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