What key attributes make a protagonist likeable?

Onella – Year 11 Student

Editor’s note: Year 11 student Onella entered this essay into the annual Immerse Education Essay Competition. Onella chose the title from a list of over 20 different options provided as part of the competition brief. CPD

In order for stories to be told and books to be sold, a reader has to wholeheartedly root for the protagonist. Even though there are many different pathways an author can utilise to ensure the reader supports the protagonist’s endeavours, the simplest way is for the reader to like the protagonist via their moralistic actions and their resilience when facing adversity. The reader wants the protagonist to achieve their goal, overcome both their internal and external conflict, and authors, due to shortened attention spans, have to position readers to do this from even as early on as the first page.

The first step to a protagonist being likeable is for the reader to sympathise with them, having the protagonist be put through emotional and physical turmoil in their past, giving them a realistic sense of depth in the present the reader first meets them. An effective example of this is with Harry Potter[1], whose internal conflict began when he was a young boy, feeling like a complete outsider due to the Dursleys abusing him, making readers pity him immediately, even more so when he is further alienated at Hogwarts[2]. Harry’s sole desire is to be with his parents- he longs for people to love him as himself. I believe internal conflict, (‘a psychological struggle that takes place within a character’[3]), is superior to external conflict in terms of readers supporting the protagonist, as not everyone has a conflict with a master wizard, (Harry’s external conflict), but everybody has felt like an outsider at some point, ergo readers can relate to Harry and root for him. What makes the reader respect him overall is despite him facing adversity from a young age, he is not immoral; his experience of abuse only influenced him to be more principled.

A protagonist being personable heavily correlates to being upstanding. Protagonists can be role models to the reader, implicitly encouraging readers to better themselves. An example of an unlikeable protagonist is Scrooge from Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’[4], purely because he only cares about his own wellbeing, (he refused to donate to charity, even though it was nearly Christmas). Evidently, Scrooge is not an exemplar of benevolence at the exposition. A direct contrast to Katniss Everdeen[5], who despite finding herself in extremely dire circumstances during the Hunger Games[6], still cares for her fellow tributes without second thoughts and alerts disparity in the Games, despite it increasing her risk of being killed.

However, when a protagonist acts with utmost propriety all the time, they lose a sense of relatability, a feeling that might motivate a reader to read a book in the first place. The precise reason why people prefer Iron Man[7] over Captain America[8], is because the latter is a one-dimensional paragon of virtue who displays all of Plato’s cardinal virtues[9], (prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude- perfect when assessed with a classical eye), whereas Iron Man has a plethora of flaws all to self-aggrandize, and only makes ethical decisions sometimes. Audiences can see more of themselves in him through his faults.

The truth is that all humans have flaws, so we instinctively prefer protagonists who reflect that and all humans are complex, their childhood shaping their morals and transforming them. Everyone is capable of sin, but everyone is also capable of improvement.


[1] Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London. Bloomsbury. 1997.

[2] Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London. Bloomsbury. 1997.

[3] Sharpen Your Writing Skills: Internal vs. External Conflict and 3 Tips For Adding Conflict to Your Writing. MasterClass. 3 Sep. 2021. [https://www.masterclass.com/articles/sharpen-your-writing-skills-internal-vs-external-conflict#2xAxkhcIw9Xw3VbCUW9pa0 / last accessed: 21 December 2022]

[4] Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. London. Chapman and Hall. 1843

[5] Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York. Scholastic. 2008

[6] Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York. Scholastic. 2008

[7] Iron Man. Dir. Jon Favreau. US. 2008

[8] Captain America: The First Avenger. Dir. Joe Johnston. US. 2011.

[9] Bejczy, István. P. The Cardinal Virtues in the Middle Ages, a study in moral thought from the fourth to the fourteenth century. Leiden. Koninklijke Brill NV. 2011.

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