Four Tips for Likable Protagonists

If readers don't care about your protagonist, your book is dead in the water. Having an emotional connection to the book's hero is what gets readers hooked and invested in the story. So how do we, as authors, get readers to care about our characters? Here are four simple tricks:

1. Show your character suffering. Readers will identify with and root for a character suffering an emotional loss or dealing with adversity. Don't be scared to make things rough on your hero.

A perfect example of this would be “Guardians of the Galaxy.” As fun as that movie is, it opens with a young Star-Lord losing his mother to cancer. Everyone has lost someone they love, so this empathy creates an unbreakable bond between Star-Lord and the audience. Viewers immediately become emotionally invested in his story and can’t help but like him.

2. Show your character making a sacrifice. Tough to hate good people. If your hero sacrifices for another or at least goes out of her way to help someone, chances are readers will like the hero. And if they like the hero, they'll want to see what happens and will keep turning pages.

A subtle example of this happened in the Netflix show “Stranger Things.” At the beginning of the first episode, Will and his three friends, Michael, Lucas, and Dustin, are playing Dungeons and Dragons in Michael’s basement. Michael is acting as the dungeon master and unleashes the Demogorgon, a horrific monster. Will needs to roll a 13 or higher to fireball the demonic beast. In his excitement, he rolls the dice off the table and they get lost. That’s when Michael’s mother calls him upstairs and forces an end to the game. Meanwhile, downstairs, Will and Lucas find the dice and discover that he had rolled a seven, meaning he failed to kill the monster and that his character died. Lucas tells him to keep quiet because Michael will never know. Yet before Will leaves for the night, he pulls Michael aside and tells him that he rolled a seven, admitting that he lost and is out of the game.

Will could have lied or simply kept his mouth shut, but he didn’t. He told the truth. He sacrificed his own glory to ease Michael’s mind. Sure, it’s a small, easily overlooked gesture, but viewers sense Will’s altruistic nature and automatically like him. He’s a good kid. And that’s why the writers had Will be the one abducted by the monster at the end of the episode. Since viewers have been tricked into liking him, Will’s disappearance takes full advantage of that emotional investment. They’ll keep tuning in to see what happens to Will. And his disappearance also makes us care about his mother because, as mentioned in point no. 1, she suffered a severe emotional loss. 

By the way, there’s also a swell sacrifice in the aforementioned “Guardians of the Galaxy.” After Gamora’s ship explodes and she’s left floating unconscious in space, Star-Lord sacrifices himself to save her, giving her his helmet so she can breathe.   

3. Show your character being good at something. If your character is a detective, show her breaking down a crime scene with dazzling efficiency. People respect excellence. If readers see your character is skilled at something, they'll subconsciously admire and respect your hero.

Consider “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” After watching Indiana Jones evade the ancient temple’s death traps and swipe the golden idol, viewers know this guy is something special. And his likability increases even further when he’s forced to surrender the idol to Belloq, meaning he risked his life for nothing. Another loss. See how that works? 

4. Use humor. Who doesn't like to laugh? Make readers laugh, and they'll follow you anywhere.

Think of pretty much any successful comedy. For instance, the first time we see Peter Venkman in “Ghostbusters,” he’s rigging an ESP test at the expense of some poor sap so he can hit on a pretty co-ed. Or, once again, think of Star-Lord in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” After we have that opening scene of loss with his mother’s death, Star-Lord is next seen as a wisecracking outlaw dancing along to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.” That entire opening sequence is a playful riff on the previously mentioned Indiana Jones scene. You could even say that Star-Lord’s ability to escape capture also shows he’s good at what he does. So James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, the movie’s screenwriters, nailed all four tricks for crafting a likable protagonist. Is it any wonder “Guardians” was such an enormous success?  

There ya go. Four simple ways to get readers to care about your characters. And if none of those work, have your hero adopt a chimp. Works every time.