Learn How to Write a Likable Protagonist at the Start of His Character Arc

4 Ways to Write a Likable Protagonist at the Start of His Character Arc

Do you know what I struggle with more anything when it comes to character arcs? Creating a likable protagonist right from the get-go.

Creating Character ArcsAnd I’m not alone. In their desire to create deep, expansive changes within their characters, many writers get hung up at the beginning of their characters’ arcs.

Why? Because if characters are starting from a less-than-perfect place, they’re bound to be less-than-perfect people. And yet readers are supposed to instantly bond with them.

How can writers create instantly likable protagonists out of these jerks and losers with whom we’re forced to begin our stories?

4 Ways to Start Your Story With a Likable Protagonist Who Is Also a Big, Fat Mess

On the surface, this seems like a really obvious problem. After all, one of the best ways to figure out what your character’s arc should be is to identify where you want him to end up–then flip that idealized state around and have him start out in exactly the opposite frame of mind. So if he ends up perfect (I’m hyperbolizing, of course), then he logically has to start out as a pretty big mess, right?

Yes, he does. But what we often miss in our drive to make sure the character’s change is dramatic enough is this: Just because he’s going to end up as St. George doesn’t mean he has to start out as a Spanish Inquisitor. And even if he does, there are lots of great ways to make sure his early faults aren’t going to alienate readers.

Let’s explore four of the best methods for making sure you’re optimizing your likable protagonist right from the messy start of his arc.

1. Your Character’s “Truth” Is Already Inherent Within Him

Remember: the character’s inner conflict–and therefore his character arc–will always result from the battle between the Lie He Believes (which is holding him back from the Thing He Needs Most) and the Truth (which will transform him and set him free by the end of the story).

A couple weeks ago we talked about how a character in a change arc has to begin his story with both his Lie and his Truth already latent within him. This means he already understands the Truth on some level: he’s just rejecting it and burying it so he can go out and dance the night away with his seductive Lie.

This is great news for authors who are trying to balance out their characters’ Lies and keep them attractive to readers. Why? Because it means that even in this opening Lie-ridden state, you still get to show glimmers of the Truth hiding under your character’s surface. You get to show readers the potential your protagonist has for embracing that Truth.

For Example:

In Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy Words of Radiance, protagonist Kaladin is a taciturn, embittered, angry young man who makes lots and lots (and lots) of bad choices. But his capacity for embracing the Truth–of acting with honor even in the face of others’ dishonor–is never in doubt from the very beginning. He demonstrates this in many small ways in his treatment of his friends, even though he has yet to grow into the ability to treat those he dislikes without prejudice.

Words of Radiance Wallpaper Kaladin Brandon Sanderson Stormlight Archive

2. Your Character’s Lie Is Relatable to Readers

When we’re deep in the throes of writing a very flawed character, it can sometimes be easy to get trapped in the idea that just because your protagonist steals a pie from a window or punches out a rival football player or rebels against a well-meaning authority figure (or any of a host of much more egregious sins), readers will instantly reject him. He’s a horrible person. They’re disgusted by him. Why would they want to keep reading?

But in all honesty, they probably do want to keep reading–and not in spite of the character’s flaws but perhaps even because of them. Sometimes this might be due to simple fascination in the character’s bad behavior and downward spiral. But often, readers will end up loving the character all the more for his slip-ups and be all the more interested in reading on to discover how he handles the consequences.

Humans have an infinite capacity to relate to imperfection. We’ve all messed up. We’ve all lied. We’ve all behaved with insensitivity toward those we love. We’ve all bent or even broken the rules when no one was looking. Why? Because we’ve been immersed in and driven by our own Lies–our own less-than-angelic-but-no-less-primal-and-desperate motivations.

If you can establish a compelling reason for your character’s bad behavior or attitudes, readers will understand. Even better, if you can show why the character believes in this reason, they’ll empathize. They know the character is only going to improve from here, and they’re rooting for him!

