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The best books are the ones you remember. And a great main character is one of the hallmarks of a memorable book.

If you want people to remember and talk about your novel, you’re going to need a character they want to talk about.

Let’s take a look at 3 qualities that make a main character memorable, protagonist examples from modern fiction, and do some writing prompts & exercises.

3 Qualities of a Memorable Main Character

Every main character will be different. But, there are three universal qualities that apply to almost every main character. You can use them to push your main character from ordinary to extraordinary.

#1 – Something Unique (gesture, mannerism, identifying feature, etc)

Memorable main characters differentiate themselves from all other characters. This includes other characters in the same novel AND main characters from other novels.

If you give your main character something unique, it’s an easy way for readers to identify and remember them.

There are many ways to make your character unique.

Let’s look at 3 protagonist examples: Matilda, Hermione, Alice, and Katniss.

Matilda (from MATILDA by Roald Dahl) is extremely smart – she’s a total genius. And if that’s not enough, Matilda also has the power of telekinesis – the ability to move objects with her mind.

Hermione (from the HARRY POTTER series by JK Rowling) is the smartest witch around. It’s a unique characteristic not just in the books but in reality as well. She’s a know-it-all but she also becomes a kind and friendly person.

Alice (from ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND by Lewis Carroll) is an adventurous, curious girl. She inspires readers to be curious and explore the world around them.

Katniss (from THE HUNGER GAMES series by Suzanne Collins) is a strong, determined young woman. She taught herself to be an excellent hunter to support her family. She volunteered for the Hunger Games to replace her sister, showing an extraordinary amount of love and devotion.

#2 – Flawed and Vulnerable

Nobody wants to read about Mr. and Mrs. Perfect. Memorable main characters are imperfect. They have flaws. They’re vulnerable.

It’s almost impossible for a reader to engage with a flawless main character. Yet, it’s equally difficult for readers to engage with an irredeemable main character. You need to find the middle ground between perfect and not-at-all.

Vulnerabilities can be mental or physical. Let’s look at our protagonist examples again. What makes Matilda, Hermione, Alice, and Katniss flawed and vulnerable?

Matilda tends to pull pranks and she can be a bit naughty at times. This is a great likable character flaw. Matilda is vulnerable in 3 major ways – family, classmates, and especially a principal who hates her.

Hermione’s knowledge is also, at times, her downfall. She wants to be the best and often takes on too much. She’s vulnerable in the wizarding world because she comes from a “muggle” (non-magical) family. Even though she’s an advanced student, she often feels like she has to work harder because she wasn’t raised in a magical family.

Alice is vulnerable because she’s in an unrecognizable land. She meets strange creatures, her size is altered by things she eats and drinks, she’s nearly killed and more.

Katniss’ flaws and vulnerabilities are tied together. She lives in a poor district with limited access to food. Her father died and her family almost starved to death. She loves her sister, more than anything. All of these things make her vulnerable but also self-involved.

#3 – Heroic / Overcomes

Your main character has to be able to overcome the flaws you give him. They have to succeed in spite of difficulties. They’re going to be amazing, but relatable.

Your main character is the hero of your story. Fear is allowed, encouraged even, but only as far as it furthers the strength of your main character. Your main character can (and should) fail – but those failures should never be because of cowardice.

I’m going to stay that again – your main character is not a coward.

Let’s look at what Matilda, Hermione, Alice, and Katniss overcome and how they’re heroic.

Matilda doesn’t allow the adults in her life to prevent her from learning. In spite of their efforts, she continues to self-study and bonds with her teacher. She also learns to use her telekinesis and punishes bad adults.

Hermione’s knowledge often comes in handy to save the day. She’s an integral part of all resolutions in the books.

Alice never loses sight of her common sense. This helps her navigate wonderland (reasonably) safely and in the end, is what helps her get home.

Katniss displays heroism at the start of the novel when she volunteers. She displays a different type of heroism at the end when she wins and saves Peeta. She overcomes everything the Hunger Games throws at her.

Creating Characters

Developing characters can be difficult. Try one of these character development journals to help you fully develop the characters in your novel.

Lego characters

Protagonist Examples

Let’s examine the protagonists’ from modern bestselling and award-winning fiction.

Spoiler Alert: The following examples are from novels published in 2009 or later. In order to fully explain the examples, THERE MIGHT BE SPOILERS.


The cover for the bestselling novel GONE GIRL

GONE GIRL, published in 2012, is a mystery, thriller & suspense novel by Gillian Flynn. The movie was released in 2014.

GONE GIRL spent 8 weeks at #1 on the NYT Bestseller List. It’s estimated the novel sold more than 15 million copies worldwide by 2016.

Protagonist Example:

There are two main characters in GONE GIRL – Nick Dunne and Amy Elliott Dunne. The novel is written in the first-person point of view, alternating chapters between Nick and Amy.

#1 Something Unique

Nick is impulsive but grows over the novel to become better at lying.

Amy is a manipulative woman willing to go to any means to get what she wants.

#2 Flawed & Vulnerable

Nick grew up with an abusive father. His mother is terminally ill. He’s unhappy with his marriage and having an affair.

