By Lynn Carthage, author of HAUNTED
Characters can be found all around us: shuffling to class, lingering in the locker room for a last bit of gossip, jumping off the front stairs in exhilaration for the day being over. If you’re writing fiction, you see plenty of inspiration in the halls around you.
But your story’s heroine needs to be a little larger than life—great stories are usually built out of people who are different from those around them…or who think they’re not until circumstances show them just how special they are. Based on an informal polling, here’s a list of qualities readers want to see in protagonists.
Clever, uses her own wits, doesn’t need rescuing. A princess helplessly wilting in her prison castle doesn’t appeal to most readers. We want to see a princess who makes her own rope out of her bed straw, escapes despite the bloodhounds being released and later returns to punish her captors. Let your character be an unapologetic smarty-pants who uses her intellect to comprehend and resolve problems.
Has a cool head and can lie, cheat and steal if necessary. Notice the “if necessary!” In general, readers like ethical characters—but when facing danger, heroines shouldn’t hesitate to save their skin. Crime, even murder, can be dismissed if the heroine’s goal is big and ultimately moral.
Guided by a specific passion. We appreciate characters who aspire to achieve, or are obsessed with a unconventional pursuit. In Alison McMahan’s historical YA novel The Saffron Crocus, 15-year-old Isabella loves to sing, but in her world—17th-century Venice—only boys are allowed to perform in Monteverdi’s choir. Readers fret with her and cheer on her efforts to let her soprano voice hit the vaulted ceiling of the cathedral.
Considered by most an underdog. Your protagonist proves them wrong, and that’s incredibly satisfying. In Danielle Paige’s alterna-take on The Wizard of Oz, Amy considers herself unimportant, a person the world calls “trash,” abandoned by her mother in their trailer when a tornado threatens. The extreme pleasure of Dorothy Must Die is learning that Amy’s the chosen one in Oz, and she’s going to battle the sickly-sweet-but-evil Dorothy.
Tenacity. Most writers try to put their characters in as much trouble as possible, and that in turn means that heroines have to fight and scrap for the long haul. Noa, the main character in Michelle Gagnon’s Don’t Turn Around trilogy, battles incredible odds, like trying to escape from an ominous warehouse where she woke up with an IV in her arm and no idea how she got there. She’s chased and hunted, but never gives up strategizing, hiding and running.
Protectiveness and a good heart. Yes, we want tough, brave protagonists, but we also want them to show some vulnerability. In my YA debut Haunted 16-year-old Phoebe cares more for her toddler sister’s safety than her own when they face a malevolent inhabitant in an old English manor house. Phoebe’s terrified herself, but she protects her sibling the best she can.
Good luck with your writing, and I hope you find pleasure in crafting a character whom readers relate to and maybe even hope to be like.
Lynn Carthage is the author of Haunted, Book 1 of the Arnaud Legacy (Kensington Books, 2015). She can be found at www.lynncarthage.com.