How to Write Better Heroes and Protagonists

In a sea of books and heroes… how do you write one that stands out?

How do you write a hero who is unique, unforgettable, and so addicting your readers will beg for more?

There is no “one formula” for writing truly incredible characters, but once you’ve seen the main writing techniques, crafting your heroes becomes easier and ridiculously fun.

This guide will show you how to immediately create more interesting heroes and protagonists. Let me show you how:

3 Questions to Craft Better Heroes

If you were to stop reading this blog in the next 10 seconds…then at least read this:

There are only three questions you must answer to flesh out your hero:

  • What does she want?
  • What will she do for it?
  • How will she change over the course of your story?

That’s it. That’s all that your readers actually care about.

In the rest of this post, we’re going to see how the best authors answer these questions, but if you want to get started writing your hero now…

Get the answers to those questions and your readers will be glued to the page.

Question #1 – What Does Your Hero Want?

I don’t care if it’s a hot pocket from the break room…

…or if it’s a meat pie made by Volcano-dwelling monks who cook only in the toxic, sulfuric gas that rises from an active Caldera…

Your hero must have a powerful motivation. The right motivation will:

  • Push your Hero (and the story) forward
  • Create dramatic conflict for your Hero
  • Give your readers a reason to empathize with your Hero

That last one is important for readers. We’ve all felt desire. Most of us have wanted something so badly, we took a risk in going after it.

While desire leads to risk, it’s also an empowering feeling. Heroes with strong motivations are addicting to read about – even if their goals aren’t “noble and good.”

Frodo from Lord of the Rings

The Secret to Motivation(s)

Problem: your hero feels too “one-dimensional.”

Here’s a trick that will turn her into a complex person (I say trick, but really this is a healthy strategy for writing any main character)…

Give your hero multiple motivations with varying degrees of importance and immediacy. These goals can do many things:

  • Tempt and distract your hero
  • Guide them toward their main goal
  • Or simply sit in the background, to flesh out your hero more

For example, Frodo seeks to destroy the ring…

…but along his journey, he may also wish for a soft bed, and a fresh-cooked meal to warm his hobbit belly.

How does this make Frodo a more engaging hero? Everyone wants to save Middle Earth.

But Frodo, despite his small and hobbity ways, is the only one who actually steps up to the challenge. The strength of his motivation reveals the golden core of his character by showing us what other desires he’s willing to sacrifice.

Want to develop instantly fascinating characters? This book is for you:

Fantastic Characters and How to Write Them

Now available in ebook, paperback, and as a workbook.

Find the Conflict between Desires

I recently read a novel called The Goblin Emperor (which you will adore if you enjoy courts and intrigue, dangerous power plays, and a good person turning into a great leader).

First chapter spoilers ahead.

Maia is an inconsequential heir to the throne, trapped by circumstance. childhood is overshadowed by a man who is supposed to be his friend and mentor but instead takes every opportunity to torment Maia…

…that is until Maia finds himself suddenly thrust into a position of power.

Now, his old “mentor” must beg Maia to be admitted into the court.

Our hero has two choices:

  • Take revenge and refuse his mentor…
  • …or be the better man, and make use of this old mentor.

Conflicting desires like this demand attention. They force your reader to ask questions, and therefore, remain gripped by the story:

  • What are the consequences?
  • What are the benefits of each choice?
  • What will the consequences of his choice be?

It’s like throwing a gallon of gasoline on the fire. Motivations that conflict create a drastic amount of internal tension that cut quickly to the core of your hero. These are opportunities for you to show how noble (or ignoble) your hero is.

Here’s a MUCH more in-depth guide on writing characters with multiple motivations.

A Quick Guide to Villains and Other Obstacles

Your villain should be as developed as your hero.

To write deeply complex and engaging villains, remember the three questions:

  • What do they want?
  • What will they do to get it?
  • How do they change (or refuse to change)?

One nice thing about writing villains:

They don’t have to be bound by heroism. Villains can range from “heroes on the other side…” to misguided souls trying to do the right thing… or they can be outright vile.

In most cases, your villain should stand in the way of your Hero. A compelling villain not only keeps us grounded in the story, it also gives us another character to get addicted to.

Most importantly, your villain’s actions will work to expose the flaws and shortcomings of your hero in the most targeted way.

Certain villains actually help your hero grow… by hitting them where it hurts most.

Not Every Story Needs a Villain, but…

…a hero without obstacles is no hero at all.

The Hero's Journey Chart
Image via Wikipedia

A great hero sharpens themselves on conflict. Look at the plot structure of the Hero’s Journey. The obstacles are designed to allow the hero to surge ahead in strength, both in mind and body.

Use your world and it’s various denizens to keep your hero from getting what they want. The obstacles that naturally arise will sharpen your hero, and prove to your readers how dedicated your hero is to their main goal.

