Does your protagonist behave sensibly?
When writing a novel one of the first things we do as an author is think up a main character and imbue this character with certain traits. We can give our protagonist countless positive characteristics. But even if a character is fearless, honest, responsible and compassionate, your reader will have a hard time rooting for the protagonist if he or she is too foolish and/or gullible.
This isn’t to imply that a protagonist should be all knowing or never make mistakes. He or she can make mistakes and fall into a trap, but there should be some logic to your protagonists’ behavior. Just as you or I could take the safe route and get unlucky or take a big risks for a small chance or reward, character also need to make reasonable risk/reward decisions.
Warning: spoiler alerts for ‘Graceling’, ‘Red queen’ and ‘We were liars’ below.
For example, in ‘Graceling’ written by Kristin Cashore, the protagonist Katsa and Bitterblue flee from the evil king to a castle in another kingdom. They hope to find sanctuary in Bo’s castle, which is far away from the evil king’s territory. The journey is full of difficulties. When Katsa and Bitterblue finally make it to Bo’s castle, they discover that the king is already there and has mind manipulated everyone in the castle into submission.
As a reader I had a hunch that the king would be in the castle, since he was aware of the relationship between Katsa and Bo. It was easy for him to foresee where Katsa would flee. Yet it also made sense for Katsa to flee to the castle, since it was the only sanctuary she had. In addition to that, as a reader I didn’t simply want Katsa to escape the king but to also put an end to his reign of terror. In order to do so they had to have a confrontation eventually.
Therefore, Katsa’s behavior made sense to me as a reader and I was rooting for her.
‘Red queen’ on the other hand written by Victoria Aveyard has the main character Mare putting her trust not into Prince Cal, who has helped her throughout the book, but into his younger brother Prince Maven. When Maven decides to join a revolutionary group Mare is part off, she does not question why a prince would turn his back on his family and empire. Without any proof she simply believes that Maven would put the needs of others above his and betray his parents.
Moreover, Maven’s mother, Queen Elara, is a shrewd and manipulative woman with the ability to read minds. It is reasonable she would discover the plans of the rebellion from either Mare or Maven; however, Mare and Maven never receive any resistance and Mare never suspects that the queen might know anything. Not once does Mare question how she is able to get away with everything so easily.
Finally, Mare ignores the warning she receives from other characters, that Maven is his mother’s son.
In the end Maven betrays Mare and reveals that he and his mother Elara have been using Mare all along. As a reader it was hard to emphasize with Mare and feel bad for her situation, since she didn’t appear to use common sense and was a gullible character. It was frustrating to watch her go right into the trap.
The frustration was reinforced by Mare being smart in other aspects of her life and that her careless behavior couldn’t even be blamed on hormones, since she was attracted to Cal not Maven.
This does not mean that you can only write books with sensible protagonists. Lots of authors have successfully created books with narrators that are confused, unreasonable or unstable. But there needs to be a reason for this type of behavior.
For example in ‘We were liars’ by E. Lockhart’s main character is an unreliable narrator. This becomes evident early on in the manner Cadence tells her story, focusing on certain aspect, while not giving the reader the full picture and jumping from one event to the next.
In the beginning of the book Cadence is close to her two cousins and a male friend Gat, who come to the summerhouse. Soon problems arise with Cadence’s mother and aunts quarreling about money and her grandfather disapproving of her blossoming relationship with Gat, due to his Indian heritage.
The next summer Cadence has an accident that leads to a memory loss. She also suffers from migraines and has the desire to give away all of her belongings. Her mother does not allow Cadence to go back to the summerhouse the following year and none of her cousins or Gat write back to her emails or answer her calls.
When Cadence goes back one year later she has strange conversations with her cousins and Gat. We are also informed that her mother and aunt’s act as if they are mourning something.
At the end of the book it is revealed that two summers ago Cadence had set fire to the summerhouse with her cousins and Gat. They had planned it together, but while Cadence was able to escape, the other three adolescents died in the flames.
While Cadence behavior isn’t rational or logical throughout the book, it does make sense in the end when the reader figures out what had happened two summers ago. As she is suffering from tremendous guilt and posttraumatic stress disorder the protagonist, whose behavior was questionable at times, is in fact acting in a comprehensible manner, given her situation.