How to Know Who Should Be Your Novel’s Main Character

Well, hi there, TWNers! It’s been a long time since I last posted here, and since I have no good excuse to my absence other than school, the holidays, and editing Don’t Let Me Go, we might as well skip the section where I apologize for being away and promise to try to post more consistently, and hop straight into today’s post.

Do you ever wonder as your brainstorming your next WIP if your main character is compelling enough? Did you pick the correct character to lead this exciting tale? Is the protagonist strong enough to pull the reader from once upon a time to the end or maybe you should write about someone else? Is there any way to really know? Does this even matter at all?

Well, yes, it actually matters surprisingly more than we give it credit for. Have you ever read a novel where you’re enjoying the story, but it’s just missing something extra special, like that one character that just pulls you in and makes every page worth it? What about those times when readers confess they didn’t actually like the main character at all, but kept on reading because of a side character. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen one too many GoodReads reviews where readers complain about how irritating, annoying, and bothersome the protagonist is and how much they wished it had been told from another character’s point of view. I know I have also written these same reviews and made these same remarks. At first, as a writer, I brushed it aside, thinking that this is probably something normal that happens all the time. I mean, when we’re reading a novel and getting very close and personal to a character then we are likely to get irritated because we see their flaws and mistakes. But then I started reading more dual POVs and realized that I didn’t hate all the characters who had a POV and actually loved many of them. And then I realized that some of the great classics out there don’t have readers hating on the protagonists often. Think about tales like Pride and Prejudice, Robin Hood, Little Women, and The Hobbit. Are not the classic heroes and heroines of old like Elizabeth Bennett, King Arthur, Bilbo Baggins, and Jo March still championed, praised, and adored even today, though they are very much flawed characters. I’m currently reading the novel Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and if you know what this book is about then you know the main character is very, very far from perfect, and yet, I am still finding myself sympathizing to him despite my better judgement. It can’t be because they are flawed. So then what is it? 

What are we doing wrong with our protagonists?

The problem isn’t that we are creating poor characters, it’s that we never once stopped to ask ourselves who should be the protagonist. Sometimes, this answer is obvious, as many authors center their story around whatever character comes into their head. Other times, authors build their world or plot first. Maybe you already know the answer to this question for your WIP and maybe you don’t. Or maybe you want some validation to know you have selected the best character who will be the most engaging and compelling for your readers. (Please note, I am talking about the protagonist of the story rather than the narrator. While this often tends to be the same person, there are exceptions and many examples of fictional novels where the narrator is not the protagonist.)

Not to fear, dear writer, because there is one question that I believe solves the answer to who the best main character of your story is. But first, I want to break down two myths about who the protagonist should be. 

Myth #1: The Protagonist Should Be the Hero

The first common myth is that your protagonist should be the hero. This is not always true. While the majority of the time, yes, the protagonist should be the hero rather than the villain, there are a few exceptions. For example, redemption stories will usually be about a protagonist who has made enough terrible mistakes, you would consider them a villain rather than one of the good guys, because the point of the story is to show a redemption arc and have the character change their paths and become a better person. Take the Disney movie Maleficent as an example. (Spoiler warning!) Pretty early on, we see this historic villain character step into her evil role as she curses Aurora to prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel when she turns 16. However, as the story progresses and the character begins to spend time with Aurora and realizes that her hatred toward the princess’ father has caused her to harm innocent people in the process, as she begins to acknowledge that she has been blinded by anger and a thirst for revenge, she has a change of heart and tries to redeem her mistakes.

There are also examples of a character with a negative arc. The most popular one right now would be the prequel novel to the Hunger Games series: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. (I have not read the novel yet, but I’ve seen the movie so my thoughts here are solely based on that.) I have seen several remarks from readers and fans how upset they were by having a story based on the villain of the original trilogy, President Snow, and argued how we should be spending more time focusing on the victims of The Hunger Games rather than an entire novel about the man who helped them continue for decades. They see this as glorifying an evil man. I would argue, however, that this story does have an important role that might be missed at first. It reminds us that terrible people who do terrible things don’t always start out life ready to go on a murdering rampage. In fact, they start out as children, teenagers, young people like us. But where do they come from? How do they go from an innocent baby to an evil dictator? While you may not care about the origins of a man like President Snow, the novel had a purpose in reminding us that the path to evil and darkness is far easier to go down than the one of goodness and light. I disagree that Lucy Gray should have been the protagonist because while we definitely all hate Snow, it offers a startling, chilling reminder on just how easy it is to give in to the desires of the flesh.

