Writers can fall into the trap of making their protagonist perfect. No one is perfect. We all have undesirable quirks; some are reasonably easy to hide and others are more obvious. While villains have good qualities, heroes need bad qualities. This makes your character more believable, more recognisable and more – dare I say it – likeable. A story with a flawless protagonist is flawed.
Besides giving your protagonist less desirable qualities, consider what else you can add to make your hero more interesting. Is it a mysterious or torturous past? Does your character have well-guarded secrets, which are hinted at but slow to reveal? What drives your character? What turmoil does your character deal with?
Let’s look at the classic superheroes who originally started out as always being true, good and courageous. They hardly ever made a bad decision, and their sole problem was trying to keep their identity hidden. Now, they are far more developed, make mistakes, and vulnerable. Superheros are more likeable, even funny, if they struggle with their inner demons.
The Avengers – each a superhero with a desire to help and protect – still have individual issues. Bruce Banner battles with his violent alter ego, The Hulk. Thor struggles with his arrogance and his weakness for his adopted brother. Black Widow’s tortuous past as a child turned her into a brilliant assassin and her heart into stone. She did unmentionable things and is trying to make amends but she has to fight her dark past on a daily basis. As for Tony Stark – a genius inventor struggles with … well, everything. He struggles with being neglected by his work-obsessed father, with usually being the smartest person in the room (unless Bruce Banner is present), and with feeling inadequate to his alter ego invention, Iron Man. You may think Captain America is perfect; he comes close, but he still has issues. Due to a 70-year sleep in the Arctic, he loses all his friends including his girlfriend and wakes up to a different world to what he knew with different values. That would weigh heavily on anyone. While he has good common sense, he’s naive. He’s lonely and in need of an inner purpose beside the obvious ‘save the world’ purpose.
All these characters have come to life because of their personal problems and that makes them human, which means the audience can understand and connect with them.
We’ve established that protagonists need good and bad qualities to make them three-dimensional characters, and that they need to deal with their own conflicts. There are many different types of protagonists and some can fit into more than one category. They are not all willing to face danger like superheroes; there are reluctant heroes too. Bruce Banner is a reluctant hero because it means giving up control and unleashing the Hulk. There’s also the protagonist who stumbles onto a situation that requires extraordinary bravery and effort to save one or more people when the protagonist just wants to pretend nothing is happening so he/she can go home to bed. Han Solo from Star Wars was simply trying to pay off a debt and didn’t want to get involved. Ellen Ripley certainly didn’t want to tangle with the slimy aliens looking for hosts.
Even everyday protagonists are still fighting for a desired outcome. It may not be to save the world or restore freedom; it may be something more personal like fighting an illness or dealing with betrayal. Whatever it is, don’t forget to give your protagonists a few warts and inner conflicts along with being basically good individuals.