Unless you’re writing a tragic hero… then the obstacles should erode them or shatter their goals.

Question #2 – What Will Your Hero Do?

Does the world happen to your hero?

Or does your hero happen to it?

Once a hero knows what they want, they act on it. High-agency heroes are far more engaging than characters who sit around and wish while the world wanders moves on.

My favorite theory on character agency comes from the Writing Excuses episode on Character ProactivityHere’s a short version of the theory:

  • Every character has an agency “lever.”
  • Move that lever, and your character will attempt more (or fewer 0actions to reach their goal.
  • Most characters start or stay at different levels of agency.
  • Your hero’s agency will probably change over the course of the story.

Captain Kirk from Star Trek and Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation are both extremely active characters.

Both heroes always…

  • have a plan
  • are thinking of a plan
  • Are in the middle of watching a plan fail… miserably.

Sometimes, they lose hope. Their agency drops… they realize trying is hopeless. But here is the key moment where we fall in love with them: they don’t do hopeless. Neither Leslie nor Kirk every stay down.

This gives us something to cheer for. It gives us hope, and it keeps us turning the pages to find out will they figure something out?

Speaking of things readers love…

Create “Instant Likeability”

Not every hero must be sympathetic…

However, if you want your readers to fall in love with your Heros, give them some likable traits. Yes, even the grimmest, gloomiest anti-heroes should have redeeming qualities.

Check out these 26 ways to create instant sympathy with your hero.

That list includes actions like…

  • Your “pet the dog” moment
  • The unexpected brush of kindness
  • How to make your hero a “light in the dark.”

foot prints in snow

Remember What They Used to Do

Where did your hero start?

Under the stairs, in a broom cupboard…

Tied to a wooden post in the middle of a thunderstorm…

In a medical laboratory, bitten by a radioactive spider…

Without a backstory, you are asking your characters to appear, fully formed, from the aether. Forgive the crude analogy – that’s like telling someone to give birth to themself.

iceberg peaking out of water

How Much Backstory Should You Write?

This is a two-part answer.


As the writer, you only need to know enough to tell the emotional core of your story. That’s it.

You can (and probably should) write more, but don’t get infected by worldbuilder’s disease. That’s where you get stuck writing backstory forever, and never actually write your story.


Don’t include all of the hero’s backstory in one book.

In fact, I would show hardly any of it.

To write an amazing backstory for your hero, you must only show just the tip of the iceberg.

By dropping hints and leaving references to your characters past, you can hint at a much larger (and fuller) history… without having to plant infodumps all over your story.

Remember: your most powerful tool is the reader’s imagination.

Don’t explain every detail of the iceberg. Show them the tip, and let them imagine that massive, creaking mountain of ice lurking below the water.

How to Create a Defining Moment

What are the most emotional moments in your hero’s life?

We call these “defining moments,” because they define the way your Hero interacts with the world.

Defining moments are the scars or the precious memories they keep secret from everyone else.

Here are some questions to get you started:

  1. When were they betrayed? What did they feel?
  2. What was a time they were overcome with joy?
  3. What was the most hope-filled moment of their life?
  4. The most desperate?
  5. Who can make them cry the hardest?

If nothing else, understanding a handful of your hero’s defining moments will allow you to get closer to the character, and figure out what makes them tick.

Man in subway with headphones

How to Hear Your Hero’s Voice

This is one of the most frustrating things I see from amateur writers – and even a fair number of bestselling authors.

Your characters should not sound like clones of each other.

Is your character’s voice unique?

Try this:

  1. Isolate all lines of dialogue
  2. Remove all dialogue tags (he said, she said)
  3. Can you tell who is saying which lines?

It’s especially important to have a unique, engaging voice for your protagonist, because we’re probably going to hear them the most.

Writing tip: this might sound crazy, but… sometimes you need to find a quiet place to sit down and have a conversation with your character. This article explains how your character’s voice is expressed in two main ways:

External Expression

  • Language/Dialect
  • Word choice and sentence structure
  • Tone and body language

Internal Expression

  • What are they thinking?
  • What emotions do they feel?
  • What kind of lies to they tell themselves?

Character voice get really interesting when we watch their feelings, lies, and motivations transform over the course of your story…

caterpillar on a stick

Question #3 – How Does Your Hero Change?

Every story is a journey. Sometimes, the destination changes. Sometimes, the hero never makes it to the destination at all.

No matter what, your hero should also make a personal journey – one that involves a deep, resounding, internal change.

  • Most heroes will grow, or make some grand discovery about themselves.
  • Tragic heroes will change for the worse.
  • Even static, iconic heroes (think Thor, James Bond, or Sherlock Holmes) go through character arcs in every story… with the caveat that these character arcs reset at the beginning of every story.

What kind of changes will they make? What should happen to your heroes?

