Nice guys are boring. Dependable? Reliable? Consistent? Caring? Send him away. No one wants to hear his story.
Bad boys are more likely to catch and hold the attention of your readers (something romance writers are well aware of). And yet, we do want heroes who have positive qualities. From some contest entries I've been reading lately, the two requirements for good guys who aren't “bad” are courage and a sixpack. And the heroines are often sweet and compliant with physical attributes that would turn the heads of anyone with a Y chromosome and a pulse (with allowances for orientation).
In my opinion, the least interesting stories submitted to contests tend to have protagonists who are disabled by virtue. Does this sound cynical? It shouldn't. None of us are perfect so we tend to identify with protagonists who our flawed. In addition, there can't be much of a story arc if the protagonist is so wonderful that there is no room for growth.
One thing I advise new writers to do is to include an important flaw in the hero or heroine from early on in the story. Many respond with “flaws” like my character is to giving or my character doesn't appreciate his/her greatness. When in doubt, make the flaw big and ugly. The Seven Deadly Sins provide a good reference point.
A good person with a big flaw is intrinsically interesting. But be careful about having the story be about the character becoming a saint. In many ways, it is more interesting to have a hero or heroine end up within insight that allows adaptation to the world around them rather than a full-on conversion.
Beyond having room for growth, there can be flaws that rub against other characters or just get in the way. In a comedy, flaws can be a constant source of humor. Damon Knight advised having a ratio of about 70/30 good to bad for protagonists and the opposite ratio for villains. It's not a bad rule of thumb.
Of course, ratios and sins need to move beyond abstract character development. They need to be shown within the story. If lust is the hero's problem, show an attractive woman fleecing him out of his bus fare. Or, better yet, show him caught in the act of entertaining a woman while she's supposed to be minding the cash register. (It is a good idea to reveal the dark side after the positive qualities have been set in the reader's minds.)
There are other ways to deal with upright characters. I think it's engaging to have a character who goes out of his way to do the right thing, but has a secret past. I'm particularly a sucker for those stories where the hero has renounced a skill because it led him into trouble. (I'm still caught by how Atticus Finch was reluctant to use a rifle even in dire circumstances and had never revealed to his children that he was a crack shot. What had happened that made him hide that part of his life?)
Stories were the hero is actively seeking atonement can also be compelling and balance out sweet behavior that otherwise might be intolerable. Even if his or her secret is never revealed in the story, the pain and self judgment can be made evident. One technique that can be effective is heaping praise on a hero who has not yet (at least in his own mind) redeemed himself enough to feel he deserves it.
Here's another possibility. A protagonist whose overall character is good but whose goal is horrible or even shocking. This works especially well when the audience is absolutely clear that achieving the goal (say, vengeance) will harm society or severely damage or destroy the protagonist.
So, if you feel compelled to create a sweet protagonist, find a way to make this character interesting to the audience. Give him or her a flaw, a past, or a questionable goal. This will add tension to your story, and it will create questions and concerns that will keep the reader turning pages.
My intensive on plotting the novel will be held on March 5 at the
Hudson Valley Writers Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY.
My online "Novel in a Month" class begins March 2.