How to Write a Sympathetic Protagonist
A sympathetic protagonist is a key element in writing the first chapter of your
novel. This is one of the reasons that a prologue is a tricky thing to pull off well.
You have only so many pages to get your reader (or agent or editor) invested fully
in the novel. No one has to finish the novel. As the writer, you want to make them
need to finish the novel. You want them to carry it with them while they are
making dinner, to let the phone ring instead of answering it, to go on a walk so
they can get away from the kids and finish your book. You want your readers to
talk about your book to others, to talk about it in such a way that other people
discover they need to read it also, if only to stop being bugged about it by that one
friend who is obsessed with your book.
As the writer, of course, you are focused on writing a whole novel, making the plot
work from beginning to end, letting all of the events unfold in the proper order.
But once you have done that, go back to the first chapter. And make sure that it
introduces a character that your readers will go anywhere to read about. Some of
the characters I've read who are like that for me are Miles Vorkosigan, Ender
Wiggin, Harry Dresden, Eugenides, Fitz Farseer, Horatio Hornblower, Will
Laurence, Paksenarrion. (I will write some other time on why it is that more male
characters tend to be series characters than females.)
The first chapter is not to introduce your world to your reader. The more you
pump in as backstory, the more likely you are to lose your readers. I don't care
how interesting your magic system is or how cool your political world is. Save
that for chapter two. Chapter one is for showing your character off, making the
reader care about him. The main conflict of the book can be introduced if you are
absolutely brilliant and can figure out a way to do it slowly. But otherwise, don't
worry about that. Think of the first chapter as a short story that is only loosely
related to the rest of your world. Your first chapter can be about a completely
different conflict than the main one, about an utterly pedestrian conflict. It doesn't
matter. What matters is that your character is sympathetic. Show him at his best
and worst. Show a want and a fear. Do all the rest of your world building stuff in
the next chapter. This is the camera's close up. This is the reader in an intimate
one-on-one with the main character. This is us in a bar, hearing the story of the
whole novel after we've all had a drink and we can't quite believe it all happened
the way the newspapers are reporting it. What would he say to make us believe?
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Here are a few choices of kinds of main characters your readers will connect with:
This is enormously important to me. I want to read about people who feel like they
are not part of the regular world. Obviously, this is because I feel like I am not part
of the regular world. People hiding or disguising themselves work as part of this.
Or simply people watching the inner world from outside, wishing they could get in.
A first chapter could give the main character a chance to get in and then they see
the price of it, and refuse -- if the price is hurting someone else, or giving up their
friends, for example.
I often find myself writing whiny characters myself, even though I hate whiny
characters that other writers write. Is this because I am whiny and aware of it, and
hate it in myself? Or simply because whiny characters talk more and do less? I
want characters who do something. It doesn't even have to be unselfish, though
that can help. I want characters who know what they want and go after it, even if
they think that it will be unacceptable socially to have it. A first chapter is
especially effective if they are going after something they want and then fail. It
sets up the rest of the novel nicely.
3. Book readers/Thinkers
This can be used in an off-hand way that makes me revolt, but in general, I like
characters who are smart and who read. Go figure. I'm a big reader. I think about
Belle in the Disney movie version of Beauty and the Beast. She's a reader and we
like her immediately. We like that she is dreamy and that she sees past the veneer
of Gaston. We like that she sees possibilities, that she understands the magical.
We also like that she is smart enough to outwit other people. Smart heroes, even
ones who are physically weak, are interesting. The first chapter of Warrior's
Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold has Miles Vorkosigan in a situation where he
tries to use his smarts to get out of a physical test. It doesn't work, but we love
him for it.
4. "Good" people
I don't mean by this people who do what they are told to do. I mean people who
do what is right when it is not easy. Often good people who think that they are bad,
characters who are convinced they are condemned by the gods or by the social
rules of their world and do what they are compelled to do to help others not
because they think it is "right." I think of Valjean in Les Miserables. He is
condemned for stealing bread, and then is forced to choose whether to do what is
right socially or what he knows to be right in his heart. Beginning with a scene
like that is very effective.
