This past Saturday, I attended a writing workshop run by Donald Maass (aka, The God of Writing). He spent the morning of this workshop on protagonists, the first task of which was to make them likeable.
According to Maass, there are three kinds of protagonists and each comes with specific challenges:
1) The ordinary person – This is the every day Joe. He is you or me or the guy next door. Nothing special. Nothing grand. But if you want to make readers care about Joe, you need to give him some kind of heroic quality. Maybe he’s a bit of a jerk but he loves his five-year-old daughter more than anything on Earth. Maybe he loves his dog. Maybe he gives all of his money to the blind. Whatever it is, Joe needs to do something in the first 5 pages to show us why we should care about him.
2) The hero – The hero spends every moment of his life helping people. He’s a fireman, a soldier, a cop. But readers won’t necessarily care about him just because he helps people. This type of character is too perfect. He needs a flaw that makes him a regular human to which readers can relate. Maybe he has an annoying neighbour who always steals his newspaper. Maybe his dog pees on his bath mat every freaking morning. Maybe his mother has cancer. Whatever it is, the hero needs to do something to show us he is just like us in the first 5 pages.
3) The dark protagonist – The dark protagonist is usually not human. He’s a vampire, a werewolf, a fallen angel. If you want readers to care about this type of protagonist, you need to show one way that he wants to be a normal or happy being. Maybe he’s a vampire who just wants to die. Maybe he’s a fallen angel living in Hell who just wants to repent. Whatever it is, the dark protagonist needs to do something to show us that he wants to not be dark, in the first 5 pages.
The key message here is that you must give the reader a reason to care in the first 5 pages.
On a side note, if you get the chance the attend one of Maass’s writing workshops, I’d highly recommend it. He will open your mind to things you never thought about before (and he’ll probably make you laugh your ass off too!)