Conventional wisdom suggests that protagonists should likable, or at least if not likable, relatable. The strongest protagonists could be those that the reader sees themselves in, even for a moment. But what is it that they recognize?
Could it be self-delusion?
Great stories often come out of the internal struggles that characters face as the story progresses. Sometimes as the story unfolds, the lies crumble before them, one at a time, so characters have to recalibrate how they view the world and their circumstances. Lies can be the biggest obstacle protagonists face.
Here are some suggestions on lies your characters may believe.
Potential Lie #1: Others’ approval is everything!
What if your main character is a people-pleaser? In the first act and midway through the second, your protagonist could make sacrifices, possibly even sacrificing his ultimate goal, for the sake of pleasing others. Then somewhere late in the second act, when all seems to be falling apart, your protagonist could realize pleasing others is costs them. They must make a change, one that could even damage relationships, and choose to please themselves first. This will definitely resonate with your readers and make your protagonist more of a hero. By facing rejection and feeling the sting of disapproval they will see others’ approval isn’t as valuable as they once thought. This could be a heroic move to your reader.
Potential Lie #2: Everything they do must be perfect!
What if your main character is a perfectionist? This lie can manifest itself in anxiety, OCD behaviors, manic episodes or a lack of productivity. Your protagonist’s perfectionistic habits could slow down progress, annoy allies, and cause emotional stress. Somewhere late in the second act, your perfectionistic protagonist needs to see this lie for what it is and lighten up! They need to let go of their own high expectations, embrace a lowering of standards, and be free to achieve their goals. You will definitely have readers who identify with this!
Potential Lie #3: Everything is black and white!
What if your main character is rigid in their value systems? They may have principles and dogmas that can be neatly defined and enforced. Perhaps they believe the lie that no matter the issue, there is no room for any gray at all. This lie may show itself in crusades against others, perhaps even “punishing” for not following certain “rules”. These rules could be universal morals that are familiar to everyone, or they could be quirky little weird things that no one really understands. This makes for great conflict!Yet your crusading protagonist must see they can’t achieve their long-term goals without the help of others, so they will have to make a change, — you guessed it — somewhere late in act two. They will have to realize what they are doing is wrong, or at least unattractive, and stop doing it, maybe even seeing gray areas in their lives that should be tolerated with grace.
Potential Lie #4: They aren’t happy and it’s everyone’s fault!
What if your main character plays the victim? At the risk of being unlikeable, your protagonist’s messy life is due to everyone else. As the story progresses, they refuse to take responsibility for their own happiness but there will come a time, possibly late in act 2, when they realize this only alienates the people around them. They need a revelation, an epiphany, or a trip to the woodshed see that this is a huge mistake. Once they make a change, and it will probably have to be a gradual one, they realize what they were responsible for and what they weren’t. They may even choose happiness even when their circumstances are less than ideal.
Potential Lie #5: Life is too scary!
What if your main character is simply afraid? Fear is a powerful motivator! Your main character could be afraid of being exposed, of losing control, of being mocked, or of being abandoned. Fears often steer people into irrational actions and behaviors, which can lead them into all kinds of crazy consequences. The solution for a fear-mongering character isn’t to stop being afraid, but to manage their fears in a reasonable way. Maybe they have to suck it all up? Or someone talks them out of it? Maybe circumstances force their fears to take a backseat to survival. A fearful character is often a relatable character. And one who conquers their fears is one who will be cheered by every reader.
Potential Lie #6: No one is happy and it’s all my fault!
What if your main character takes a self-destructive responsibility for everyone else’s happiness? Could your protagonist slip into anxiety or depression if others display negativity? What if they believe the lie that they are responsible? This is great conflict! By believing this lie, your protagonist will be a mess. She may also lose herself — her preferences and desires — by believing that everyone’s emotional needs are more important than her own. In the course of the story, put her in circumstances in which she will have to realize that it is impossible and inappropriate to take responsibility for the emotions of others. If she understands this, even if she still struggles with it, it will bring her great emotional freedom. Your readers will love this!
Potential Lie #7: Life is perfect and so am I!
What if your main character believes that he is always the smartest, the most creative, or the most accomplished person ever? Oh, we’ve probably all met someone like this. But of course, as the story progresses, this mindset should tie your main character in knots. He won’t be able to handle contradiction, better ideas, or other points of view. Or, what if he makes enemies out of anyone who betters him in anything? He could also puts his objective, as well as everyone else’s, at stake when he refuses to admit he’s wrong about a situation. This is a great conflict, but make sure that you make him likable in other ways. Somewhere in the course of the story, he will need to be humbled — your readers will expect it — and oh, will that be a fun scene to write!
Potential Lie #8: Because I failed once, I must be a failure.
What if your main character’s identity is based on failure? They embrace this lie because of the Very Bad Thing That Happened. Perhaps they can’t have functional relationships because of the power of this event. Their shame is paralyzing them from pursuing their goals. This is great conflict! In the course of the plot, consider how your main character can shake off this shame. Do they have an accurate assessment of what happened? Were they too young to really stop the event from happening? Do they learn that this event has stolen too much power from their lives already? Can they get the insight of others to move away from this? Don’t be afraid to dig in deep with this lie, but have them pull out of it, at least a little bit, and your readers will cheer them on!
Potential Lie #9: They are incompetent so why try?
What if your main character believes they are incompetent? Perhaps they were raised to do nothing for themselves? What if they never learned how to navigate failure or disappointment? How would this affect their goals and relationships? This is great conflict. (I would read the heck out of this book!) In the course of the plot, they are doing to need to overcome this lie. They will have to fail, perhaps even fail spectacularly, and face it appropriately so that they can accomplish other goals that they have.
Lies make great conflict!
It doesn’t matter exactly what your protagonist looks like, what flavor ice cream they like, or what they do for a living. What matters is the internal struggle characters face as the story progresses. So create a great lie for them to believe, then chip away at it to get to truth, and your story will be all the richer.