For Example

In Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior, the estranged brother Tommy behaves hatefully toward his father and brother. He refuses to reconcile, choosing instead to simply use his father, while rejecting his brother’s attempts at a reunion. He’s a walking bundle of violence and venom. But he never alienates audiences because we completely understand how wounded he has been both by his family and his experiences in the Army. Furthermore, we empathize with and cheer for his goal of winning the Sparta tournament, even at the cost of his brother, in order to provide for his dead war buddy’s family.

Tom Hardy as Tommy Conlon in Warrior 5

3. Your Character’s Lie Doesn’t Make Him Unlikable

Just because your character is going to turn into a better person by the end of the story doesn’t mean he has to be a jerk at the beginning of the story. Not all arcs need to be that deep, and even some deep arcs can still feature Lies that don’t risk making the protagonist inherently “bad” or “wrong” in the beginning of the story.

Your character may be dealing with a relatively small Lie, in which his enslavement to it is humorous and therefore all the more endearing. Or he may be brilliant in all other aspects of his life, to the point that the scales are deeply tipped in his favor right from the start. He may be believing in and doing completely the wrong thing, but his personal charm is such that readers forgive him (happens all the time in real life, right?).

In short, “Lie-ridden” is in no way antonymic to “likable.” In fact, “downright evil” isn’t always at odds with likability. If you’re worried your character’s Lie is making him an unlikable protagonist, then the answer may be simply that the protagonist does indeed need to be more likable on his own personal merits.

For Example

Still of Night Spencer Family Kristen HeitzmannOne of romantic-suspense author Kristen Heitzmann’s most enduringly likable characters is high-powered businessman Morgan Spencer, from her Spencer Family series. He starts out as a womanizing alcoholic. But he is also so blatantly intelligent, charismatic, and good-hearted that he’s deeply and instantly likable despite his equally larger-than-life problems.

4. Your Character’s Main Focus Is on His Goal Instead of His Lie

Finally, one of the best ways to keep readers from being distanced by a character’s unsavory Lie is to apply a little misdirection. Establish the Lie, but don’t dwell on it. Not only is this good storytelling magic, it’s also a perfectly good reflection of real-life logic.

Very few of us dwell on our Lies. There is usually a part of us that recognizes the Lies are wrong. But they’re comfortable, and we don’t want to look at them too closely or they’ll implode. So what do we do instead? We focus on the goal that has been inspired by that Lie.

In my work-in-progress Wayfarer, my protagonist’s Lie is that self-worth and the respect of others is directly related to how much wealth and renown someone has. This isn’t a very attractive Lie. It means the character subconsciously disdains the hard-working farming village where he lives–and the plain but honorable blacksmith who raised him–as being unworthy of respect. It means he has to spend part of the story currying favor with all the wrong people and chasing after all the wrong things.

I was concerned for a while that the Lie would make him unlikable in the crucial beginning chapters. But then I realized: his focus isn’t on the Lie. Instead, he’s focused on a physical goal–in this instance, a young noblewoman with whom he’s fallen head over heels in love. With the foreground focus on his romantic misadventures (among other things), the unattractive Lie can simmer in the background of readers’ awareness, without their needing to be beaten over the head with it.

For Example

In Pixar’s Cars, racecar Lightning McQueen’s Lie tells him he works best on his own–solo mio. This causes him to treat others poorly, but we keep watching anyway because his focus is on his goal, not his Lie. All he wants to do is get to California to compete in the biggest race of his life. In the goal itself, he is completely justified and relatable–and we pull for him in spite of his Lie-driven attitude problem.

Lightning McQueen Owen Wilson Mater Larry the Cable Guy Doc Hudson Paul Newman John Lasseter Pixar Cars

A Lie-ridden but likable character isn’t a dichotomy at all. As you can see, you have it within your power to create amazingly compelling, charismatic, and downright lovable characters who are starting their stories within the shadow of some pretty dark Lies. Don’t think for one minute that readers will reject less-than-perfect characters. They will always embrace the beauty and oddity of imperfection–especially if you help them along with one or more of these nifty techniques.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How are you creating a likable protagonist at the beginning of his arc? Are you using any of these four techniques? Tell me in the comments!

