Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Choosing the Right Main Character for Your Novel

Originally posted on Young Writers' Treehouse

Photo credit: Rubin Starset / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Classic Hero

The classic good guys. Sure, they slip up, learn things, and grow, but overall they try to do what's right and often end up saving the day. Examples of these types of Main Characters (MCs) are Luke Skywalker, Frodo, Captain America, and Elizabeth Bennet. These characters are what most people think of when they hear the word "protagonist." The reader always roots for them and wants to see them come to a good end. There is a danger that these MCs will be goody-two-shoe Mary Sues if they are TOO moral and noble to be relatable but they are popular because they win reader's hearts by pursuing worthy goals and desires that the reader begins to care about.


This character isn't really the main focus but serves as a window into the world. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Watson a prime example of this, with Sherlock Holmes being the main focus. Doyle's The Lost World also follows this format, with a journalist following a group of explorers. Mystery novels also frequently take on this style a bit, such as The Murder on the Orient Express where Poirot is the observer of a story focused on the lives of the killers. This type of MC is ideal for taking the reader into unfamiliar worlds to learn and experience along with the MC, such as what the reader experiences when reading The Hobbit and following Bilbo. Likewise, Jules Verne used this technique in many of his books such as Around the World In 80 Days and Journey to the Center of the Earth. This type of MC worked well for Verne because his books often took readers into imaginative and unique territories.

Morally Ambiguous

These characters spend a significant amount of the story vouching only for themselves, blurring the lines, and breaking the rules. They have serious character flaws but are often good at heart. Examples are Deadpool, Han Solo, Scarlett O’Hara, Jack Sparrow, and most of the Guardians of the Galaxy team. Despite the fact that it is sometimes difficult to tell if they are "good guys" or not, these MCs often catch readers' attention and can be a lot of fun to write. One has to be careful to avoid glorifying wrongdoing but these MCs can serve as a relevant analysis of what it truly means to be "good" and if or when the ends justify the means.


You start out in opposition to these characters but end up rooting for them in the end. They may stay “bad” for the first third or even half of the movie before having a change of heart. Examples are Eustace from Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Kuzco from The Emperor’s New Groove, the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, Gru from Despicable Me, and Maleficent from Disney’s live-action Maleficent. These MCs are rarely sympathetic in the beginning so good side characters are essential. A story about this kind of MC can be powerful because it takes something big to cause the dramatic change in character.

Villain MC

These characters rarely show any shred of good, except perhaps at the very beginning or end of the story. Despite the fact that the character’s aren’t people we would look up to or root for, they can still be fascinating. These types MCs are rare and primarily occur in more “mature” works...such as The Clockwork Orange. Dorian Gray from The Picture of Dorian Gray, Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars (especially the 3rd prequel), and Light Yagami from Death Note are some more popular examples. These MCs are a risky choice because the reader is often supposed to want the MC's demise and it's hard to keep the story from being an indulgence in darkness. On the other hand, these MCs can make for a dramatic, intriguing, and potentially significant story.

What's your favorite type of protagonist? Which ones have you used in your stories?