Protagonists are at the center of a story. Their conflicts are the motivation driving things forward. No matter if you're writing in third-person or first-person, in past tense or in present, your readers will be alongside them for the journey, so it's important to foster a connection between them.
This has plenty to do with likeability. As readers, we want characters we can root for. We want to celebrate their wins and lament their losses just as they do. Even when they are far from perfect, we want them to be worthy of redemption.
One way writers can create this relationship between readers and their protagonists is through glimpses into their thoughts. Letting your audience see how they are processing things or what they really think about someone, like little secrets we're being let in on.
There are a few methods for going about this.
In first-person narration, where the story is told by the protagonist themselves, you may simply say something like, "I can feel my eyes narrowing more and more with every second I stare at Jake. How dare he?"
In third-person, you could write this as, "Amanda's eyes narrowed with every second she stared at Jake, wondering how he could dare to propose such a notion." or "Amanda's eyes narrowed with every second she stared at Jake. 'How dare he?' she thought."
Alternatively, "How dare he?" could be italicized and written as its own line without a dialogue tag.
It really depends on preference and the needs of your story.
Diving into my characters' headspaces is something I have only begun to do more recently, primarily when it comes to providing backstory. Until maybe three drafts ago, anytime there was info to dump, it would come in pages-long monologues. No kidding, I once had a character share his troubled past in a soliloquy, basically talking at his love interest for nearly two thirds of a chapter.
I'm cringing as I'm thinking about that mess. Oh, the many, many things I would tell fourteen-year-old me about writing...
To this day, I'm still learning what to have my characters express aloud and what to share intimately with the reader through private contemplations.
The best way I can describe my newer approach is that it's something of an aside. If you've read my post on The Parlor Trick, you know I've been taking on the role of both storyteller and gossipmonger when it comes to narration.
When there is backstory and other important info to be shared with the reader, my newly-adopted methods feel like whispering in their ear as my characters go about their lives. Like I'm playing Gossip Girl or Lady Whistledown.
I'm just there to spill the oh-so-steamy tea!
While beta feedback on an older draft of Bound to the Heart and reading other books within my genre made me aware that I needed to strengthen the bond between my main characters and readers, those weren't the only things.
Once again, my love of video games comes to save my writing.
You might have heard of the term "Silent Protagonist."
It originates in the world of video games and relates to main characters with little to no dialogue, particularly when the game has a central narrative arc. The earliest games were limited in how vocal they could be due to technology at the time or the style of gameplay, speaking through speech bubbles. As things have developed, characters have become much more talkative, to the point we notice when they are not.
Nowadays, it tends to be a stylistic choice or intent to allow the player to assume more control of the character and feel like they are the ones at the center of the story, without an external force inserting commentary and direction.
There are instances where a silent protagonist works well in modern titles, as is the case with Undertale; the game's style pays homage to classic RPGs, so the dialogue being displayed as text boxes suits.
However, silent protagonists can also have a negative impact. In my experience, a protagonist that is little beyond a player's avatar can make it more difficult to connect with them.
This is potentially why Ethan has more dialogue in Resident Evil: Village than in its predecessor Resident Evil: Biohazard. In his first appearance, he doesn't speak much apart from interactions with the Bakers and Mia. In the sequel, he is more expressive, even though it's usually to himself.
Some of his lines are as corny, notably, "Why is everyone dying on me?" after the demise of an NPC he literally met an hour before, but it makes him feel more realistic.
Because if you were in the position of trying to find your kidnapped infant daughter while being hunted by the Lords of the village, you'd probably drop an F-bomb or ten along the way.
The man is just done.
Additionally, we learn a bit more about Ethan in his return to Resident Evil. By the end of his first game, we don't know all that much about him. We don't know what he looks like—something which the game goes almost to hilarious lengths to continue at times in Village (though someone did dig up his character model which includes his face). His defining characteristic is pretty much that he is Mia's husband.
The opening scene of Village is set in the Winters' home in an unspecified region of Europe. Players have a chance to explore, and they can find things like the music box they received as a wedding present, photo albums, and books on combat indicating Ethan is being trained by Chris Redfield after the events of Biohazard.
It also makes sense when viewed from the narrative perspective. At the start of Biohazard, Ethan has just learned his wife who has been missing for three years and presumed dead is actually alive. It's likely that he has been living alone for that time and is potentially more withdrawn than he would have been prior to Mia's disappearance. Being reunited with her, starting a family, and settling back into a normal life—even though things are arguably very much not normal for him after the events of Biohazard—may have led to his opening up again and, thus, a more talkative Ethan in Village.
I would also venture to guess the silent protagonist factor was one reason I did not get into Elden Ring as much as other open-world games.
