With the protagonist being the most important person in your story, a ton is riding on his shoulders. Miss this character and your book flops—no matter how beautiful your voice or compelling your tale. The entire novel development revolves around this person, so she has to have traits that draw us in, for she is the one with whom we sign on to travel the course of the story.
What makes a great hero? It depends of course somewhat upon what you’re writing. Different genres require different traits. If a Romance, I always think of the Bonnie Tyler song:
I need a hero, I’m holding out for a hero ’till the end of the night
He’s gotta be strong and he’s gotta be fast
And he’s gotta be fresh from the fight
If a Thriller, we need someone handsome and capable, or beautiful and bright. The Western hero is strong and fast and noble. In Literary or Mainstream, she’s more real, more fallible, but overcomes her weaknesses to save whatever day in a manner in which we can all relate.
But every main character has things in common. First off, we meet him very early on (page one is best, but if a Prologue is used, Chapter One works fine). This signals to your readers that this person is our guy. If you begin with another, the reader gets confused. And a confused reader will quit your story in a flash. Again, if you’re writing say, a Murder Mystery, where you need to begin with the actual murder, your reader will snap to the fact that the murderer is not our hero (again, exceptions exist where that person is the protagonist, but you know that up front as well). The thing is, even after the murder occurs, we need to meet our hero right after. When you begin with your oh-so-compelling main character, your reader grabs the reins and runs with you right out of the starting gate.
Second, we spend about 75% of our time in her viewpoint. Again, she’s the one readers trust to take them through the novel. She’s the one with whom we want to spend our time. And when we’re away from her with secondary-character viewpoints, we should have a semi-nagging sense of wondering and wanting to get back to what she’s doing. The back and forth of that heightens tension, which quickens the pace and moves the tale along.
Third, the Protagonist has the most effect on the story. If not for him, the grail would not be reached, the wrong righted, etc. Your main character simply cannot be one to whom events happen and someone else saves the day. Rather, he directs the plot, the action, changing and growing as events occur, surely, but then he moves the storyline in another direction as he assimilates the pitfalls and learns from them. If someone else finds the Holy Grail, well, we have a whole different set of problems entirely! In effective book development, the plot influences the characters and then the characters drive the plot. The cycle is never ending, until we indeed reach the finale.
And finally, the Protagonist is the one who grows and changes the most. This story is about her. There’s a reason the book exists, and it’s because this compelling person has drawn us into her tale. We go through the tasks and trials along with her, learning as she does. We feel the same fears, longings, hopes, and dreams. The same embarrassments and failures. And ultimately, the same successes as she finally succeeds, at least somewhat, in her quest, whether that quest is saving the planet from invading aliens or stopping drinking in order to raise a child.
And that’s a lot of the point—this identification. Even if we aren’t hobbits, we feel the weight of vast responsibility on our shoulders to save the world from power that can be used for nefarious means. Even if we’re not private investigators or litigators or addicted doctors for that matter, we feel the fear of what will happen if we don’t find or put away the serial killer, or operate successfully on the dying child.
As a novel editor, the goal I teach of great fiction (and narrative nonfiction as well) is for the book to move us, to entertain us, and to make us feel as though we’re a part of the story. To accomplish that, we need a hero who speaks to us. And in doing so, to feel as if we’ve taped into for that short time, as Abraham Lincoln said, the better angels of our nature.