Myth #2 The Protagonist Should Be the Most Interesting Character

Yep, I’ve heard this one a lot too, though not as frequent as the first myth. I think we can all agree that we want our main characters to be interesting and exciting, and while yes, the most interesting character can be the protagonist (take Sage from The Ascendance Series by Jennifer A. Nielsen as an example), they don’t always have to be the most interesting character. I think many of us can agree that several of our favorite characters are not actually the protagonists. For example, I personally think Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter series is the most interesting character there, but it wouldn’t be the same story if it was about her. My apologies, Harry

So if the protagonist doesn’t have to always be the hero or the most interesting character, then who should it be? I mean, I did tell you there was one question that solidifies which character in every novel should be the main one. 

Let me first explain where this question came from and what led me to start realizing there was more to main characters than the person the author chose to focus on. It started last fall when I read two books almost back-to-back. What stood out to me about these two was that my favorite character didn’t turn out to be who it usually is: the love interest. In one book, I actually walked away loving the female character more than the male character (something which almost never happens). And in the second book, it was a minor side character with a few chapters in her POV that captured my attention. Despite how different these two characters were, they had one thing in common. They were the character that best fit the answer to this question:

Who has the most at stake and the most to gain?

Example 1: Dreams of Savannah by Roseanna M. White. This is a Christian historical romance set during the Civil War that follows the story of two people, Cordelia and Phineas, trying against odds to build a relationship in the midst of a growing war. While there was nothing technically wrong with these two protagonists, I found myself more invested and interested in one of the side characters, Cordelia’s half-sister Salina. She had a few chapters in her point-of-view and they were always my favorite parts of the books because White had me the most invested in those moments. Why was that? See, Salina was enslaved and her “master” was actually her biological father. By the start of the book, her mother is gone and the only sort of family she has is the very people she is forced to serve. And if she had wanted to build a family of her own, not only would she have felt discouraged at this thought due to the living environment her children would be born into, but her father had also made it clear he thought her too good for any of his slaves but not good enough for a white man. So he never wanted her in a relationship with a man. Add to a growing war and the potential of freedom, she’s torn between trying to salvage the only family she has or forging her own happiness. Sounds like a pretty good book, right? Salina is the character who has the most at stake between her and the other two characters who all they have at stake is not being with the person they love. On the other hand, Salina has her very future, her happiness, and even her life at risk. She also has the most to gain. While Cordelia and Phineas have each other to gain, she has the potential to gain freedom, love, and a better life for herself, even though it might come at the risk of leaving behind everything she knows. A scary and risky choice lies ahead of her. She would have been the better character to tell the story from because knowing the terrible, tragic, and difficult life she has lead and all the threats placed before her that could uproot even the small semblance of hope she has, readers will be more desperate to see her succeed in her dreams. We will care about her more because she has more to offer, more to gain, and that also means she has more to lose. That alone would add more suspense and intrigue to the novel. On the other hand, readers could find themselves more fatigued and lose interest with Cordelia and Phineas’ story because there is so little at stake. Though this didn’t happen to me, I could see it happening with many readers.

Example #2: The Jewel of the Nile by Tessa Afshar. This is a Biblical fiction set in the kingdom of Cush and the Roman Empire that follows the story of Chariline as she sets out on a quest to discover who her father was even though someone is out there doing everything possible to ensure she never learns the truth. I remember when I first started reading this book, I told one of my sisters that, for once, I actually liked the female protagonist more than the main male character, Theo. I was shocked and tried to figure out why that was. What was The Jewel of the Nile doing differently? I realized it was the same reason I was drawn to Salina. Chariline was more interesting of a character than Theo because she had more at stake here. Her whole goal was to finally learn the truth of where she came from, who her father was, and maybe even for the first time, find a family where she was fully loved in. Theo is a great supporting character as he helps her begin this journey, but because this doesn’t personally affect him, it matters little to us of his happiness, and his chapters were not as investing as hers. However, we are desperate to see Chariline succeed. She has the most at stake and the most to gain than any other character here, which made her the best one to tell the story. 

You can find many more examples of where this is true. For example, though I may really love Noah and Alexei from the Embassy Row series by Ally Carter, Grace (the protagonist) was the best character for the story. She is on a mission to find the Scarred Man who she believed murdered her mother and finally prove that she is not as crazy as everyone thinks. This is a personal goal that affects her, while Noah and Alexei are great supporting roles. If the story was about them, we would be less interested in their characters. Again, while Peeta will always be my favorite character from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, I must grudgingly agree that Katniss was the better protagonist. We are more invested in her character because we see her love for her sister, Primrose, which is what led her to volunteer as tribute. This makes her success even more personal, added to the fact that she is the supporter and provider for her family. They need her to win just as much as she does, so she has more to lose than Peeta. In the How to Train Your Dragon movie, Hiccup was the best protagonist because he had a more personal reason to succeed in his story than the other characters: finding approval with his father and belonging with the other vikings. This also meant he had more to lose, more that was at stake, which meant we didn’t want to see him fail. We cared more about him than the others because his success would mean so much more.

I could continue for hours about all the examples that fit this mold, but I think you’ve gotten the picture. In conclusion, it matters less about how many great attributes, skills, or personalities your main character has. In the end, readers will care little about what they can do, if they are the most perfect, or even if they’re the most flawed. What they will relate to are gains and losses, stakes and fears, challenges and overcoming them. The main character doesn’t have to be anything else except someone who has something to lose, which also means he has something to win. 

Which means we will be invested to see him win or fail.

So, let’s keep this conversation going in the comments. Who is your favorite protagonist? What are some reasons you think why modern protagonists are not always as interesting to readers as the classic ones? Do you have any topics you’d like me to cover in future posts? I want to hear all about it in the comments below!

Until the next post. God bless and stay awesome,

Is Perry

Issabelle Perry is a proud Jesus follower, an extroverted writer, and a homeschool graduate. When she's not writing, you can find her reading, jamming to Skillet, studying history, hunting for Narnia in wardrobes, or envisioning herself wielding a magnificent sword (but due to her clumsiness, let’s hope that never happens). This self-proclaimed exclamation mark enthusiast can be found hanging out at Teen Writers’ Nook, a community of teen authors Issabelle co-founded in 2020. She is the author of Don't Let Me Go (Sky's the Limit Press 2024), May We Make Them Proud (2023), and a co-editor for two anthologies. What she’s probably doing right now is fangirling about her favorite books to random people or scanning the pantries for chocolate.


  • Saraina

    Ooh, awesome post!! This isn’t talked about a lot, but you raise some fantastic points! Especially about who has the most at stake – EXACTLY! And oftentimes we think the main character should be the good guy who’s super easy to root for, but…flaws are relatable. Conflict and struggles are relatable. And I love your myth #2 – we just watched The Lego Movie last night (you wouldn’t expect it to be good…but it’s literally GOLD. So genius.) and Emmet, the main character, is known for being a blank slate. Forgettable. Boring. Nothing. And yet we somehow found ourselves being drawn to him, rooting for him, relating to him being “less” than everyone else. So take that, y’all who think the MC has to be the most interesting character! XD

    Thank you for this post, girl!!! <3

    • Issabelle Perry

      Aw, thank you, Saraina!!! Yes, I agree it’s something not discussed about often, something most people don’t even think about. I know I never gave it much thought until I started noticing how much I wound up liking minor characters more and it didn’t seem… right. YES! I 100% agree. Ooo well then I should definitely consider giving The Lego Movie a try then! It sounds awesome! Wow, that is so cool how this character who’s supposed to be forgettable was actually someone y’all loved rooting for and were able to relate to!!! I love it when writers are able to take a character that by all logic the audience shouldn’t like and yet somehow end up loving!! Thanks for sharing this great example!!!

      Aw, you’re welcome, girl! Thank YOU for reading. <333

  • Kimberly J Perry

    This was a very informative and interesting post! I liked it a lot. It definitely gave me things to think about when writing. Thank you for sharing.

  • ☁️ Breanna ☁️

    😯 This makes so much sense. Thanks so much for the insight! I’ve always felt like protagonists are the ones we ultimately cheer on and side characters add flavor to the narrative, but y’know, exceptions are fun. 😉 Plus, that Mushu GIF is hilarious; he is an icon. 😆

    • Issabelle Perry

      Aw, of course! Yes! Most of the time that’s right where our protagonists are the heroes we root for and the side characters help the hero achieve his goal, but ya know how writers are. They love to change things up! Hahaha I KNOW RIGHT. MUSHU IS THE BESTEST!

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