How NOT to create a protagonist

You can have the greatest plot in the world, discuss a deep, universal theme, and write crisp, taut sentences, but if the reader can’t connect to your protagonist, the story will fall flat. Simply put, you always must create a protagonist the reader will root for.

Too often aspiring authors trip up on that challenge. Many seem content to simply provide meaningless details – like the protagonist’s height, hairstyle, school grades – believing that makes the character “real.” And real means likable, right? And likeable means a connection, correct?

Not quite.

Uninspiring details aren’t the only way writers can stumble with their protagonist. To avoid creating a poorly written main character – that is, one who isn’t real – watch for these seven pitfalls…

Never solves a problem
A main character who never attempts to solve the story’s central problem usually comes off as dull. Worse, if the character spends the whole book merely ruminating about how the problem is hopeless, he’ll come off as whiny.

A predictable character takes conventional actions that never surprise readers. While that may be true to how most people behave in everyday life, it makes for a dull story. After all, a man forced in a difficult situation often will make unorthodox decisions.

Never conflicted with himself
Protagonists who never struggle over decisions or inner fears generally are two-dimensional, cardboard characters. They also make no personal sacrifice when resolving the central issue, reducing the story’s suspensefulness and tension.

If there’s nothing particularly unique about the character – for example, an taste for exotic fashion, an excessively wry sense of humor, a stop-everything-else interest in some offbeat topic – he won’t stand out in the reader’s mind. Characters who dress, talk and act like everyone else are dull.

A boring protagonist usually possesses no superior talents and skills, always agrees with and follows the policies, and gets along nicely with everybody. Such a character can’t have any conflicts with anyone.

A protagonist who possesses no real passion for a value or a person usually lacks a raison d’être to be in a story. A protagonist with no purpose has no motivation to solve the central problem. A related issue is that the protagonist does have passion but for the wrong thing, meaning it can’t drive his decision-making to address the central problem; in such cases, the protagonist is miscast for the part.

Lacks a backstory
A main character who the author knows nothing about and does not have a life that occurred “before” the story often will feel fake and even contrived. The reality is that in all of us have lived a life before we enjoyed a moment of success. What happened in the time leading up to that moment helped create the person who could succeed. So it is with your protagonist as well. Remember, you never have to tell the backstory (In fact, you shouldn’t.), but you likely will hint at it.

If any of the above seven qualities describe your protagonist, you’ll want to do some revising. Creating a main character can take some time, but it’s well worth the effort; in fact, it may be the most productive thinking you do about your story.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.