Learn How to Write a Likable Protagonist at the Start of His Character Arc

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. As usual, your topic speaks to a current little OCD moment in my final edits as I crashed between “Is he likeable enough?” and “OMG! what if he is TOO likeable?” This has assuaged most of my concern, thank you.

    He is very dark in the beginning, trapped alone in a lie not of his making…yet the glimmer of who he is deep within shines for a moment as he reprimands a young soldier, and his sense of honor remains firmly intact in spite of who/what he has become.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good characters will almost always be a balance of good and not-so-good traits. The good traits in the beginning will usually be enough to pull readers along as the character overcomes the not-so-good ones.

  2. Thanks for a good post that came in the exact right moment for me as this is something I’m thinking of right now when revising my ms, trying to make sure my mc comes off the way I want her to. It was especially No 4 that hit home, and I’ll try to strenghten her in her goal and make her reasons for wanting it more justified.
    Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Motive is everything when it comes to character. I have to keep that one front and center for myself at all times. But it really does make all the difference.

  3. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Glad you enjoyed the post!

  4. Becky Avella says:

    This post came at a perfect time for me, too. I really enjoy strong female characters, but my current protagonist begins the story is a reluctant hero. I’m trying to figure out how to give her room to conquer her insecurities without allowing her to be too milk-toast-y in the beginning.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s always worthwhile to really evaluate *why* a character like that is a reluctant hero. What Lie is she believing that’s holding her back from being a hero? Fear? Selfishness? Equally selfless motives but with a conflicting goal? Readers relate to motives even when they may not applaud a character’s actions.

  5. Jim Arnold says:

    Katie, I had no idea of these arcs and how to approach them. Now I have to go back and re-write my first chapter to give Jack more of a struggle and personality.

    Thanks. I needed this.

  6. thanks for this, very helpful! been struggling with this because in order for my scifi MC to become the super strong woman she is at the end, she has to start out weak and whiny. there are reasons to support this, such as having been born with no arms and as a result having been sheltered and babied all her life (her lack of arms makes her a target for “population control robots” which target and terminate those seen as weak) but from chapter one her main goal is finding her missing father, so i guess i’m already following some of the advice in this blog (thankfully) – no more worries 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good job with the goal in the first chapter! I would definitely be careful with a “whiny” protag that. Whiny is one of those traits that is an instant turn-off for most people.

      • agreed! actually now that i think about it, she doesn’t literally whine. i probably should have said wimpy, lol :p

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yeah, and really it’s all how you portray it. Technically, Luke Skywalker started out very whiny, but nobody minded. 🙂

  7. Natasha says:

    Awesome post! Point 4 was especially helpful and I will always keep it in the back of my mind. My protagonist starts out believing that social status and recognition are the most important things in life. Now that you mention it, I will focus more on his Goal than his Lie. Thanks for this advice!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like our protags would get along just fine! (Either that or be in mortal competition with each other. 😉 )

  8. I loved this post, especially the whole “lie” vs “truth”–what a smart way to put it. My protagonist just made a terrible decision–she’s struggling to forget something about her past by throwing herself into drinking and an inappropriate liaison, and I worry I’m making her too unlikable, but I personally think it’s something that’s relatable … I guess we shall see when I’m done!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If her reasons are relatable–and if she doesn’t stagnate in that mindset–readers will roll with her. We all know what it feels like to hit bottom.

  9. Very few of us dwell on our Lies. There is usually a part of us that recognizes the Lies are wrong. But they’re comfortable, and we don’t want to look at them too closely or they’ll implode. So what do we do instead? We focus on the GOAL that has been inspired by that Lie…

    I have had a chapter written two different ways because I’ve been debating how to represent this lie in my protagonist’s life vs the truth she knows deep down. This point was EXACTLY what I needed to remember to tie it all together. Instead of reacting negatively to the dilemma and conflict that arises as a result of the Hook, which is more congruent with the truth, she should react completely the opposite and focus on the goal of burying the truth and her lie of her “Want” with the indisputable “Need/plot goal” truth of the story.

