How to Make Your Protagonist Believable
What makes a character believable? In a word: Flaws.
In real life, no one is perfect. We are contradictory human beings whose beliefs and actions are often out of sync with one another. We make mistakes. Sometimes we make the same mistake over and over. With any luck, we learn and grow. With any luck, we become better people. And while we’re improving in some ways, we’re probably picking up new flaws, too.
Our flaws make us not only human but also interesting. Think about it. Would you rather befriend someone who…
practices yoga daily, makes all her family’s meals from scratch, maintains a size-two figure, has a Jon Hamm lookalike for a husband, is on track to be president of the company where she works, and finds time to knit and do other homemade crafts on the weekends;
someone who doesn’t have time to cook between work and getting the kids to and from their activities so she brings home a pizza knowing that it’s bad for her paunchy husband’s cholesterol, but if he wanted to take care of his health maybe he could cook his own damn dinner now and then, and she promises herself she’ll only eat one slice but then she has four despite the fact that she really wants to fit back in her size-ten jeans by the end of February, but work has her stressed because they’re always promoting younger people and she’s afraid she’s becoming obsolete, and all she wants to do this weekend is hit the mall with her gal pals for some retail therapy and maybe some margaritas.
Be honest. You don’t want to befriend Little Miss Perfect. You don’t even want to stand next to her. You might want her life, but you don’t want to be her pal.
Of course, Polly Pizza, for all her flaws, may be believable without being likeable, and that’s a problem, too. Once you have a believable, multidimensional character roaming your story, take her a step further. Make her vulnerable.
How do you make a character vulnerable? Put her in a situation in which something she cares deeply about is in jeopardy. In that context, we see how her flaws shape her actions, her worldview, and her life’s path.
Remember, protagonists don’t have to be “good people.” They have to be believable and likeable. Showing the way a character acts in a moment of vulnerability can go a long way towards both.
What is it about guys with guitars in their hands that makes them so irresistible, even when they are obviously self-centered jerks? If Abby and Maggie could answer that question, maybe they could finally get over Nathaniel. There's just something about him when he picks up his guitar and gets behind the microphone, something that makes sensible women act like teenyboppers instead of rational, self-respecting adults.
Abby was first sucked in by Nathaniel's rock 'n roll swagger four years ago when a drunken fling turned into a series of drunken hook-ups that became something like a relationship. Now, as New Year's Eve promises a fresh start, she wants to believe he's finally going to grow up and take their relationship seriously.
What does Nathaniel hope the New Year will bring? An escape from the disappointing realities of his life. He's thirty-four years old and he's barely making ends meet as an adjunct philosophy professor, which was always only a backup plan anyway. Nathaniel's real goal was always to make his living as a musician, but his band, The Latecomers, broke up a couple of years ago, and he hasn't picked up his guitar in months.
When he decides to spend the holiday with some high school friends instead of hanging out at the bar where Abby works, he gets the happy surprise of reuniting with his long-lost friend Maggie. Newly divorced, Maggie has just moved back to her mother's house to regroup. Nathaniel and Maggie were supposed to be the ones who left Worcester forever to conquer the world. He was going to be a rock star. She was going to take the world of art by storm. He's never gotten farther than Boston, and her best efforts only left her broke and heartbroken.
As they ring in the New Year together, Nathaniel decides it's time to take control of his life and to start making his dreams come true. He thinks the first step will be easy. All he needs to do is break up with Abby and finally admit his feelings for Maggie. But the New Year has more surprises in store, and nothing is ever as simple as it seems.
Genre – Women's Literature
Rating – PG-13
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