Is Your Protagonist an Average Joe or Jane? Give Them a Shot at Greatness: Part 1

by Marylee MacDonald in Characters

Do you want readers to love your protagonist? Then you must make that protagonist a hero or heroine. This is the first of three posts that will discuss what it means to be heroic. This post talks about heroic characters who are average Joes and Janes, but who perform extraordinary actions. In my next post I’ll talk about how to deal with protagonists who seem heroic from the outset–Navy Seals, firefighters, etc. And, finally, I’ll talk about dark, angst-ridden protagonists.

hero heroes heroines in Grisham's novel

The protagonist of John Grisham’s novel, THE FIRM, is an average young man with a new wife and new job.

Mirroring Readers’ Lives

Characters who are “just like us” are among the easiest for readers to identify with. That means not too smart. Not too rich. Not too successful—so far. But, wait, something good’s going to happen to them, just like something good could one day happen to us. We’ll win the lottery or figure out how to deal with the tyrannical boss. We’ll find allies to help us in our quest for whatever it is that will make our average, humdrum lives more meaningful and fulfilling. Most important, we’ll discover that—deep inside us—lives, and has always lived, a person who can turn into a hero or heroine.

In John Grisham’s The Firm, a young lawyer, Mitch McDeere, seems like the average, young married guy just getting a toehold on the corporate ladder. He’s not in a profession that would ordinarily put him in the line of fire, nor is he working in a field that might require moral bravery. When The Firm kicks off, Mitch McDeere isn’t out to save the world.

Something Happens Right Away

Even though we don’t yet know what’s going to happen in the book, Grisham’s scenes hint at the protagonist’s potential for extraordinary action. In The Firm, Mitch gets hired for a job that’s too good to be true. In the beginning, everything appears to be working out perfectly, but as time goes on, he starts to notice some unusual characteristics about his employers: They don’t seem to understand the concept of privacy. The early action in this novel happens when Mitch begins to snoop around. He soon learns about some former employees who were “accidentally” killed.

Mitch’s willingness to snoop is the early action that hints at later bravery. Mitch just can’t “let it alone.”

Why is it so important for something that hints at heroism to happen quickly? It’s important because readers make quick judgments about whether the main character is good and worthy of their attention. The quality of “worthiness” must be observable by the reader. That’s because readers like to draw their own conclusions. By “observable,” I mean the story must dramatize a key, early moment in the protagonist’s path to becoming heroic. It must show that your main character has “the right stuff,” even if the quality of heroism has not yet manifested itself in the character’s life.

In the case of Grisham’s novel, the main plot kicks in when the FBI decides to use Mitch to get them the evidence they need to indict The Firm. Unfortunately, Mitch’s employers set him up in a compromising situation that exposes him to blackmail. Squeezed between the FBI and his employer, Mitch runs for his life.

Mitch’s plight is made worse by his need to protect his wife Abby, and it’s made even worse because he’s forced to make a moral choice.

Early Action That Foreshadows Heroism

In fiction something has to happen, and the sooner the better. When I say “something needs to happen right away,” I mean that you must show the character in scene. (For more on scenes, read this blog post.)

Let me digress for just a second to spell this out. Showing a character waking up in the morning, getting out of bed and padding to the bathroom, then staring in the mirror so the reader gets a good visual right off the bat is not the way to get the reader on your protagonist’s side. That kind of opening is all too common, so common that it has become a cliche. Plus, frankly, I–your humble reader–am bored if I’m forced to watch someone to whom I have no emotional attachment take a shower and brush their teeth.

When you’re casting about for things that can happen, avoid the temptation to have too much happen. Don’t start with your main character running through the woods with bad guys taking potshots. Don’t start with her in an inflatable dinghy, surrounded by sharks.

However, as with almost everything in writing, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. At my granddaughter’s urging I recently read a terrific young adult novel by V.E. Schwab, A Gathering of Shadows. It opens with the protagonist, Delilah Bard, in a dinghy. Her little boat is sinking, her hands are tied, and she’s surrounded by sharks. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have cared what happened, but this novel is the second in a series, and I had already bonded with this feisty heroine.

The Difference Between Novels and Movies

But, you might argue, why not open with a chase scene or sinking boat? These situations are cinematic. You can see the action. A chase scene or a sinking boat are part of the movie in your head.

The problem is that movies are not the same as novels. Movies are all about action. Yes, things happen in novels, but the reason people read books is that readers want to know about the character’s interior life. To know and understand another person, perhaps one completely unlike ourselves, awakens our empathy. In reading fiction, we experience what psychologists call “mirroring,” a phenomenon in which we see our own lives reflected in the lives of others.

Most of us have not run through the woods with people firing on us, nor have we survived the sinking of a dinghy. If you start with such a moment, readers won’t care about your protagonist in a deep way. They won’t bond with your protagonist. Yes, readers might be temporarily entertained, but they are unlikely to be drawn in—sucked in—because whatever’s happening to your protagonist is very much like the thing that happened to them.

Save the Cat Moments

Screenwriters sometimes have a “save the cat” moment at the beginning of the story. This is a small gesture that hints at the protagonist’s willingness to go out on a limb. Saving the cat won’t be the big challenge the character ultimately faces, but it will show the character taking action. That action can reveal compassion, an agile mind, or willingness to take a risk. The story is already underway, meaning you are starting in medias res. The right kind of action can introduce us to the character and entertain us.

