Writing an interesting protagonist – Special traits, skills, hobbies

A struggle that a lot of writers face when creating a story is writing an engaging protagonist that readers will like. Though not all readers will appreciate a character for who and what they are but there are still elements to a character that most people find endearing and encouraging. Most people don’t want to read about the power trip or popularity savant that is a “Mary Sue”. With character driven stories being the predominant popular form of storytelling, it only makes sense to have the lead characters be likeable. This doesn’t mean making them good people or heroes, but characters that are engaging and fun to read. The first step is identifying what makes the character special without being too special and that unique quality having a purpose in the overall story.

Slight spoilers for: Harley Merlin and The Secret Coven, The Heroes of Olympus, and (of course) Avatar: The Last Airbender

Often times for a protagonist to be successful, there needs to be something about them that sets them apart from the others. It can sometimes be that funny game of spot the protagonist in visual mediums where they’re obviously unique. But if it’s an average person with nothing discernable about them, they’re often chosen or dropped into a predicament that requires them to grow and develop a skill or trait. But sometimes a protagonist can have that skill or trait already cultivated and watching them use and develop it is what makes the protagonist far more interesting and engaging.

But the danger of having a special skill or trait is developing it and then never using it in the main plot of the story. Modern day storytelling is very focused on character driven stories and it makes the focus for the audience the character’s motivations, goals and abilities. To this end, if a character has something truly unique about them and it never comes up in the main plot of the story, it can feel like wasted potential. Take Harley Merlin from Harley Merlin and The Secret Coven and her empathy. It’s repeatedly mentioned, explained and used in minor interactions to flesh it out and those moments are done really well. But the critical problem is that, in regards to the main plot or even Harley’s character plot, it never comes up or helps her. In a sense, it’s almost as if she’s given the empathy trait just to be unique from the other characters.

To add to this, however, is making a character too special or too godlike in a sense. This ventures on one of the dreaded “Mary Sue” traits where a character is just too skilled and makes the story lose any sense of tension. It also creates unsatisfying moments in a story where it’s solved because of something the protagonist can easily do or pull out of thin air (a deus ex machina of sorts). The danger here is that sometimes it’s not so obvious that a character’s abilities or traits make them too overpowered. Piper McLean from The Heroes of Olympus series is a good example of a decent character that has a special trait that feels too powerful. Her “Charmspeak” feels like something that forces the trait of being clever on Piper without actually being clever. There’s many moments where it really does come off of as get-out-of-jail free card and ruins the tension of several scenes.

Special abilities for a character can be a tricky task to manage. A writer needs to consider that, while special abilities, traits and skills can make an exciting protagonist, the level of ease that it let’s the characters glide through the story can diminish any tense moments. But if you, as the writer, choose to have your protagonist have a special trait about them, make it so they have to work on it and master it.

The critical problem with “overpowered” characters is often that the abilities are given to the characters. An audience wants to see characters struggle and earn their wins and to do so they need to practice with their special abilities, traits and skills in order to justify how amazing they are. It also can’t be something they practiced in the past. Simply saying they’ve practiced to master an ability feels cheap as it’s an example of telling the audience rather than showing them that the character has earned this. People struggle in every day life and seeing characters overcome their struggles can inspire the audience and pump them up. It creates excitement and anticipation that this practice and effort will amount to something amazing.

Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender is a great example of a character with a special and unique trait but isn’t immediately overpowered. The concept of the avatar is, in a sense, to be the most powerful bender in the world. Throughout the series, Aang has to learn how to use the four elements rather than being able to immediately use them and win every fight. He struggles with learning each element and it’s not just given to him with minimal effort. He seeks out teachers to cultivate his abilities to eventually master them and become the fully realized Avatar. With the exception of that weird scene at the end of the series, his abilities are earned through his hard work and dedication.

Stories that focus on characters with unique abilities are ones that need extra care and attention to retain tension and excitement. It can be done and, I would argue, should be done as it makes characters exciting and fascinating. People love superheroes and, to an extent, having a character be skilled in something or have a special power is like having a superpower. Just be sure to have them earn their power and cultivate it so that it’s important to the story rather than just something to make the character unique.

Hope this helps!

– Raphael

P.S: This is a bit more of a free form thought article on writing I wanted to try out as I often have a lot of these thoughts in my head as I write and think up stories. I thought it might help other writers out there when working on their own stories.

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