The biggest problem with building a connection with your protagonist is really getting to know him or her. Often, the protagonist has a lot in common with the writer, but even well-developed and individuated heroes and heroines are likely to feel familiar. After all, the writer wants readers to identify with protagonists, so sympathy as well as empathy is probably existed before the opening lines with written. And the protagonist gets a pass on probing analysis.
Often, it gets worse. The identification is so strong that the kind of test (good writers torture characters) that might reveal characters are avoided or mitigated.
Familiarity and identification mean that writers need to be deliberate and determined before they can truly know protagonists well enough to bond with them. Nick Lowe got it right (for stories, not friendships): "You've gotta be cruel to be kind." So prepare to go through hell with your protagonist.
- Investment - I recommend taking a visual approach to this. Consider a series of still photographs or a silent movie of your protagonist doing something (preferably physical) with a beginning, middle, and end. If you can imagine yourself participating, even better. So perhaps, you'll arm wrestle with your hero or cut in at a dance with your heroine. Then push this, by making the action unpleasant. A trip to the dentist would work. Or terrifying -- getting mugged. Three of these shared experiences will tell you a lot about your main character.
- Communication - Now they can open their mouths. Warm your protagonist up. Get his or her confidence. Then say, "Tell me about your most embarrassing moment." Whatever they respond, follow up with a probing question. Make it open-ended, so they can't get away with a simple yes or no.
- Commonality - This one is probably easy with the protagonist, and that's fine. You both went to the same college? Are baseball fans? Good. But see if you also share less admirable experiences in your own life (getting arrested? bullying a sibling?). Or list out your guilty pleasures and see if these appeal to your protagonist, too.
- Concern - Yes. You already care about your character. Note that. Then imagine the worst thing that might happen to him or her (either in or beyond the current story) and spend some time worrying about these happening and imagining the feelings that would result.
- Tolerance - By now, darker aspects of your hero or heroine (or maybe yourself) should be evident. Don't be afraid. Don't be judgmental. Forgive. Respect. Things will all turn out okay in the end.
- Reliability - Has the core of your character changed? Is the reason he or she was chosen as the story's protagonist no longer valid? Take another look. Sit with it a while. See if you need to tweak. And remember you can always create a new protagonist, use this one in a different story, or turn the character who was supposed to be the hero into a villain. (This last could be a great move that takes your story to a higher level.)
- Surprise/Mystery - This usually comes out in the writing. And the best way I know to evoke it with a protagonist -- the character you are most likely to believe you know in and out -- is to make a list of ten to twenty possible responses to a story challenge. The one that is the most shocking, that you never would have guessed your character would have done, may be your best choice. Be open to the possibility. (And, of course, if surprising options pop up spontaneously, don't dismiss them. Even when they seem crazy.)
- Mutual dependence - This is the part that often falls away for plotters. The main character just goes through the motions. But it's the emotions that count. Your protagonist owes you more than this. Make sure he or she pays back your diligence in providing the best story you can with true responses. If you and your characters avoid being vulnerable and counting on each other, your readers will be cheated.
- Shared work/risk - Doubt can be a killer for a writer. Or a wonderful tool. It is when things could go wrong (or seem to be going wrong) in the story that you and the characters need to work together. The scenes you struggle with are the ones that force you and your main character to explore more deeply and take chances on. These are the scenes that make or break your story and establish the strongest relationships with your heroes and heroines. Strive together. Be unflinching in the face of disaster.
Next week, the villains -- which should be less painful.