Why writing a good protagonist is key to writing a great book
What makes a great book? Why did I love this story? How can I create something like that myself? These are questions I ask each time I start a new project, and as a writer, you probably ask them too. We all want to write the book of our hearts, but we also want it to, you know—sell. So what does make a great book? Well, you’ll need drama of course, and maybe a splash (or three) of romance, danger, and adventure. But perhaps the most important ingredient of all is a dynamic, interesting, relatable main character. In other words, we need to know how to write a good protagonist.
“They” say the best engineers were tinkerers as kids. You know—the type that took the washing machine apart to figure out how it works. That’s what the best authors do too. They examine other books to reconstruct how those writers created characters that resonate. Let’s be tinkerers too. I’ll show you how and why beloved characters from major best sellers “work.” Once you know how a character functions in a story, you can think about how you want to emulate—or upend—those tropes.
The Twilight series sold over 100 million copies worldwide and spawned blockbuster movies too. It kicked off a vampire/werewolf craze in the mainstream that reverberates today. Let’s be clear: this is major success. Author Stephenie Meyer created a story with tens of millions of fans and…yeah, a good protagonist too. But what makes Bella Swan and her story so great?
For those of you who need a refresher, the Twilight series is about a quiet girl with a penchant for English literature who moves to Seattle when she’s seventeen. As the new girl, her classmates are interested in her, but she’s not the type to chase popularity. She feels different from everyone else and sort of keeps to herself. Except, she can’t ignore a dreamy, broody boy named Edward. He can’t quit her either. Turns out, he’s a vampire and the scent of her blood drives him crazy. The two are desperate for each other, but Edward doesn’t want to accidentally kill her, and her parents don’t exactly approve of her marrying a 100-year-old vampire—even if he does take the form of a super sexy senior.
Why is Bella Swan a good protagonist?
Some have criticized the character of Bella Swan for being problematic because she made a few classic teenage stumbles. She fell for the wrong guy (err, he’s a vampire who literally wants to suck the blood from her body!), she drops her friends to obsess about Edward, and she leads on the nice guy who likes her (except he’s a werewolf, and that’s a whole other story). You know what I call that? Relatable. Who among us hasn’t done the same thing? Well, sorta. The heart wants what the heart wants, and if hot sex with the undead is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
The other part of Bella’s character that makes her a good protagonist is that she has a mind of her own. In fact, that’s what attracts Edward to her (in addition to the sweet smell of her blood). For some reason, he can’t read her mind like he can other mere mortals. She’s a mystery to him, which is intriguing. He wants to unlock her secrets. And, she has something to offer. Yes, she’s a quiet girl, but she’s determined too. She stands up for what she wants, and she gets it. No, she’s not flashy in her dress or her manners, which is what makes her all the more likable (not that being likable is a necessity for a great character). She’s an average girl who has a century-old, extremely fine sparkly vampire fall for her. It makes the reader think maybe something special like that can happen to them too.
Fifty Shades of Grey
Fifty Shades of Grey is the best-selling adult book of the past decade. It generated over $90 million dollars in sales for author E.L. James. Call it sexy. Call it smutty. I call it SOLD! What makes it beloved? Well, let’s be honest. Hot sexy with a kinky billionaire is, in retrospect, an obviously winning concept. Maybe women are supposed to be beyond wanting to tame the naughty bad boy and prove to be the only person who could capture his heart…but we aren’t. We love that stuff. Well, I guess I’ll speak for myself. I’m a sucker for it.
In case it’s been a while since you read Fifty Shades, it’s the story of student report Anastasia Steele’s rendezvous with a young entrepreneur named Christian Grey. She goes to his offices to interview him for the newspaper, and she’s attracted to him, despite his reserve. They meet again, and he asks her out. Things are progressing on a normal track until he requests that she sign an NDA and contract, promising a sexual relationship and nothing else. Though she doesn’t sign the paperwork, they do embark on an affair. She catches feelings and isn’t sure his interest in BDSM is for her. However, over time, he opens up and realizes she has his heart too.
Why is Ana Steele a good protagonist?
Like Bella Swan, Ana is a young virgin who wears her feelings on her sleeve. She’s beautiful but doesn’t know it, which gives her a likeable humbleness. However, she’s also not a pushover. Yes, a big part of the books is that she’s a “subordinate” to Christian’s “dominant,” but this is a sexual kink not a character trait. In truth, Anastasia owned her own body, set limits, and walked away when Christian made her uncomfortable. She was turned on by him and fell for him, but that didn’t make her his doormat. She was sober, willing, and exploratory with him sexually—meaning she had agency. When he didn’t meet her expectations, she told him. Confidence in herself, her values, and her standards are what make Ana a good protagonist.
If you’re working on your next novel or considering writing your first book, plot matters, but don’t forget about crafting unforgettable main characters. After all, we all want to know how to write a good protagonist. Maybe doing so will make your next story a best seller too!