In my book groups I have often heard readers complain that they could not “relate” to the protagonist. The first time I heard it I was surprised and puzzled. Hearing it over and over made me wonder why these folks read fiction at all. As a reader I don’t care about whether I relate or not. I guess I read to experience a different world. But as a fiction writer I had to seriously consider the issue. And so should you.
Surely no one reads murder, sci fi, etc. expecting to “relate,” right? And yet in popular fiction the rules are different. It’s not possible for everyone to relate to a protagonist. But it is possible to create a protagonist that is compelling.
The flawed protagonist is not new. What is new is having a protagonist who may be well beyond flawed. (think the Godfather, Sopranos) We read and watch because we just can’t pull ourselves away. It isn’t only that we are shocked, it’s that we come to know, and even like these characters, sometimes to our own dismay.
Being compelling is not the same as being extreme. The protagonist does not have to be a murderer or psychotic. Everyday people can be compelling just by virtue of who they are. The things they say, how they behave, how they feel. They may do odd things, say witty things, behave badly at times. But we care about them.
Also consider this: characters behave in certain ways. No other character in the novel behaves quite like them. Their behavior creates the plot. (If things just happen to them it gets boring.) So, a compelling character will be involved in a plot that is interesting.