How good can a good protagonist really be? In a recent N.Y. Times “Bookends,” Thomas Mallon rightly observed that, “No one has ever preferred Amelia to Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, or Melanie to Scarlett in Gone with the Wind.”
Tip: Perfectly good is perfectly—boring.
Good protagonists must be morally sound, but definitely troubled and definitely rebellious about constraint. Too selfish makes them unpalatable. But too perfect and they swiftly become at best uninteresting and at worst mildly self-righteous. To inspire and excite, protagonists need to get going with enough oomph to offer:
This might be the main ingredient. A good protagonist has a great deal to gain or lose. Passion makes people care enough to act, screw up, and have another go. That journey makes fiction fiction.
If your character starts perfect, where can she go? The fun of fiction is watching someone conquer something, whether that’s the snotty guy with the huge estate (Pride and Prejudice), the power of death (The Fault in Our Stars), the mystery of the genetic code (The Gold Bug Variations), anyone who opposes the Borgias (Blood and Beauty), or an early crop of crooked bankers and lawyers (A Conspiracy of Paper).
Especially in first person, the protagonist must be charming, funny, dramatic, and mysterious. Something very much out of the ordinary. Often someone with passionate opinions, but a nice sense of humor about them.
This needn’t be sensual, just a motivation for action. Too much politeness, modesty, resignation, even stoicism can be unappetizing. If you think everyone and everything is fine, you won’t take many risks. This might be a terrific way to live. Just not in a novel.
As a friend recently said, we’re all “emerging.” Anyone delighted with his or her “goodness” is too arrogant (and naïve and misinformed) to really be that good. Real people are flawed people. Preferably a bit honest about it. This goes for protagonists, too.
~ Inconsistent consistency.
That’s another way to spell “credibility.” If your protagonist has a weakness (and your protagonist must), then this might generate a succession of similar mistakes. But if your protagonist always repeats exactly the same mistake, or never makes one at all, readers won’t believe, won’t care, or both.
Nice people can be very accepting, very forgiving, very tolerant—very lovely to be around but not to read about. Protagonists judge and act. That’s the source of story.
A good protagonist is one who’s good enough—and no better.