With titles such as Red Dead Redemption II, Cyberpunk 2077, and Ghost of Tsushima, players have a greater ability to bond with the characters they are sharing the journey with and become invested in the story.
Through dialogue with other characters and ruminations in their mind, players get a feel for their personalities and internal conflicts. Arthur Morgan's increasing distrust of Dutch as the gang begins to splinter and needing to accept his own fate creates a deeper narrative than I expected going into what I thought was going to be Grand Theft Auto with cowboys. Jin Sakai must contend with breaking his codes as a samurai in order to protect the people of Tsushima amid Mongol invasions. V and Johnny Silverhand have to deal with each other and a shared conflict as they share a mind for what little time V has left.
So many quotable lines from these games come from the protagonists. Things I'll work into everyday conversation.
With Elden Ring, the player's character is silent. You pick their voice, but it's only for the sound effects you'll hear in combat—which is often because 98% of things in that game are out to kick your butt.
When allies appear for a cut scene, they'll speak to you, but your character won't respond. There are no internal monologues or contemplations, and little direction as far as where to go or what to do next.
Contrarily, interactions with NPCs in the other open-world games lead to witty banter and side quests or upgrades to your stats, and they can show how the protagonists change over the course of their stories.
Nearly all of my favorite video games are built around strong narratives, which in turn are almost always strengthened by characters that players can connect to.
Elden Ring's silent protagonist resulted in a disconnect between myself and the story.
It goes back to three words you may have heard in a creative writing class or bouncing around the internet: make me care.
It is vital for your readers to care. You have to intrigue them enough for them to take a chance on your story. Reading is a dedication of time, and many readers will skip over titles that do not capture their attention.
But it's not enough to gain your reader's interest—you also have to maintain it.
One common reason readers will DNF is when the protagonist is someone they cannot root for. When a character is flat and their goals are unclear, readers won't care about whether or not they come to fruition.
Even if risks are taken and sacrifices are made, that can be rendered meaningless when the connection between the protagonist and the reader is weak or nonexistent.
Silent protagonists and those who are withdrawn from the reader often fail to establish those vital connections because their personal stakes are not known. It's harder to care when we don't know what matters to them.
In Elden Ring, your goal is to repair the titular Elden Ring and become the Elden Lord.
But why? Aside from needing to get out of the Lands Between and trying (often in vain) to not die for the umpteenth time, we don't know the Tarnished's stakes. What's in it for them? Why does it matter?
Why does the audience care?
Ghost of Tsushima follows Jin Sakai, a samurai trying to protect Tsushima amidst a Mongol invasion. From the onset, we have a primary personal stake. His is home under attack and his uncle (and only living family member) is taken captive.
Jin's efforts to rescue his uncle and defend his home come with a cost. Though he is already a skilled warrior, desperate times call for drastic measures. Resorting to new tactics means going against the code of a samurai.
A commonly used stealth method is sneaking up behind enemies to kill them from behind or from above. The first time the game has you attempt this, Jin has a flashback to his uncle telling him that a samurai must look this enemy in the eye when ending their life out of respect. The juxtaposition enhances Jin's internal turmoil as the story unfolds.
Reminders of Jin sacrificing his morals are brought up occasionally during combat sequences, through additional flashbacks and Jin's own commentary. You'll hear him assure himself that assassinating enemies from the shadows has to be done for the sake of his people or that once the Mongols are vanquished, using poison will be a thing of the past. Hot springs found throughout Tsushima allow for quieter introspection about his new allies and foes.
Becoming the Ghost means giving up a significant part of himself: all that he knows and believes himself to be.
These glimpses into Jin's thoughts remind the player of the lengths he is willing to go for the sake of his people.
They make the player care.
"Silent protagonist" is a term typically used in the video game sphere. How does this translate to writing books?
As seen in the above examples, a story can be more enjoyable when we are able to connect to the characters.
When the protagonist shares their thoughts with the reader, it creates something of an intimate conversation. We get to see who they really are (or how they wish they were viewed). Those fears or concerns they would not dare express aloud. How they plead with their heart to stop racing when they run into their ex at the grocery store.
It pulls the reader in.
And more importantly, it makes them care.
This does not mean that all of your characters have to be extroverted or have something to say about everything that crosses their path.
I'm all for tall-dark-and-brooding, but do ask yourself if your protagonists are too withdrawn.
Look for opportunities to slow things down and let your characters reflect. Where would readers need more context? What's going on at that moment? What could have been? What does your character wish had happened?
As fascinating as your worldbuilding may be, readers will be more interested in traversing your setting alongside a character they feel close to.
Exploring where your protagonist's thoughts are at can ground your reader in the story and build that crucial relationship between them and your protagonist. When we care about a character, we are more likely to care about the story, no matter which kind of media it is told through.