Did you know that Bella Swan, heroine and main character of the “Twilight” novels, was academically smart? In the first book of the series, even in the first scene where the two love interests interact with each other directly, Bella Swan mentions being in an advanced Biology program at her old school. And yet one of the biggest complaints (not the biggest, but top three) I hear against the Twilight books is how Bella Swan has no personality of her own. She is defined by the characters around her. Her personality and responses change depending on who she’s with.
There are three problems authors can face when writing a main character: the character is uninteresting, the character is unlikeable, or the character is reactive. These are pitfalls authors must avoid, because the last thing you want is an audience rooting for the antagonist and being disappointed if your main character survives. These are people we have to care about and flesh out completely. We need to believe in our protagonist, and share that belief with our audience. It has to matter who wins. It can’t only be the plot that’s interesting.
Your main character will be uninteresting if you aren’t writing a comedy or a satire and your protagonist is the best of good guys. A hero in shining armor, whether literal or morally, is boring. A character with no distinct voice or personality is uninteresting because we can’t relate to them. They won’t matter if we don’t know who they are. And a character who only has one or two defined character traits is dull. As side characters each of these work fine, but only if they move the story forward. The main character that you write needs to have both good and bad tendencies, talents and things they’re awful at, opinions that don’t need to be right, and something that they want so desperately that it drives the plot forward or makes their actions consistent within the conflict. In every scene you write, you need to know what that scene is doing to drive the plot and how your character is working towards what they want in it. That makes a character interesting.
But it doesn’t make them likeable. The anti-hero is a term that gets thrown around frequently, but it doesn’t mean the villain or the antagonist. An anti-hero is the main character of a story, the protagonist, who is not really that good of a person. Their ethics are questionable. They rarely have moral high ground. Anti-heroes do whatever it takes to accomplish their goal, legality and collateral damage notwithstanding. And this is the person you want your audience to both identify with and root for. These kind of main characters have interesting in the bag; they usually have dark back stories and some kind of deep emotional trauma. They do the things that 99.9% of the population would never consider. But that isn’t enough to make your readers care about them.
The two easiest ways to make an interesting character also likeable are to make them good at something or give them a tragic back story. The John Cleaver series follows the story of a 15 year old sociopath John who works in a morgue and has homicidal urges. The title of the first book is “I Am Not a Serial Killer.” How did the author make the readers sympathize with a main character who by definition could not feel empathy? John doesn’t want to be a serial killer. That’s easy to identify with. Most of us don’t want to kill people. And there is an inherent tragedy within a character whom we believe because he believes he is fated to become something that he doesn’t want to be. We root for him because the choice he wants to make is good, despite all the extra handicaps he’s working under.
It’s also easy to like a character who is good at something. Katniss Everdeen, the female main character of The Hunger Games novels, is a socially repressed and sullen teenager who resents her mother and wants to protect her sister. She is generally surly and prone to judging and disliking people. But she is incredible at archery. That’s one of the first things we learn about her, that she is good at hunting and providing for her family. Other character traits come up as we go, like her determination to save her sister, but she isn’t self sacrificing or noble or a patriot. As the hero of her people, she gets coerced into the role and resents all those who try to direct or control her. She is frustratingly blind to the obvious and refuses to communicate with the people around her. But we want her to win. She kills other children because she doesn’t want to die, but there is no one better at archery, and once you win her loyalty you never lose it. So give your main character something to be good at, something that matters to the plot that they can do.
Because the third problem with the hero is how sometimes the plot drives them. This is mostly noticeable where the good guys are bad guys are clearly defined, like any superhero genre or any time there’s an evil overlord. The hero, regardless of how talented or interesting they may be as a character, can fall into the trap of reacting to the villain throughout the entire story. The villain determines the battle ground and the terms, and the hero responds. The villain creates the conflict, and the hero is drawn into it. Your villain is interesting because everything they do in the story is goal driven, but your hero’s goal is defined by the villain. This is a problem for several reasons. Your protagonist should never be defined by only one thing, in this case, the plot. Your villain becomes more interesting than your hero, and your reader starts to skim through any parts of the story that don’t involve the interesting characters. Your side characters become more interesting than your hero. This needs to be fixed.
And thankfully, if you’ve made your main character both interesting and likeable, it’s an easy fix. At some point in your story, your hero starts to get proactive. Your main character has to decide to take the power into their own hands and start setting their own terms. In the third book of the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss has this turning point based on a conversation with Prim, where Prim (her younger sister) points out that if they need her to be a figurehead for the war, she can start making her own demands. In the Twilight series, this happens once Bella decides that no matter what, her child is going to escape the Volturi. Interestingly, all the complaints about Bella not having her own personality and only being defined by the male characters and being weak and submissive, which many feminists are eager and vocal to point out, are completely untrue in the fourth book. Bella decides to die rather than give up her baby (which feminists have an issue with, but I don’t. She made a choice and stuck with it. Respect that.). And in the final battle, it is Bella who turns the tide and won’t back down. They would have lost without her. The moment she decided that she was in charge of her own destiny was for me the moment she became her own character.
Your hero can do that too. Don’t let them be satisfied with winning the battle- give them a moment where they can draw a line in the sand and say, “Thus far, no farther.” Those are stand up and cheer hero moments. Your writing will be stronger for it, you will be stronger for it, and your main character will matter to your reader so much that when they close the book at the end, it will hurt them a little to be saying goodbye to such good friends. That is a main character worth going back to visit again.