Today I’m going to talk about a character trait, that in my opinion, makes a protagonist a thousand times better. It’s one that I can’t stand in the real world, in fact, I blame it for most of society’s ills today, but it’s one that I feel like every protagonist should be given at least a smidgen of: Selfishness.
Now, I don’t mean that protagonists should be Randian jerks, I’m talking about the normal day to day selfishness that allows us to identify people as “one of us.”
Allow me to explain what I mean.
I’m sure that it’s a universal experience to want something that you don’t have. Whether it’s something simple like a cookie, or something significant like a marriage, or a job, we’ve all wanted something that for one reason or another doesn’t belong to us, and that (probably) belongs to someone else.
That’s where things get interesting. A lot of authors treat their protagonists as sacred ground. They must be a perfect amalgam of everything that is right with humanity. They must have infinite patience, compassion, motivation, they must not have a single speck of sin inside them, and they must not want it either.
But see, that’s boring. Really, really, boring.
Perfect protagonists like Superman are okay, but they’re what we should aspire to be, not what we are in reality, and since they are not who we are in reality, we cannot form as deep of a connection as we can to a character that is flawed. One of the nicest feelings in the world of literature is finding a protagonist that shares the same flaws as you, and I’m telling you right now, there is not a single person on this godammned planet that is not selfish.
That’s why we like when someone confesses a selfish act to us. “I stole a cookie from my brother’s plate when he wasn’t looking.” “I’m not gonna share my popcorn with you, I’m hungry and I don’t like people taking my food.” It’s because we see a little glimpse of ourselves in that person, we identify with them. We feel somewhat reassured when we know that that person is “just as bad as we are,” even if we’re not really all that bad.
I bring this up because, as I said before, many writers have the tendency to make their protagonist untouchable, just perfect in every single way. And while, like I said again, that works fine in some cases, if you want your protagonist to be complex, deep, and universal, you have to be comfortable giving them flaws.
If you want people to relate to your protagonist, to connect with them the way we connect with real people in our lives, you have to give them internal struggles. And the struggle of selfishness one we all face, some of us face it every day.