Few things ensure the success of a book more than readers connecting with its protagonist. The popularity of antiheroes in modern culture has proven that the character being virtuous, or even likable, isn’t a prerequisite. So, just how does a writer manage to craft an engrossing lead?
One important thing to remember is believability. Whatever the character’s personality, it needs to make sense within the context of his background. A homicide detective in a crime thriller might well be prone to gallows humor, just as an expert in time management could suffer from OCD. Simply offering the reader a protagonist who feels like a genuine human being goes a long way to investing in his future and the trials he must endure.
On a similar note to the above, a good protagonist needs some flaws to keep him interesting. “Mary Sue” and “Gary Stu” are two of the most reviled terms in literature, and with good reason. Perfect characters are boring, even if they do make sense in context. Worse, that perfection makes it hard for readers to relate to them, let alone root for them. A protagonist with at least a few vulnerabilities can garner far more sympathy than a Superman, and there’s far greater suspense to be had when the character’s ability to overcome obstacles is uncertain.
Character consistency is another vital element. Simply establishing an interesting, believable personality isn’t enough; a writer needs to let it continue to flow into the narrative, shaping the protagonist’s thoughts and actions in an organic way. No reader is going to buy an awkward coward rushing in to save the day any more than he would a bitchy teenage girl befriending someone on the chess team. The only way such departures can be woven into a story is by way of some exceptional element that still lends itself to what’s been established. Perhaps the before-mentioned coward might find courage to save a dearly loved family member, or the teenager could realize the chess team member was actually a close childhood friend. But these exceptions are exactly that: exceptions, and they need to be used sparingly. Even a character’s descent into insanity through loss and stress should feel like it’s his unique descent, and fitting for how he’d suffer it.
Just remember, a solid story can’t survive around a bland, unbelievable lead. It’s the personality with whom the reader is sharing the adventure, and nobody wants to be locked in a car on a road trip with Clark Kent.