We've just returned from a brief trip to the North Shore area of Massachusetts, a relaxing time spent with friends with plenty of opportunities to read (including the four hour flight each way). One of the books I brought with me was written by a favorite author, Lee Child. The protagonist in this one, as in many of Child's books, is Jack Reacher. Reacher is an ex-MP, big and strong and knotty like a hundred-year-old oak, drifting from town to town with a toothbrush, an ATM card, and an expired passport. His sense of right and wrong causes him to do some things that most of us wouldn't dare, and in many cases trouble ensues--for him and for those he goes up against. I salivate when I see a new Jack Reacher novel coming out, and feel as though I've lost a friend when the book ends.
I'm not Jack Reacher. I'm nothing like him. But I can identify with him. He has his faults and frailties, but he stands up for what's right and isn't afraid to put himself in harm's way to do it. Maybe he's what I wish I could be. And that makes him an ideal protagonist.
An author's first job is to get the reader to identify with the characters in his/her book. A hero who is absolutely too perfect, a villain who has not even the trace of a good quality, are easy to ignore and forget. They're cardboard cut-outs, one-dimensional, formulaic. Give me a Jack Reacher anytime.
How does an author go about doing this? If I had a sure-fire formula for it, you'd be reading a review of my next novel in the New York Times and looking for it on the best-seller list. Instead, ask yourself this the next time you find yourself immersed in a really good novel. What makes the protagonist tick? Why do I like him or her? Not only will it tell you a bit about the work put in by the author. It may tell you something about yourself.