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.
This is quite an interesting and helpful post. I’ve certainly been stuck in the “maybe my protagonist isn’t spectacular enough!” rut. I think what you’ve suggested about side kicks being the slightly more “out there” character is brilliant advice.
I’m glad you found this helpful! I got this advice from a print media professor, and it really changed the way I approach main characters. I think it stems from the fact that regular people are capable of amazing things in extraordinary circumstances. It’s the writer’s job to put them there. Pip and Miss Havisham are a great example of this dynamic. Think how different Great Expectations would be if the story came from Miss Havisham’s perspective. In my opinion, it would be far less interesting because most readers (hopefully…) can’t relate to her at all. The intrigue is in Pip’s relationship with her.