Question: Why should your protagonist be special? Answer: Because that’s what will make your reader sit up and take notice!
I find that engaging with the struggles of a sympathetic protagonist is key to enjoying the fiction reading experience. Perhaps it’s even one of a reader’s greatest pleasures.
Why do little girls love the story of Cinderella? Why have versions of that tale about a vulnerable girl’s triumph over a cruel stepparent been around since ancient Egypt and maybe before? For most of us overcoming challenge starts early in life. We’re barely out of the womb before we must learn how to walk, talk, and deal with potty training, rambunctious siblings and erupting teeth. From there on into the retirement years, it only gets tougher. Stories tell us how other humans make it through, and teach us how we may emulate their success. The accounts which do that best are the ones readers keep returning to.
Cinderella overcame her troubles by catching the interest of a benevolent fairy godmother. She was just plain lucky. Luck is okay. I’ll take it any day. Triumphing over misfortune by being in the right place at the right time is a common theme in storytelling. Remember Spiderman? His special skill is gifted by the bite of an insect. There are countless other even more bizarre examples.
Some protagonists already possess a special skill. They just don’t know it exists. They start out as the beleaguered weaklings we fear might describe our own status in life. Then they uncover the truth about themselves. They may have flaws, but (hallelujah!) they’re special—special enough to overcome a host of miseries. What an exhilarating moment that revelation is for the protagonist. He or she isn’t a defenseless weakling after all! And what a satisfying moment that is for the reader. By “readers” I mean the rest of us. Don’t we all want to be special? Don’t we all want the power to deal with this puzzling and sometimes threatening world in which we find ourselves?
An interesting contemporary example of the protagonist unaware of his talent is David Haller, the lead character in the fascinating FX series Legion. In the first episode (the only one I’ve seen so far) David is in a mental institution. He’s convinced he’s schizophrenic. Then he discovers the truth. He’s not deranged. The phantasmagorical world he lives in is real. He’s being kept in an institution because he has hidden powers that make him dangerous. The revelation is a wonderful aha moment for David and for his audience. A man with special talents that have been buried and denied is suddenly enlightened. I look forward to watching David’s story evolve. I just wish I’d started watching the show earlier.
A protagonists special gifts don’t have to be on the scale of Spiderman’s or David’s. My latest protagonist is a sharpshooter—a skill that’s both a talent and a liability. It does make him “special” though. He can do something that sets him apart. He also has qualities of persistence and determination. These are special assets, too. So, when creating your own protagonist think about his or her flaws. Nobody is perfect, and your protagonist shouldn’t be, either. But also think about his or her unique gifts. Those gifts will engage your reader and keep him or her reading.
I've been writing novels and teaching about writing novels for many years. It's true that some people write well from the beginning of their careers. It's also true that writing is a craft you get better at over time. I hope to describe some of what I've learned about the craft in my blogs. Please join me.