What Makes a Good Main Character?

What makes a main character my favorite? I’ve made a list of some of my favorite protagonists, from some of my favorite books, and thought about why they hooked me. I’m someone who is pulled in by character first, before ideas. I don’t have to directly relate to a character, but I do have to care about them, want to read about them, feel engaged in their struggle and their whole arc. Here is a list of some of my favorite protagonists of all time (not all of them, but still a very long list):

  • Anne Shirley – Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery (pub 1908)
  • Cassie Logan – Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor (pub 1976)
  • Solveig Nilsson – A Horse for XYZ, by Louise Moeri (pub 1977)
  • Aerin – The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley (pub 1984)
  • Laura Chant – The Changeover, by Margaret Mahy (pub 1984)
  • Sophie – Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones (pub 1986)
  • Eugenides – The Thief series, by Megan Whalen Turner (pub 1996)
  • Mel – Crown Duel series, by Sherwood Smith (pub 1997)
  • Sunshine – Sunshine, by Robin McKinley (pub 2003)
  • Costis – The King of Attolia, by Megan Whalen Turner (pub 2006)
  • Kahu Apirana – The Whale Rider, by Witi Ihimaera (pub 2006)
  • Kami – The Lynburn Legacy (Unspoken, Untold, Unmade), by Sarah Rees Brennan (pub 2012)
  • Rose Sweetly – Talk Sweetly To Me, by Courtney Milan (pub 2014)
  • Binti – Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor (pub 2015)
  • Shahrzad – The Wrath and the Dawn, by Renée Ahdieh (pub 2015)
  • Sierra – Shadowshaper, by Daniel José Older (pub 2015)

I could write at length about why these books, and these characters, are some of my favorites. But in the interests of time, I’ll keep to some generalizations. (But I do heartily recommend all of these books, and authors.) Looking at all of those characters together, the take-away I think is that my favorite protagonists tend to be brave in the face of impossible odds, stubborn, smart, smart-asses, and willing to take a chance. They are impetuous, rascally, not always honest, sometimes jerks, and always, always interesting. Some of them are shy dreamers, like me, but by no means all of them. I like a character with fears and flaws, who stumbles and tries, and tries again, who works to become better. These aren’t unusual traits in a main character, but it helps to have a writer who can make them live. A writer who makes these traits seem part of a whole and immerses you in their world is a treasure. I want a protagonist who leaps off the page and into my mind. I want a story to live in my head, and characters who feel real and lived-in.

I do work hard for that feeling, as a writer. I appreciate the hard work that goes into making characters fully flawed and real and loved and loveable, only to shove them into terrible circumstances and make them fight their way out of it. But the fight is half of why we love them. And the flaws are what make the fight interesting.

When I write my characters, I live with them in my heads a little. I try to see their situations as they would see them, and how they would react, and then make that the reality of the story. And I’m a sucker for a smart-ass, it seems, so I usually have that in there, too. So my favorite main characters are the ones who grab you and don’t let you go, and face down the worst situations with determination and desperation and the occasional sarcastic jibe, and drag you along with them.