The protagonist is the chief actor, or main character, in your book. It might be a man or a woman, or even a fictional character with no gender (such as a tree). For today’s post, we’re going to refer to the protagonist as “him” for continuity’s sake.
Why is it important for your protagonist to be powerful? I don’t mean physically strong. I don’t even mean personally effective or likeable. Your protagonist may be on your readers’ hate list, but perhaps they have a grudging respect for him. I’m talking about powerful in terms of making an impact with your readers. A main character who doesn’t make an impact with your readers is going to lead you down the path to the dark side of being unpublishable.
In order to understand what makes him powerful, let’s look first at what makes him weak. A protagonist who is perpetually stupid, whines about everything, and can’t make a decision for himself is weak. A useless person with no good reason for never standing up and being courageous, instead preferring to cower behind somebody else. What kind of a story could you have about such a person if he stayed that way throughout the entire book? While he might be a great “good guy,” if nobody cares what happens to him, he’s weak. If your readers feel like slapping him in the face and screaming, “Get a grip, guy!”, he’s weak. If you readers don’t keep reading, he’s weak. This article describes it very well (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/UselessProtagonist) in calling him a “useless” protagonist.
How to make him powerful? Give him foibles and weaknesses, but create him in a way that makes readers care about what happens to him. There has to be something special about him; something nobody else in the story has. (Not like three eyes—unless you’re writing fantasy.) Your protagonist may start out weak and wimpy, but he has to grow and change as the story progresses. Or he may pretend to be weak, but is truly effective in overcoming his problems and knowing when to take charge as necessary to stand up for himself, as well as others. This article (http://www.cherryh.com/www/charac.htm) is very good in discussing strong and weak characters.
You can go overboard with an all-powerful protagonist. If your superhero main character overcomes everything thrown at him and shows no weaknesses—or even emotions—then he’s Mr. Perfect. Nothing can touch Mr. Perfect, including the antagonist (bad guy), so you end up with the same problem as before—what can you write about him? Your protagonist must be balanced to be effective for your story.
How do you find out if your protagonist isn’t powerful? Beta readers are excellent people to give you feedback on such a problem. You might send questions along with the MS which will help you specifically focus on this issue. Rather than drowning them with forms to fill out, try a simple question: “Did you care about the main character? If not, why?” You might be surprised at their answer!
We’re Dun for today, so keep on Writin’!
Owner, Adirondack Editing