1. They need a goal.
From the beginning of the story (yes, I mean the first word beginning), they need something they want really badly. This goal can stay with them throughout the entire story, or the goal can change. Harry Potter's opening goal was to survive living with the Dursleys, but that goal soon changes to making his way in the wizarding world, surviving his classes, catching the golden snitch, and then defeating Voldemort. Those whiny, boring, forgettable main characters (MCs) usually don't have a very strong goal, or even a goal at all. Goals are important because one big reason we keep reading a story is to find out whether or how they achieve their goal(s).
2. Make your MCs work. HARD.
Now that they have a goal, they need to act upon it. If there's an obstacle, make them tackle it head-on. Don't have them complain. Don't have them sit back while the hot, broody guy saves the day. Give your MC some backbone and agency. Make them take initiative themselves. Even better if they do it without being asked. Undertaking a task because a prophecy tells them to is not having agency. Make your MCs fight for this goal because they have some personal stakes invested in the outcome.
3. Give them a good and external and internal motivation for the goal. Harry has to defeat Voldemort. Why? Externally, Voldemort will take over the world and oppress the muggles and mudbloods--some of whom are Harry's friends. Internally, Harry was "the boy who lived" so he feels obligated to live up to expectations and defeat Voldemort himself.
The motivation is vital to developing your MC. They can't just go on a quest half-way across the world because they have nothing better to do or because someone tells them to. Why are they invested in this goal? What horrible thing will happen if they don't achieve their goal? How will they benefit if they do achieve it? The better the motivations--both internal and external--the more invested your readers will be in following along the MC's journey.
4. Give them flaws.
No, being clumsy, too pretty, too popular, too misunderstood are not flaws. True, significant flaws are personality flaws. Your MC doesn't have to be a psychopath murderer rapist (they could be if you want), but they should have some things about them that would even get on your nerves. Using Harry Potter again, he was very rash, impatient, and disobedient. More times than not, those got him into trouble. That's the main thing about flaws: flaws should cause trouble for your MC. What makes a character endearing and memorable to us is not that they're perfect in every way or flawed in every way. What makes us love a character is showing how they overcome their flaws and/or how they fix the problems their flaws created.
Personality flaws are things like: obsessions, being superficial, impulsive, too slow to take action, paranoid, superstitious, untrustworthy, mischievous, too physically rowdy (and they end up hurting someone all the time), manipulative, aggressive, aloof, vain, greedy, envious, prideful, etc.
Personality flaws are not: big nose, frizzled hair, uneven dimples, bad sense of style, or anything to do with appearance. Physical appearance is not a flaw. How the MC deals with appearance could be a flaw because that's based on their personality. They could be extremely self-conscious about a disfiguring scar on their face or see themselves as worthless for losing a leg and being unable to walk. How your MC reacts to things that are wrong with them are much more powerful than the thing itself.
MCs become interesting when they create their own problems. There might be some external stimulus, such an antagonist or some natural disaster, but the MC's flaws should make them have to work even harder to beat that villain or survive the disaster.
5. Give them redeeming qualities.
An Anti Sue is just as bad as a Mary Sue. We have to be sympathetic toward them. That doesn't mean they have to be perfect angels. We can care for criminals, too. Giving them a proper goal really helps us connect and feel for them when they can/can't achieve their goal. So they don't exactly have to be LIKABLE, just interesting and relatable. If they want to rob a bank, why?--to feed the younger members of their gang. If they want to rule the world, why?--To save it from corruption and make it a better place. Even if their goals are twisted or downright atrocious, your character can still be sympathetic if you give them some good quality that balances the flaw.
In the comments below, answer the following questions about your protagonist:
1. What is their main goal?
2. How are you going to make them work hard to achieve it?
3. What are their internal and external motivations for this goal?
4. What are their biggest personality flaws?
5. What are some of their redeeming qualities?
YOU ARE READING
Yuffie's Writing How-To'sRandom
A story isn't just a bunch of words slapped onto a page. It's a living, breathing manifestation of your imagination. This guide explores aspects most guides don't touch on such as memorable protagonists, world building, character psychology, and bac...