The Not So Perfect Protagonist

When I have a three-hour flight staring me down or a rare afternoon free on a wintry day, I like to read. It is especially fulfilling to me when I can start and end a book in one sitting. Not possible with the bulky best sellers and even most young adult titles. Instead let me recommend a better method: Read a middle grade novel.

They are lightweight (The book not the stories) and easy to carry around. My current passion has been reading middle level first person narratives to see how they compare with my protagonist in AWESOME SAUCE, Hender Wently. Middle grade novels are meant for the 9-13 year old age group.  A compelling story though is a good read no matter what age you are.

The last three I finished include SUPERFUDGE by Judy Blume, FLUSH by Carl Hiaasen, and RULES by Cynthia Lord. Peter, Noah, and Catherine are the respective protagonists and the first person narrators of their tales. I have noticed five common threads of character traits shared by the three. They work for books at all levels and I feel they are essential for success with any novel told from one person’s view.

Not perfect—Characters in stories should have some quirk or potential roadblock for solving their problems. They would not be very believable if they were perfect in every way. From sneaking out after dark to lying all of these kids have hurdles that potentially could squelch their abilities to make things right.

Heroic—Here is the main reason these characters are telling the story. They are going to do something out of the ordinary. Catherine ends up going to the dance with a special needs boy who communicates only by pointing at words. Noah bravely creates a trail of guilt to the bad boat owner who has been accused of polluting. Peter’s heroics are subtle but by the end of his story he has become more accepting of his two siblings and their intrusion into his life.

Worried about the immediate future—Peter has moved to a new neighborhood, Noah is concerned about the poor choices his dad is making as the book starts out with his father in jail. Catherine is just trying to be normal and get friends as she deals with her brother’s autism.

Conflicted—Peter has to deal with his bratty little brother Fudge and a new baby in the house. Noah is trying to help his father and at the same time stand up to the bully in the neighborhood. Catherine wants to be liked by the new girl next door and Jason but another boy with special needs is capturing more of her attention.

Likeable and relatable—You start cheering for these characters to succeed. There are traces of your self in each one. All stories have hopeful endings making you feel that these kids are going to make it in this world.

Check your own stories. Does your protagonist have any of these traits? The combination helps drive the story and keep a reader’s interest. I welcome your ideas for other traits.

About Greg Pattridge

Climbing another mountain...writing middle grade novels.
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