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To Be, Or Not To Be (Likable)? by Jack Heath

It’s sometimes hard to decide whether your protagonist should be likable or interesting.

The heroes of many YA novels are not so much heroes as they are observers, or even victims. Harry Potter and Bella Swan are largely passive participants in their own lives. The advantage of this strategy is that the characters are usually likeable and sympathetic, since everyone knows what it’s like to feel powerless (especially teenagers).

Other books have protagonists who do things, rather than having things done to them. John Cleaver, Tally Youngblood; these characters are more entertaining to read about, but harder to identify with. This may be because all stories require conflict, so if the protagonist is driving the plot, they’re probably making things difficult for the other characters.

I’ve tried both methods – in The Lab, Agent Six’s superpowers are mainly used in self-defence, making him a passive character rather than an active one. Meanwhile, Ashley Arthur sets off the action herself in Money Run when she decides to steal $200 million from a tax cheat. Agent Six is a more sympathetic character, but Money Run is a better story. Perhaps this is one of the repercussions of the passive/active protagonist choice. Imagine, for a moment, the Harry Potter series if the narrative had followed Snape. The plot may have worked better, but would Snape have charmed as many readers as Harry?

Most successful novels fall somewhere between the two extremes. Katniss Everdeen and Alex Rider are never in control of their own lives, but each of them volunteered (albeit under difficult circumstances). The risk, or course, is that the hero will plummet into the canyon in the middle, neither identifiable nor intriguing.

Other books split the active protagonist and the passive protagonist into two separate characters, which works surprisingly well. We empathise with Ishmael, we’re interested in Ahab. Holmes fascinates the readers, while Watson wins them over.

Ultimately, the kind of hero you have will be dictated by the kind of story you are trying to tell. The only advice that I can offer is this: work out what the protagonist wants. Even the most passive characters are hungry for something.


Jack Heath bio page
Money RunThe LabHit ListUgliesMockingjay (Hunger Games Trilogy)Mr. MonsterMoby Dick (Wordsworth Classics)

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