It’s important in writing almost any story that readers care about the protagonist. You want readers to root for the protagonist as he sets about trying to achieve his objective, which they will only do if they care.
This is an issue I am wrestling with on my current (middle reader-oriented) project. The Story Monkeys are having a hard time relating to my protagonist, whose name is Charlie. Today I am going to write a new first chapter, to go in front of the old first chapter, the sole real purpose of which is to make the Story Monkeys (and other eventual readers) like Charlie.
What is my menu of options? To make people like Charlie, I can:
- Make Charlie suffer. We like the underdog, especially when his problem is one we can relate to. He’s unpopular, people pick on him, he’s lonely, he’s poor, his life’s in danger. Is he an orphan, hated by his step-parents? Is he always in trouble at school?
- Make Charlie really skillful. We admire people who are good at something that they do. People will like Charlie more if he is an awesome ninja or a super-talented, say, Quidditch seeker.
- Make Charlie funny. We like funny people, like the kid who wants to be the school cartoonist.
- Get deep into Charlie’s POV. The better we understand what people are thinking, the more we care about them. Focus on Charlie’s hopes and his suffering. It’s no coincidence that so much middle reader fiction is written in first person, or sticks very closely to a very limited number of characters.
- Show Charlie being active. You can’t root for a couch potato. A protagonist who gets out and after his objectives, or his Quest, early gets sympathy.
- Make Charlie nice. Parents (and hopefully some kids) like nice guys, and want them to win.
- Make Charlie bad. Many kids see themselves in naughty characters, and root for the naughty (not evil; naughty, i.e., mouthy, disrespectful, troubled kid, the kid with ants on his pants, not the future psychopath) character to succeed. Combined with the preceding bullet, this may mean that there is a sweet spot to aim for, where your protagonist is a basically nice kid, with a frisson of bad attitude.