or fighting for something better for herself or others, like Katniss working for a better life for her family and to save her sister Prim in Hunger Games, or the father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road who will do any terrible thing and make any sacrifice — including his soul — for his son.
Finally, you can hook readers by showing a character willing to give up or actually sacrificing a selfish goal for someone or something else, or for the greater good: like Gandalf falling to the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring to allow Frodo to escape with the One True Ring, or Cyrano de Bergerac sacrificing his own happiness for his love Roxane’s, or Oskar Schindler risking his freedom and his life to save persecuted Jewish people.
Reader engagement hinges on character investment. The author’s job is to find reasons for us to buy in.
Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and bestselling authors as well as newer writers. She’s led workshops and seminars for conferences and writers’ groups across the country and is a frequent contributor to writers’ sites and publications.