5. Vulnerable people
What is it they say, that every character has to have a deep want and also a deep
fear for a book to work? The deep want is what they are working toward, but the
deep fear is what they have to face for the climax to work properly. I don't want to
make a formula here, but I can't connect with characters who are superheroes
unless they have some Kryptonite. Sometimes I feel like the new set of urban
fantasy women out there suffer a bit from this. They have flaws or weaknesses, but
they feel like stupid weaknesses to me (ah, love!). I want them to suffer some
really traumatic event. Of course, that is not usually going to be your first chapter
(though I suppose it could be a prologue). If it has shaped who they are and what
they will do in the first chapter, though, it will work. If they were raped and then
are on a quest to help others who are raped, the stakes can seem very small. In a
call center, just listening to someone. But your readers will be right there.
6. Rule Breakers
I think this works partly because it is a fantasy of many people to break stupid
rules and get away with it. We wish we had the courage and we like to watch
characters who do have that courage. Watching the new Star Trek movie with my
kids (which I think in many ways is a deeply stupid movie), the set up of Kirk
being a rule breaker who refuses to lose to the Kobiyashi Maru setup that Spock
has written is actually brilliant. I don't know if Kirk would really be a good
captain or not, but the movie is an argument that he would be. And it is a fun
movie. We care about Kirk, even if we want to hate him. He seems to find all the
situations in which the rules do have to be broken.
7. Picked on/Underdog
A first chapter that shows a character being picked on can be very effective.
Especially if the reason they are being picked on is one that makes the reader
cringe. Ender is a sympathetic protagonist from the moment we see him picked on
by schoolyard bullies. You don't have to be writing a story about children being
used as soldiers to use this tool effectively. But I would caution against making the
bullies too one dimensional, especially if they are going to show up in the rest of
A character who must accomplish a task for a specific reason is very sympathetic.
In this case, a first chapter should set up why they are driven. In The Hunger
Games, Katniss is set up from the beginning as a girl who loves her sister and will
do anything to protect her. She goes hunting for her and then lets herself be taken
to the games to save her sister. You could use this device in almost any setup to
put the character in a situation where they can be used and manipulated. They
can't get out because they have to get something done. But it doesn't have to be a
character saving someone else. A character could be driven to save his family's
honor or to prove himself no longer a coward. Lots of ways to work this.
Readers connect to everyday characters sometimes in a way that they do not
connect to unusual characters. Not every book uses this, but one that does it
effectively is Twilight. Bella is a perfectly ordinary high schooler. Her parents are
divorced. She hates school. She is new. She doesn't know other people. She isn't
smart. She isn't powerful. She knows nothing about the magic of the vampires.
She is the reader and if you can get your reader to feel like every event in the novel
is happening to her, with a first person voice and an intense view into the emotions
of the novel, it works. Another book that uses this technique is Life As We Knew It
by Susan Beth Pfeffer. It is a first person account of the gradual coming of the end
of the world by a teenage girl. It feels very real, all the more so because there is
nothing special about the character. She makes very simple choices with
consequences, but they are the choices we readers might make, for good or ill.
There are plenty of loners who work as sympathetic characters, but I think
connection can be even more useful to a writer. The connection can be to family, a
lover, to a band of friends, even to an alien. But someone who cares for someone
else makes the reader care. The higher the stakes to continue the connection, the
more powerful it can be. There is a huge wealth of emotion in the Romeo-Juliet
story that is being mined in YA literature currently. Forbidden love, the lovers
against the world. Begin with that, and most readers will want to fight the evil
conventions of the society keeping them apart. But you can do that same kind of
romance with a family in the midst of a divorce or friends who are being threatened
with a move. Start a first chapter with a connected character who fights for that
connection and we love them.
There are plenty of other ways to set up a first chapter so that readers will
sympathize with the main character of your novel. Abuse is a common one,
orphans a bit of cliché now that we are post Dickens, neglect, misunderstood, and
so on. I don't love all of the ones I've listed, but they all work. I think there are a
lot of variants on these, as well. Good writing!
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison