Characters drive stories. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a romance novel or an action-packed thriller; the key to drawing readers into your narrative is developing interesting characters that grow with your story. What some writers fail to realize is interesting doesn’t always mean unique.
I know what you’re thinking – Blasphemy! Common is boring! True, but there’s a fine line between unique and not relatable. The important thing is finding the right balance between the two and constructing a character your readers want to know more about but also relate to.
The Danger of a Unique Protagonist
Unique means one-of-a-kind. It’s an extreme concept, really. If you’re dealing with a person who is completely unique, you run the risk of betraying the justified expectations of your audience. This doesn’t mean your protagonist should be unoriginal, it means your audience should be able to say, “I might do the same thing in that situation” when your character makes a decision.
Think about Katniss from the Hunger Games trilogy. When her younger sister is selected as tribute, Katniss intervenes. She loves her sister and wants to protect her, so Katniss volunteers as tribute instead. Wouldn’t you do the same for your family? If Katniss hadn’t sacrificed her own safety, she would disappoint the audience.
The same idea applies to other situations, and not just ones involving an obvious moral choice. Let’s say your protagonists is an up-and-coming FBI agent who discovers evidence – even a small amount – that her boss is in cahoots with the enemy. When she receives an assignment that might compromise the safety of other agents, will she follow orders or take the moral high road and risk being wrong about her boss’ integrity?
This scenario walks a finer line on the readers’ moral compass, but most people will understand both sides of the character’s dilemma. Thus, regardless of her decision, the audience will say, “I might do the same thing.”
How to Make a Character Relatable Without Losing Originality
- He has a unique goal or aspiration (defeating Lord Voldemort, for example)
- She is exceptionally gifted (Katniss is skilled with a bow and arrow)
- He is forced to make decisions in unique circumstances (Frodo must destroy the Ring of Power)
- He has an interesting past (Harry Potter is “The Boy Who Lived”)
It’s Okay if Your Lead is the Straight Man
Off-the-wall, unpredictable characters have their place, but they aren’t always the best choice for your leading character. Secondary characters, such as a side kick, might better serve these purposes in your narrative.