Amy grew up in a wealthy family and was the inspiration for a popular book series. She feels that Nick doesn’t appreciate her.

#3 Heroic / Overcomes

Nick ends up being the “good” main character. In the end, he cannot leave Amy because she’s pregnant and will ruin him. He must overcome his unhappiness in exchange for the safety of his child.

Amy overcomes her supposed death by being quite ruthless. She ends up back with Nick and gets her happily ever after.

There’s something disturbing about recalling a warm memory and feeling utterly cold.


The cover for the award winning novel ANCILLARY JUSTICE

ANCILLARY JUSTICE, published in 2013, is a Science Fiction novel by Ann Leckie. It’s book 1 in the Ancillary World trilogy.

ANCILLARY JUSTICE won the 2014 Hugo Award. Fox Television Studies has purchased the option to create a TV series.

Protagonist Example:

The main character of Ancillary Justice is Breq.

#1 Something Unique

Breq is an ancillary – or was. An ancillary is pretty much an AI servant. Breq is now in a human body. She’s unused to having free will and struggles with understanding the world around her (particularly gender) and her own motivations.

#2 Flawed & Vulnerable

Breq is neither human nor ancillary but somehow both.

#3 Heroic / Overcomes

In the end, Breq prevents a catastrophe for the good guys.

I could find a way to keep avoiding referring to the barkeep’s gender. Or I could guess. It was, at worst, a fifty-fifty chance.


The cover for the bestselling novel THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST

THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNETS’ NEST, published in 2010 is a mystery, thriller & suspense novel by Stieg Larsson. It’s book 3 in the Millennium series.

THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNETS’ NEST spent 9 weeks at #1 on the NYT Bestseller List. The Swedish version of the movie was released in 2009. The US version of the movie is not yet complete.

Protagonist Example:

The main character of the series is Lisbeth Salander.

#1 Something Unique

Lisbeth is a computer hacker. She’s antisocial and a genius. The English version of this novel was published in 2010 and Lisbeth majorly defied gender norms at the time.

#2 Flawed & Vulnerable

In this novel, Lisbeth’s vulnerability increased as she spent a lot of the novel in the hospital recovering from being shot in the head. She was charged with murder and assault.

#3 Heroic / Overcomes

You shouldn’t mess with Lisbeth. In the end, Lisbeth kind of learns to trust her friends. She grows as a person and everything works out.

After a while she managed to pull the sheet and blanket up to her chin. She studied the pencil. It was a plain wooden pencil, newly sharpened. It would make a passable weapon—for stabbing a face or an eye.


The cover for the award winning novel LESS

LESS, published in 2017, is a satirical comedy novel by  Andrew Sean Greer.

LESS won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Protagonist Example:

The main character of LESS is Arthur Less.

#1 Something Unique

Arthur Less is a runner. To avoid attending a wedding, he accepts a bunch of mediocre invitations around the world.

#2 Flawed & Vulnerable

Arthur Less is full of flaws. They lead him through a series of comical events.

#3 Heroic / Overcomes

The trip around the world benefits Arthur Less and he learns to overcome his fears and find the life he wants.

Perhaps Less, alone, is kidding. Here, looking at his clothes—black jeans for New York, khaki for Mexico, blue suit for Italy, down for Germany, linen for India—costume after costume. Each one is a joke, and the joke is on him: Less the gentleman, Less the author, Less the tourist, Less the hipster, Less the colonialist. Where is the real Less?

a typewriter and saxaphone

Writing Practice

It’s time to practice. Use the following writing exercises and prompts to analyze some characters and work on creating your own. Good luck!

Exercise: Analyze Characters

It’s time for you to try analyzing some characters. We’re going to use LITTLE RED CAP by the Brothers Grimm – an early version of LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD.

Your Task: Read the story and explain how Red meets the three elements of a memorable main character.

Exercise: Analyze Characters

Choose some novels – your favorites, a couple from the genre you write (or want to write) in.

Your Task: Explain how the main characters meet the three elements of a memorable main character.

Exercise: Your Main Characters

It’s time to try it on some of your writing.

Your Task: Take your main character(s) and write out what makes them unique, vulnerable/flawed & heroic/overcomes.

Need an idea?

Look at the Little Red adaptation you made in Exercise #4 of the Plot Guide. Who would your main character(s) be? Do the exercise for them.

Writing Practice Notebook

Where are you going to do your writing exercises & prompts? You can type them or handwrite them. I like to handwrite in notebooks that are just for writing practice.

Check out these four (cheap and fun) notebooks!

In Memory Of

Pin This: How to Write a Main Character (Learn the 3 elements every main character should have. Plus see protagonist examples from modern fiction)

A memorable character could be the difference between a bestseller and a never-published novel. Don’t be the latter! Practice making your characters memorable.

But, the main character isn’t the only important character in your novel. Check out How to Write an Antagonist next.

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Pin This: How to Write a Book (Want to learn how to write a book? Check out this comprehensive list of resources for novel writing (like outlining, plot, character development, and more).


Pin This: How to Write an Antagonist (everything you need to know about 4 types of antagonist & tips for writing them)

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