A likeable protagonist

April 9, 2023

Unpacking the depth of emotional bonding with protagonists in literature

A likeable protagonist


ttending the recent iteration of the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) at Alhamra Arts Council in Lahore proved a significant turning point in my attitude towards literature. It brought forth the importance of the protagonist in a story. As a volunteer at the three-day event, I had the opportunity to listen to several writers and their perspectives on how to write engaging novels. This experience made me reflect on my knowledge of literature and helped me develop my understanding of what makes a compelling protagonist.

As I had learned in my psychology class, humans are drawn to patterns as well as deviations from patterns. The right balance between the two can make something memorable. Intrigued by this idea, I began my research. One example of this is creating a pattern of emotional similarity and adding an out-of-pattern detail. For instance, when a reader finds a relatable character they can empathise with, it has a greater chance of leaving an impact. However, if the character also has an idiosyncratic trait, it can create an even more substantial effect that stays with the reader.

A potent personality plays a huge role in leaving a lasting impact on readers. Striking characters with unique characteristics and speech patterns are more likely to be remembered vividly. For instance, Ian Fleming’s James Bond is remembered not only for his sharpshooting skills but also by the signature dress that sets him apart from others. The wit, dialogues and scrupulous nature of Sherlock Holmes and the egoistic behaviour of Mr Darcy make them noteworthy. Communication style, gait and tics distinguish other memorable characters from others. So do quirks in their speech, movement around their environment and unique behaviours in times of stress or contemplation.

The moment a reader gets a sense of relatability to a character is when data packets stored in the Read Only Memory seen as a reflection of oneself, match some elements of the narration. A universally likeable character appeals to most readers as they recognise themselves in the character. This aspect closely relates to the flaws and weaknesses of the character. Recklessness, a greedy streak and insecurity make many characters relatable to readers.

Likeable protagonists acknowledge their mistakes and strive to improve; unlikable protagonists blame others and refuse to take responsibility for their actions.

During my validation process, I explored various factors involved in the likability of a character. For instance, characters aware of their flaws and undergoing development throughout the story tend to leave a lasting impression on readers. Clarice Starling, the lead heroine in The Silence of the Lambs, is a prominent example. Starting as a trainee, she becomes a prototype for not only FBI agents to aspire to but also other protagonists. She breaks the mould of a male-dominated FBI. Similarly, Umrao Jaan Ada, from the eponymous novel by Mirza Hadi Ruswa, is brought up as a courtesan but develops a deep understanding of the destructive nature of her environment and strives towards purity and forgiveness. Likeable protagonists acknowledge their mistakes and strive to improve; protagonists blaming others and refusing to take responsibility for their actions are not liked.

However, static characters are as important to the stories as those who change; their very essence drives the story. In the case of Sherlock Holmes, it is his unchanging nature that makes him a compelling character.

Notably, the protagonist needs to have the sympathy and support of the audience. To build such a relationship, there has to be a complex backstory. The tortured past of Heathcliff, the tragic hero of Wuthering Heights, helps the reader sympathise with him. Being informed that he has been denied opportunities and love, the readers tend to better understand his character and subsequent actions. Backstories allow readers to explore the fears, weaknesses and motivations of important characters.

While other factors determining a protagonist’s likability have their role, establishing an emotional bond between the reader and the protagonist is most important. It creates a desire to praise the character.

The writer is an A-level student at Lahore Grammar School with an interest in foreign languages, particularly German. She can be reached at faleha.hakim@gmail.com

A likeable protagonist