Balancing all the factors necessary to create a strong protagonist is difficult. There are a multitude of clichés and downright pitfalls to navigate around. Some people seem to have the magic when it comes to writing characters. Others throw up their hands in despair: “All my characters have my same personality! My readers will absolutely hate this 2-D cardboard cutout!”
After taking a college film class in the spring, I began analyzing films for fun. One film that nails its protagonist is Ant-Man. At first glance, Scott Lang has nothing going for him when it comes to being a main character that viewers would love. He’s an ex-felon, with nothing more than a flimsy promise to go straight. Setting aside surface attributes (Scott’s sense of humor, his mishaps), there are three things that made him a terrific protagonist.
He has an understandable goal.
None of Scott’s goals are astronomical. His first commitment as a character is to refuse a chance at crime and pledge to go straight. At first, that’s a motivating factor for him by itself. Then, we as the viewers are introduced to the core of his heart: Cassie. For a character that received relatively little screen time (prior to Scott choosing to make a return to crime), she immediately becomes a adorable child character without the annoying aftertaste of a Mary Sue. When he’s unable to see Cassie consistently, we are able to associate with his pain. Not all of us have had a child that we are trying to gain visitation rights to. However, everyone felt like a dwarfed failure in the face of a difficult relationship or goal. The experience of failure is universal, which is why Scott Lang and Cassie immediately wrap around our heartstrings.
He’s driven by a key relationship.
More on this in Thursday’s post, but since humans are naturally social creatures (some more so than others), having a relationship that we can root for is often more attractive than a lone wolf with no attachments. Scott’s choices are driven by this relationship and what he wants to accomplish in it: he wants to make sure that he measures up to who Cassie thinks he is.
He makes understandable mistakes.
There is a difference between understandable mistakes and stupid mistakes. If your hero constantly makes dumb choices without any background for those decisions, he would quickly alienate readers. Scott Lang, out of desperation and no one wanting to give him a job (apparently if Baskin Robbins rejects you, then you qualify as the scum of the working world), chooses to abandon his promise to go straight. He tries to execute a robbery that goes pathetically haywire. However, we understand. How many times have all of us stepped out on a limb while trying to get something that matters most to us? Scott is trying to get the money he needs to gain visitation rights with his daughter. This creates an internal conflict within readers, too. While we understand, we’re hoping that he doesn’t get caught, that he turns around.
Creating a strong protagonist takes practice and knowledge. However, it provides authors with immense power. Readers will often ignore poor plot or theme in order to follow the adventures of love-able characters. Pouring time into building characters from the ground up—whether your strong suit is plot or characters—will undoubtedly pay off.