A story isn't just about plot - it's about characters as well. Memorable protagonist characters (or heroes) are what make readers stick with a story, if only because they have to know whether or not they make it to the end of the plot. But sometimes those characters are memorable for the wrong reasons.
Most of us can probably think of at least one book they've read (or film they've seen) where they were left thinking "Y'know, I would have loved that story a lot more if I hadn't constantly wanted to kick that character right in his Crumple Zone." A badly-drawn hero can ruin the most exquisitely-crafted story. It's something I've had to think about a lot while writing Redemption, and so I decided to put the good guys in that through some rigorous testing, just to make sure they didn't fit any of the offending criteria (and so I could fix them quick-smart if they did.) What follows is by no means an exhaustive list, but picks up on some of the deadliest of Protagonist Sins...
1 - Your Hero is Super With A Capital S
Protagonists are of course allowed to have amazing powers and abilities if that's the kind of story you're writing. Readers love a truly badass hero, after all. But there's a big difference between 'badass' and 'invincible.' Joss Whedon's Buffy Summers, I call you to the stand. Now don't get me wrong, I loved me a bit of Buffy as much as the next person - and there was plenty to love about that series - but one thing that always got to me was her apparently titanium-built body when it came to scrapping with monsters. I mean, seriously - that girl was supposedly a 'normal' high school girl who just happened to battle vampires for a hobby; she was bloody tiny, probably barely even a size 6. And yet whenever she got punched, kicked or even, on numerous occasions, thrown across a room by angry behemoths from the underworld, when the fight was over the most she got to show for it was a couple of cutely asymmetrical facial boo-boos. Are you kidding me? She should've ended up in hospital with at least a couple of broken ribs for half of those ass-kickings!
The point is, if readers come to believe your hero is going to walk away from every instance of brown stuff hitting the fan with little more than messed-up hair, why should they continue to worry about them whenever that happens? And, following on from that, if they don't worry about them when they're in trouble - why should they care either? "He'll get himself out of it 'cause he always does, no need to stick around to find out..." And that's when they toss the book aside. So if your heroes are doing dangerous stuff, don't be afraid to hurt them sometimes. And I mean really hurt them - like 'short vacation in A&E'-type hurt them. They might hate you for it for a while - but your readers won't.
2 - Your Hero is a Shining Example To Us All
Your hero is patient and kind and tolerant. She's funny, smart and multi-talented; everyone loves her and respects her and the only people that don't are the villains - booo, nasty, bad villains! She's the girl every other girl wants to be and every man wants to be with.... yeah, hurry up and pass me that sick-bag, please.
Think back to your high school days for a moment. Remember that girl who was The Most Popular Girl In The School, who looked immaculate and got straight A's in everything and was Head Prefect and always got the lead in every school production? (Clue: there's always one of those in every high school in the world, and it's never you.) Did you feel as if life was that bit more worth living if she thought of you as a friend? Or did you spend the whole time hating her guts while simultaneously feeling vaguely guilty about it?
Exactly. Same with readers and oh-so-perfect characters. Readers will follow a character to the ends of her world if they can relate to her - if it feels like she could be us, or we could be her. Most of us know our own faults and vices even if we don't shout about them to the world, and so we can't relate to perfection in human form. Characters who never show a less-than-perfect side make us as readers feel inadequate by comparison - and are dull as hell to boot. So give your Little Miss Perfect (or Mr - because there is a male equivalent) some honest-to-goodness flaws to balance out the awesomeness. It doesn't have to be anything major - something we could take the piss out of her for on girls' nights, for instance. Most of us do that with our real-life friends and still love them anyway. And you want your hero to feel like a friend to your readers.
3 - Your Hero Gets What She Wants With The Power Of Beautiful
This is otherwise known as Disney Princess Syndrome. Yes of course your protagonist is allowed to be drop-dead gorgeous if your plot demands it - after all, there are real-life people like that so it's not like you'd be defying any universal laws or anything. But things go screwy when your hero wields her gorgeousness like some kind of ramped-up superpower. If everyone around her is falling in love with her because she's sooo beautiful, if people drop everything and move mountains for her just because she chose to point her beautiful face at them and they were helpless to refuse her - if evil henchmen who've been tasked with doing evil things to her find at the crucial moment they simply cannot go through with their evil plan because they looked upon her loveliness and their evil heart spontaneously melted into a puddle of mercy... just, no. That era has gone, folks - we're living in the modern world now, where women can work and vote and - and have opinions and stuff.
The male equivalent of this is of course the super-stud, who has every woman falling hopelessly in lust with him at first sight. A popular staple of action thriller stories, this guy generally gets to have a lot of sex, with women he only met thirty seconds ago but whose knickers spontaneously combust when he smiles at them. And naturally, the sex he provides always rocks said women's world - to the point where they want to be his babe while at the same time being totally okay with the idea that he's probably screwing legions of other random women as well...
Repeat after me: HOTNESS IS NOT AN ACHIEVEMENT. In real life OR in fiction. It's just a circumstance, like being born into a rich family (or the Western World instead of the Third World, if you want to be really blunt about it.) Sure, it has its advantages, but as far as I know, no-one's managed to cure cancer or bring about world peace with it yet (dream on, all you Miss World contestants.)
Some authors have tried to get around this problem in what they imagine to be a very 'creative' way. Does this sound familiar? The character constantly refers to herself as being average-looking - plain, even. Her hair won't do what she wants it to, her clothes aren't right - oh trust me, she, like, totally knows she's nowhere near as pretty as every other girl on the planet. And honestly, why every single person who lays eyes on her immediately wants to date her is, like, a total mystery to her... guess it's just one of those tiresome things she has to deal with in her life...
NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO. For the love of humanity, do NOT do that. If Angelina Jolie did that, you would have to fight an urge to slap her impossibly flawless face - and don't you dare deny it.
By all means let your hero be hot. But please, please don't let that be their only life skill.
4 - Your Hero's Life Consists Of Standing In A Crapstorm With No Umbrella
Every story needs conflict; it's the engine that drives it. But what makes conflict interesting is seeing what your hero does when faced with it. And if all she does is sigh and suffer her way through it, while everyone else around her does all the hard work of Solving That Shit... she's not a hero and she aint even a saint - she's just a wimp, pure and simple. An emotional parasite who sits on her arse staring forlornly at the aforementioned Shit, instead of getting up off it and giving that Shit a kicking. (Hmmm... as analogies go that one's pretty disturbing, but it does fit so I'll leave it with you...)
There are people like that in real life - you might even know someone like that. That one who always seems to have ninety-nine problems but doing something about them aint one. You suggest solutions to their problems - even offer to help - but they always brush your offers away and ignore any advice given to them, spouting convoluted reasons about why nothing suggested would 'work.' So the problems remain, and get worse and more complicated - and all they do in response is sigh and look pained and 'soldier on.' In real life, even if you started off being sympathetic you eventually get fed up and leave them to their misery, feeling that if they're never prepared to help themselves then some part of them must want to be the eternal martyr. It's the same in fiction. Readers won't get behind a 'hero' who never fights back - or worse, lets all the other characters do all the fighting for her. Don't have her being 'rescued' by everyone else and his pet chihuahua all the time; let her grab the tools to solve her own problems. Or at the very least, give her the determination to go and find them herself.
5 - Your Hero's Life Is Just, Like, A Neverending Suck of Sucky Suckness
Yeah, being a Hero sucks a lot of the time. A large part of your job description involves being thrown into the depths of all kinds of Hell on a regular basis, purely for the entertainment of those folks called Readers. And yeah, not even the most hard-hearted of those readers would blame you for complaining about that sometimes.
But not all the time.
No matter how crap the world your Hero inhabits might be, if she hates everything about it all the time, and has no friends because nobody understands her, and can't get a break in this life because nobody will even give her a chance... well, most readers are going to think maybe her world and everyone it in might have a point.
Yep, as readers, we get it - your poor hero is trapped in a terrible, life-sapping existence that she's desperate to break free from. The whole point of this story is that she will eventually triumph over all of this adversity and emerge vindicated and victorious. But bloody hell, even Officer Ripley in the Alien movies managed to crack an occasional smile in between the face-huggers and mangled corpses of colleagues. No one wants to hang out with a Moaning Minnie for hours on end, and - surprise! - they actually want it even less in depressing and dire situations, even if they are only fictional.
So give your poor readers a break and let your sad-sack Hero chew on some happy-flavoured bones now and then. Readers won't stop sympathising with them as a result, or suddenly imagine that all their problems must be solved now 'cause they're smiling, so hurrah end of story, yeah? Let your Hero have people she loves and who love her in her life - even if it's just one. Things she does to escape the pain in her life, even if it's only for a while. And dreams that keep her going when all she feels like doing is giving up. Then you'll give your readers reasons to not only want your Hero to have her happy ending, but to believe she deserved to have it.
6 - Your Hero Does Whatever Shitty Stuff She Wants, Because She's The Hero So It Doesn't Count And Shut Up Already
There's a reason your Hero is called the Hero, and not, say, the Wrecker of Other People's Lives. It's because the reader expects the Hero to ultimately Do The Right Thing to solve the problems presented. Now 'right' doesn't necessarily mean 'legal, or 'intellectually logical' - or even 'honest,' in certain situations. But it should always be the thing the hero chooses to do with good intentions - even if it all goes horribly pear-shaped later. And if that does happen - well, the Hero should feel suitably remorseful about it and try to make amends in some way. What she certainly should not do is shout and scream about how it's everyone else's fault instead, or that those people are horrible anyway so they probably deserved it...
I once beta-read a story where the young female protagonist slept with the bridegroom of her best friend the night before said friend's wedding. Naturally she devoted some sharp internal monologue to what a low-down scumbag this man was - while she enjoyed some rumpy-time with him. Not only that, but because of his selfish cheating ways the heroine now had to avoid her best friend completely in order to not feel uncomfortable about having secretly bonked him, and this whiny, needy best friend of hers just didn't get that at all. She kept phoning the heroine up all the time, wanting to know why her one-time best friend had suddenly frozen her out, to the point where the heroine felt she was being annoying and extremely inconsiderate and told her to stay out of her life and never call her again. And then later on in the story, when that same heroine's mother confessed that the marriage to her father ended because he found out she had a one-night stand with another man, the heroine's reaction was to be mortified that "all this time, I never even suspected my mother was nothing but a common slut"!
And yet the author was dumbfounded when I said I found the heroine completely unlikeable. Like an over-devoted parent, she had indulged her protagonist's every whim, allowing her to have whatever she wanted just because she wanted it and making excuses for her bad behaviour whenever she threw a hissy fit. And, unsurprisingly, that character had subsequently morphed into the ultimate spoiled brat.
Such people aren't popular even in real life, and readers certainly don't want to be forced to root for them in fiction. Yes, anti-heroes with unlikable elements to their personality can often work, along with protagonists who keep on making the same stupid mistakes until they learn the error of their ways. But in the end it always comes back to good intentions. If the Hero is not at least always trying to do the right thing - and she feels no guilt or refuses to accept any responsibility when she does the wrong thing... well, sorry, but she's not the true Hero of your story. You should fire or at least demote her, and find another character who's better equipped to handle the role.
Well these are just for starters. What traits do YOU hate in a Hero character? I'd love to hear your thoughts, so feel free to leave a comment.