    Thank you for another wonderful post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Very smart! It’s worth noting too that in real life, many people are only trying to see the positive. So even though they may be moving in a Lie-influenced negative direction which is having negative effects on their lives, they’re still *thinking* positively and trying to do what they currently believe is the right thing to turn their lives around.

  10. This is an interesting topic. In my current project the main character is noble young man, who believes in the Lie that a man is worthy of respect only if he is a valiant warrior (while for him it is difficult to fight because of a disability). It makes him hate himself, act unwisely and be condescending with commoners. However, he is desperately brave, very compassionate and full of desire to do the right thing, so I hope that he is quite likeable.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like a really great balance. He obviously has a ton of great qualities that he’ll be able to grow into more fully and *claim* over the course of the story.

  11. This is a very wonderful and explanatory post! It certainly helps me outline my current character, but I’m wondering if any changes needed to be made if you flipped the character arc around. For example, one of my main characters is a ‘better’ person at the beginning of the book than at the end. His Lie is that the murder he has committed is justified, due to the wrongs he has been dealt by the person that he has killed. However, the truth that lies within him is that his actions were wrong, which he slowly realizes as the book goes on. By the end he accepts the truth and allows himself to be arrested. Do you think any tweaking needs to be done to the Lie/Truth formula, or is it still pretty much the same?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like he’s still on a positive arc. Even though his physical circumstances end up being worse, he’s embraced the Truth by the end and become a more whole person. So the same difference applies.

  12. Very interesting and informative post.

    I have a protag ( in a series of short stories – @3k – 6k words) a nice-enough guy, who knows something is wrong (his LIE) but can’t quite seem to get it sorted out, as in #4, He is focused on other goals, not worrying about the lie, or even if there is one. He can’t recognize the lie, or even the presence of one. A basically decent person, who doesn’t feel he is a good fit anywhere.

    As he progresses, he sees where he is at odds with the reality everybody else already lives by, and finally comes to a point where the dichotomy stalls him.

    The love his friends have had for him, in spite of his shortcomings, all his life finally wakes him up and then it is too late for him, but all those others [ as in #3, the lie doesn’t make him unlikable] bear with him, hoping he will sort it out eventually.

    Anyway, Good message, clear and straightly put. Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You raise another good point, in that when other characters like the flawed protagonist *in spite of* his flaws, readers will be all the more inclined to follow suit.

  13. Thanks for this post!!! I´m just struggling with that with my character right now but I think making it this way will be very helpful. She feels she´s not doing the right thing (truth) but all of her life she has been told she is (the lie she believes), until finally and for personal reasons she will be forced to admit she was wrong and fight for others to see the same truth 🙂 Thank you for helping me clarify all that!
    M.

  14. Right now I’m strugling with my character likebility. She tried to commit suicide and she is kind of depressed, but she doesn’t want to admit that she needs help. I try to use her love for reading as something readers might like about her. I don’t know if it is enough.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Concentrate on her motivations as well. Most readers understand depression and loneliness–as well as most other reasons for suicide. Don’t let her devolve into whininess, and readers will more than likely relate.

  15. Do you think people are getting annoyed with the typical jerk that the female protagonist falls in love with and transforms? I wasn’t planning to have one in my story but it just worked out that way. I think he’s relatable, but I’m wondering if readers will criticise the female protagonist for falling for him even when he’s a jerk and think she’s too weak? Should I make him more likeable, even though I like his personality as it is, so people will understand the protagonist for falling for him?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes and no. When it’s poorly done and seems cliched, yes. But when it originates from strong characters driving a strong plot, it can still be an attractive trope. Readers like “redemption in love” stories.

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