A “save the cat moment” is great because you can create a scene with several beats. The heroine hears her rescue-kitten mewing plaintively. She borrows her neighbor’s extension ladder, thus involving another person in the scene. That other person can say, “I wouldn’t go up there,” or “Watch out for that power line.” Of course, the cat could have a mind of its own. The ladder could scare it, and it might move onto a smaller branch. Maybe the heroine gets a can of tuna and carries it up the ladder. The risk-averse neighbor could be admiring of the heroine, thus confirming our sense that she is worthy, or he could try to take over the cat rescue, maybe with some words about men being better at that sort of thing than women. We would be able to judge the heroine’s response and see if she’s a person who speaks her mind, is prickly when it comes to sexist comments, or is a woman who ignores stupidity and just forges ahead with her plan.

Readers will be making judgments about whether she’s “too sensitive” or whether she’s right in feeling annoyed at his slightly superior, know-it-all suggestions. Of course, this is a bit of a stereotyped picture I’m painting here, but you get the idea. We are able to learn more about the character than if we had just seen her get out of bed and go stare in the mirror. With a second person in the scene, readers can make inferences about the main character.

Free-Write Your Protagonist’s Heroic Qualities

You might want to do some free-writing about your character’s heroic qualities. I did this for the novel I’m revising so that I had a clear view of the protagonist’s character arc. Apart from being short, my main character, Noël , is an “average guy.” When the novel opens, he is fifteen and a follower, but early scenes reveal his loyalty and idealism. By the end of the novel, he becomes a leader.

hero protagonist

The protagonist in my novel-in-progress is the little guy at the upper left.

You can read more about this young artist on my Authors Guild blog. However, here’s what I wrote so that I understood his character arc.

What’s heroic about Noël is his ability to discover his artistic gifts, despite having nothing in his family or environment that would have suggested this career. Not only does he do this for himself. He becomes a leader in living out Enlightenment ideals. By the end of the novel, he becomes a powerful example of the ideals Chappe believed in and died for, but for Noël, those ideals are tempered by his caring for common people as epitomized by Barnon and Pauly.

I realize that this probably isn’t going to make a whole lot of sense to you because you don’t know these characters, but I think you can sense that the main character is going be a different character at the end of the book than he is at the beginning.

I recommend that you write a paragraph like the one above. It will give you a road map for the protagonist’s internal journey. When you have a firm grasp on the character arc, you can begin casting about for early scenes that show her or his potential. You may have written such scenes already, but if you haven’t, try thinking of new scenes that can show your character in a favorable light.

Where Can We Look for Early Moments of Heroism?

Let’s assume you don’t have a kitten to put up a tree. You’re going to cast about for a scene that will show your protagonist’s heroic, likeable, relatable qualities. What can happen that reveals the potential of this ordinary person to, by the end of the book, become truly heroic? You need to find a moment that will reveal the worth of the character. That worthiness may be cloaked in ordinariness, but your scene is going to give us just a peek at what this ordinary Joe or Jane is made of.

Focus on the positive. Later, introduce the qualities that make your protagonist human.

What do you like best about this character? Is she like Scarlett O’Hara, full of gumption? (Notice I’m not saying disloyal, spiteful, and self-centered.)

Why do you enjoy spending time with this character? Does he have a sense of humor, particularly with regard to his own foibles? (Never mind that, later on, we’ll see he has an explosive temper.)

Is he conscientious or respectful? (Notice I’m not mentioning his impulsivity.)

What do other people admire about him? Is he kind to his mother? Could he be a person who would buy her flowers? (Never mind that money runs through his fingers and that he’s perennially late with rent.)

Is she idealistic, an eco-warrior determined to save an imperiled Siberian tiger? (We don’t know yet that her passion for animals often comes in conflict with her willingness to take orders from higher-ups in the WWF.)

Does the voice of the story—the character’s voice—draw us into their world? Does that voice “click” for us?

Voice is important because readers love to hear the voice of a narrator whispering in their ear. But, voice is also tricky. It’s possible that the “I” narrator has blind spots or is intentionally leading the reader astray. Later, we may find that voice isn’t so reliable as we first thought. Maybe haven’t gotten to the scene in the story where the wife is going to reveal that the protagonist isn’t as easy to live with as he thinks he is.

Richard Russo’s novel, Bridge of Sighs, is an example of a voice that captivates the reader right from the start. Part of the magic occurs because the character is looking back on childhood and trying to put together the puzzle-pieces of his life.

And, isn’t that what we’re all trying to do? See how the person who exists in the “now” of our lives got to be that way? Again, it’s a universal that we will all come to a moment of accounting, a moment when we must reconcile with our failures.

Readers Want to Identify With Heroes and Heroines

What this all comes down to is this: For us to engage the feelings of our readers, we must present them with a character on the page who is like them. If we do that well, then it’s possible readers will see their reflections in the mirror, the mirror being the fictional person on the page. Readers will be able to see their best qualities mirrored if our characters have qualities readers like in themselves:

  • High ethical standards
  • An ability to reflect on their lives and life in general
  • Common sense
  • Loyalty
  • Compassion/empathy
  • Grit
  • Idealism

Can you think of a situation in which readers can experience this good quality, literally as we meet the character? In the very first scene can you show this quality in some small way? Sure, you can. Your Everyman or Everywoman is about to become great, and when readers finish the very last page, they’ll say, “I knew it!”

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