Let’s start with your hero’s imperfections:


Flaws that Beg for Growth

No character is perfect…

…and if they are, your readers probably hate them.

Flaws are critical for creating a believable (and empathetic) hero. Without flaws, your character has no ability to grow.

Heroes who can recognize their flaws – and attempt to overcome or compensate for them – are extremely attractive. Why? Because everyone knows they need to improve themselves. Doing it is the hard part. So when we see someone (even a fictional character) finding ways to improve, we feel inspired.

You can break down character flaws into three main categories:

  • Physical
  • Psychological
  • Ideological or Moral

Note: Ideological flaws tend to be the most difficult to overcome. Anti-heroes are often embroiled in a conflict because of their ideological flaws.

Another note: Physical flaws are one of the easiest ways to get readers fall in love with your character, because everybody loves an underdog.

creating character arcs book coverWhat Should Your Arc Look Like?

Character arcs are a massive topic because there are so many directions you can go. While I will try my my best to guide you in this small section, I want to strongly suggest you check out K. M. Weiland’s book, Creating Character Arcs. Or, check out her Character Arc article here.

Both are excellent resources that will help you internalize the “Arc-ing” process until you can start creating your own arcs from scratch.

OK, here’s the quick overview:

There are three basic character arcs:

  • Growth – a character metamorphosizes into a hero capable of overcoming the central conflict
  • Flat – internally, the character changes very little (or not at all). This arc revolves around external realizations that change the course of the story – but not the course of the Hero.
  • Fall – You can see this as the reverse of the hrowth arc. Instead of improving, the hero deteriorates, and succumbs to the central conflict.

Your hero will likely dip into all of these arcs at some point in your story, but the determining factor is where their arc ends.

Which Character arc should you choose?

I usually start by looking at my character’s motivation:

  • What do they think they need?
  • What does your hero actually need?

Most characters (and pretty much every living person) are in a state of ignorance – or denial – about something they need.

Generally, a changing arc will revolve around that character discovering… or refusing to accept what really matters.

Example: Scrooge from A Christmas Carol thinks he only cares about money. It takes several nights of near-death hallucinations to help him realize there is something far more important than money…

friends sitting on couches

The Truth about Character Relationships

Relationships are never a static entity. Every relationship should go through it’s own arc (though you don’t need to explicitly write it down).

Instead, as your Hero progresses through their journey…

As they learn, and grow…

Remember to let their personal changes affect the ones closest to them.

When Frodo returns to the Shire, he realizes he can no longer live in the carefree world of the Hobbits. He has to leave his old life, and Samwise, behind.

It’s Addicting to Watch Relationships Grow.

As your character progresses through their arc, the relationships with their friends, allies, and enemies should change.


Relationships are ripe with conflict, unexpected dialogue, and emotionally charged moments.

If your hero is also your protagonist, then her relationships – and especially the change in her relationships – will keep your readers glued to your story.

knight on a horse


Want to get your audience addicted?

Create an enthralling hero.

You don’t need a master’s degree in creative writing to write an addicting hero. There are only a few things you need to get right…

  • What do they want?
  • What will they do?
  • How will they change?

With these questions, you will be able to craft the kind of hero (or anti-hero) that will inspire your readers…

…and make them beg you for sequels.

What is your process for writing heroes? Do you have any tips or tricks that I didn’t mention in this post?

6 thoughts on “How to Write Better Heroes and Protagonists”

  1. Thanks for writing this! It’s certainly a full article! I thought a strong motivation was only needed in the hero’s story… and I write romance, so I didn’t think I’d have to worry about it. I’m learning (through rejections… and the pleasure of reading my genre) that a powerful motivation is key in every good story (romance too! who knew?). I need to figure out my protagonist’s strong motivator and backstory. I need him to come alive. Become likeable. 🙂 Great article! Thanks!

  2. Thanks for this article! Very helpful.
    My main character is too motivated (and rather dark, like The Punisher) when you first meet him. His growth arc needs quite a bit of work. I could either have him hit a big disappointment or failure and lose his sense of purpose/motivation, then journey towards recovery, or I need to dampen the fire in his belly and have it emerge throught his trials. Not sure what to do yet. Also, he isn’t that likeable as, at the moment, he is all about retribution!

    1. Sounds like you have a great foundation for a character, DL.
      Without having read your story, I’d still go with the first option. Having your main character smack into a huge pitfall (disappointment, failure, or a twist that turns his world upside down) could lead to a vastly more interesting journey, because he’s already at maximum investment (and therefore, so is the reader)–so the pitfall only heightens the stakes. I probably wouldn’t pull back on the very thing that makes your character so interesting from page one. I’d rather grip the reader right out of the gate, and keep them hooked, instead of trusting that the reader will “just stick with the story” while you build up your character’s investment.

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