Getting your reader to root for your protagonist is one of the most desirable goals in all of literature. If you can get a reader to be truly on board with a protagonist or secondary character, to fight for them in their minds and to want them to win, then you have achieved something quite precious. It raises the stakes of your conflicts and it turns the pages of your books.
So how to do this?
The best way to get a reader to root for your character is to engage them in some serious pathos. Pathos is an appeal to emotion, as opposed to ‘logos’, which is the appeal to logic. Pathos works much better in stories and forms the very heart of great story-telling.
There are a number of different ways to create pathos for your characters. Here is a non-exhaustive list:
Have your character lose something close to them emotionally. This is one of the most tried and tested ways of creating pathos for your character and getting readers to sympathise with them.
This can happen before the start of the story, like in Harry Potter. He begins having lost his parents and the people that love him.
This can happen right at the beginning of the story, as well. For anyone that has played The Last of Us - critically lauded for its emotionally powerful story - the opening scene sticks very clearly in your mind. The main character loses his daughter.
Another good example is Altered Carbon, the first Takeshi Kovacs book by Richard K Morgan. In the opening scene he loses the love of his life.
It is possible to overplay this and you need to be careful with it. Too much loss can be tiresome and difficult to read, but think about having your character lose something or have lost something at the start. It is a powerful tool.
Even more powerful than simple loss is the concept of redemption. Indeed, I would go as far as to argue that redemption is the basis for all great drama, but that is probably another post for another time.
The need to act in order to overcome personal guilt is probably the greatest tool for creating pathos that exists in literature. It pervades more than just stories, but cultures and histories. There is a reason that the major religions of the world deal, in some form or another, with redemption. Think about the confessional box of Christianity. The ‘forgive me father for I have sinned.’ Humanity, as a whole, is obsessed with the idea of guilt, redemption and fighting for forgiveness.
If you can instill in your character a sense of guilt about something that they feel the need to redeem themselves of, you can almost guarantee that your reader will root for them doing it.
A good example is Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. He is a fascinating character because we truly hope, as readers, that he has the capacity to be redeemed.
An easy way to do this is to tie it into loss. If someone loses their wife or child and blames themselves for it, this can have heavy impact - regardless if it was their fault or not. Another way is to have them do something that they later regret.
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson - one of the most intelligent and rich fantasy series of all time - begins with the main protagonist committing a horrific act of rape and he spends most of the rest of the books trying to find redemption for that choice. It is awful, but it makes for a highly compelling protagonist.
Regardless of awful things that your protagonist might do, or terrible situations they might be put in, consider making them loyal to something, someone or some idea. Unwavering loyalty is another powerful tool to generate pathos.
The key here is not to make them loyal to everything and everyone, but rather to one specific thing. Give your character one thing - one principle - that they will never shift on. Never.
They can have this unwavering loyalty to anything - a principle, like honour or justice (like Stannis Baratheon), a friend, a family member or a loved one.
The classic example (though often overused in stories) is the whole ‘cannot kill’ principle, like Batman has. It makes it fascinating to see how he will stop the villains while remaining loyal to his own personal code of morals that precludes him killing everyone.
But it doesn’t have to be anything as lofty as this. In fact, I think it’s better when it’s more personal. Make your protagonist completely and utterly loyal to their brother, or their friend or partner.
To quote Breaking Bad, when Hank is speaking to Jesse: “Walt is ruthless. He will do anything to get what he wants, except when it comes to you.” We know that no matter what challenges he faces or what decisions he makes, he will always look out for Jesse. Throughout the show, this offers us just the right amount of pathos to get on board with an otherwise despicable character.
4. Underdogs and Assholes
We naturally root for underdogs in stories, and so putting your character in a situation where the odds are stacked against them immediately gives us a reason to root for them. This is even more effective if you can set them up against other characters who:
Having a character to root against gives us a reason to root for the protagonist, who is competing with them in whatever situation you have. This can apply to almost anything: an office scenario, a police academy, a mage university, etc.
A classic example of this is Ambrose from The Name of the Wind. He is not only rich and entitled, but horrible just for the sake of it. By setting him up as a rival at the University, we root for Kvothe in any situation where they are at odds.
It works particularly well if the competing character has better odds or chances because of things that they have not earned. This brings out a strong sense of injustice in the reader and is a great way to get them to root for your protagonist.
Like redemption, sacrifice is one of the most powerful concepts in humanity. There is a reason that Jesus on the cross is one of the most pervading symbols across the world in the past couple of thousand years. In fact, go into any religion, mythological story or history and there will be a story of someone who sacrificed themselves for others.
This is a great opportunity for pathos. If your character can sacrifice themselves to save someone, your reader will fully support this. It awakens some primal pathos that can’t be denied.
Picture Gandalf dropping down the pit to fight the Balrog, letting go of the ledge and falling to his doom.
“Fly, you fools.”
Cue screaming men and crying hobbits.
That’s what we are talking about here.
Obviously, this isn’t much of an option at the very beginning of your story, but later on it can be a powerful tool.
My favourite example of this is difficult to discuss. It is one of the most powerful endings to a trilogy of books I have ever read and I go back and re-read it time and time again because of the emotional impact it has. If you have read the end of White Gold Wielder - the third book of Stephen Donaldson’s 'Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant' - you will know what I’m talking about. I won’t say more because, frankly, the possibility of spoiling that journey for at least one person is too much of a danger to bear.
Pathos isn’t the only way to get your readers to root for a character. You can also use some tricks that appeal less to a reader’s sense of emotion, but more to their logical brain. This means have them doing things that people we like do: crack jokes, smile, be friendly and altruistic.
One way to do this is to use other characters. If you want your character to be likeable to a reader, they need to actually be liked in the book. At least by someone. The value of friendship in stories cannot be understated.
You may think you want the romantic ideal of the lone ranger who has no friends or connections, but still fights for what is right, but if your character has no one in the novel that likes them as a friend then we as a reader are going to struggle to find them likeable.
Having other character’s show love and respect is a clear and logical way to say to your readers: this character deserves your love and respect.
Think about the introduction of Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo adores him. Bilbo is his good friend. These friendships are focused on before we move on to anything major involving him. They are important. They help establish him as a character that people like and respect - as if by osmosis - the reader likes and respects him too.
While making your reader ‘likeable’ works, the most powerful tool for getting your readers to root for your protagonist is pathos. As a storyteller, your reader’s emotions should be putty in your hands. Play with them. Manipulate them.
A note on tropes and cliches:
Many of the examples above are tropes that can be found all through literature, but that is because they work. People talk about cliches like they are something to avoid and that everything needs to be fresh. This is nonsense.
The above examples work precisely because they are tropes. They aren’t just story tropes, they are human tropes. They are ways we connect with the world emotionally. The key is that it is all in the delivery. Any cliche on the planet can work if it is delivered and written well.
Next week there will be a break in posting as I will not be around and able to write it, but the week after there will be a new post.
See you in two weeks.
I am a writer, a reader and a teacher. I write about writing. Sometimes I write about other things too.