The average novel reader wants the protagonist to offer above-average appeal—instantly. The antagonist can be more leisurely. Unless the character evokes a big, fat yawn or shrug, you have more time to build in complication. But how do you get the protagonist to compel readers right away?
· Raise the stakes.
Make whatever the character must gain or transcend mightily important.
· Make us believe—absolutely—in the value of those stakes.
Ideally, the stakes aren’t just personal but also moral and social.
· Incorporate vulnerability.
Male or female, this is a hero—but one cursed with an Achilles Heel.
· Promote empathy.
Readers care most about protagonists who remind them of themselves.
· Give your protagonist a fighting chance.
Why risk life or limb if there’s no hope of saving the drowning baby, the dying country, the vanishing world? If your hero can hope, so can we.
Once your protagonist begins the journey of dreadful choices resulting in personal growth, you can simultaneously develop protagonist and antagonist as they impinge on each other. How do you make your bad guy terribly, terribly bad, yet not exclusively so?
· Even the stakes.
If we already know that the antagonist must or can’t win, why read the story?
· Share the antagonist’s version of truth and justice.
Help us believe this interpretation, however wrong it obviously seems.
· Humanize the antagonist.
Does he contemplate murder yet always produce a Mother’s Day card? Is he your own version of “Mad Men’s” disgusting yet intriguing Don Draper?
· Sprinkle in a smattering of backstory.
If you had as rough a deal as your antagonist, maybe you’d tell that story also?
· Make the antagonist mirror us.
Help us see, understand, and better accept our own foibles.
Tip: Make your protagonist instantly appealing and your antagonist potentially complex.