What is so appealing about Average Jane’s and Joe’s? Many writers start off with those kind of people as the protagonist. I get it, they’re easy to identify with. But so what? What makes an Average Joe special? Nothing—they’re average. Don’t you want your protagonist to be something special, someone who your reader can not only look up to, but identify with?
What makes people special? We all have heroes. We all look up to someone. What is that special trait YOUR hero has? Write that down. Demonstrate it in the opening scene of your novel. Show the reader the quality s/he can identify with.
Do you admire him or her for their Grit? Think of Hugh Glass, Leonardo Di Caprio’s character, in The Revenant. He’s not particularly likeable. He doesn’t make women swoon—heck, there aren’t many in the movie. Nevertheless, we admire him—and ultimately pull for him. Why? Despite the multitude of life-threatening obstacles he has to overcome, he never, never, never, ever gives up. (Winston Churchill is one of my heroes.)
What about Wit? You can’t help but like—and root for—Deadpool. Why? His face is horribly scarred and he dishes out violence with almost every breath. Yet the wisecracking, smart-aleck is innately likeable. We’re drawn to characters with a sense of humor.
Or is your hero heroic? Is s/he confident, brave, and daring, like Captain Kirk in Star Trek, “Boldly going where no man has gone before”? Does s/he have It?
Grit, wit, and it. Many a favorite protagonist sports one of these.
What about an anti-hero, an unlikeable character like Joe Gillis, played by William Holden in Sunset Boulevard? He’s a selfish, mercenary lout who takes up with a woman twice his age, to live off her money. Yet we like him. Why? For one, he is self-aware. He knows fully what a selfish, mercenary lout he is. Nevertheless, he turns away his best friend’s naïve fiancée, who has fallen for him. In other words, despite his own lack of morals, he’s not low enough to steal his best friend’s girl.
Now that you’ve identified the qualities that make your protagonist stand out, what motivates him or her? Is s/he driven by fear? Something that has frightened or tormented them since childhood? Is s/he motivated by an outer desire, maybe a need to make the world a better place, or something smaller, like paying this week’s bills? Or perhaps it’s something deeper, a personal yearning to find love or gain acceptance.
You might notice something about those motivations: fear, desire, yearning. They are all emotions. These deep-seated feelings drive your standout protagonist. What are the opposite feelings? Incorporate those in him or her, and your standout protagonist just became conflicted. Make those opposing feelings mutually exclusive and your conflicted, standout protagonist just became compelling.
Now put that standout, compelling protagonist on the page and let your readers fall in love.