Lurking behind (in front of, more accurately) every great story is the problem of the pesky protagonist. It's an unavoidable conundrum, like 5:00 traffic and colds and popsicles that drip all over the side of your hand. Writers are given the impossible task of creating a protagonist who is well-liked (or, dare I say it, well-loved) by all readers. I say impossible, because it's literally IMPOSSIBLE. I have been struggling with this problem ever since I started writing Whitewashed. “Will readers like Ella? Will they think she's annoying? Whiny? Weak? Stupid? Useless? Boring?” and pretty much every other antonym to character virtue.
I remember when I first read Order of the Phoenix way back when. If you've read this, you'll recall that Harry is the most obnoxious brat for the first half of the book. “Why won't anyone tell me anythiiiiing? Why can't I be Prefect? Ron, I'm better than you. I'm the Chosen One! Why don't I know what's going on??!!@#%!1” until you're like HARRY SHUT UP YOU ARE SO ANNOYING. I always thought Harry was the least interesting, most frustrating, of the characters. Later in life, I reread the books, after having written books 1 and 2 of Whitewashed. I was anticipating my hatred of Harry come book 5. Then, something strange happened. I got to OotP, and I was like, I get you, Harry. I got him. Harry's life sucks. Horrible things happen to him on a yearly basis. He's one of the most important figures in the entire wizarding world. So, come 15 years old, Harry's developed a complex. He's the Harry Potter, the one who conquered Voldy as a baby, and who just saw him come back to life after watching a friend die. Harry just wants to know what's going on, for Pete's sake, but Dumbledore seems to think he can't handle the facts. So Harry gets frustrated, because, above all, Harry is a human. He's a teenage guy who has flaws. And that's annoying to readers, like me, who are thinking, “Oh, come on, Harry. Get over yourself.”
Fact: Harry is now my favorite character of the series. He might not be the smartest, funniest, or most interesting, but he's real, and his simplicity helps me relate to him.
Where am I going with this? For most series, the protagonist is not the reader's favorite character. Harry isn't, Katniss isn't, Ender isn't, Tris isn't, Cassie isn't, Bella isn't, Tally isn't, Nancy isn't, Percy isn't.
Why? Because it's easier to see the flaws of the character who conducts the entire story.
Why? Because we're dragged through a story with this character's perspective, and sometimes that character has to be less than 3-dimensional so that readers can slip into their shoes and pretend that said protagonist is them.
Why? Because protagonists are often heroes, and heroes can't become heroes until they're horrible and obnoxious enough to realize they need to change.
Why? Because we're forced to proceed through a story under the leadership of someone who might do all the things that we would never do.
Why? Because the protagonist isn't us.
We know our strengths and weaknesses. We know how we would get things done. When the protagonist doesn't get things done the way we would, it's annoying. Like, super annoying. You idiot, just trust Dumbledore. Just make a decision: Peeta or Gale. Just flipping throw the ring into the flipping lava.
It's more than that, though, something I only realized after having written a trilogy. Yes, protagonists do stupid things that we could do better. Beyond that, however, is the truth that protagonists must have some level of blandness to them in order for the reader to sink inside the story. I'm sure many would disagree with me, but I think that an overly complex protagonist might suffocate the story, drowning it out so that the plot can't move. (Note: This idea of mine is only applicable to a plot-driven story.) Sometimes the secondary characters are the real moving pieces of the story, and the protagonist needs to simmer down so that the others guys can do their thing. Often times, the protagonist is a vehicle that needs to be simple enough for a first-time driver to settle into.
This post is a self-serving one, written in anticipation of all the future Ella-haters. People are going to hate Ella. They'll think she's stupid, bland, useless—and maybe she is. (Wait, I don't think she is!) She'll cause eye-rolling, book-throwing, and even book-hating. At times, I'm intending for her to induce eye-rolling, because I want her to go through some selfish/emo/frustrating stints to show her growth beyond them. Other times, she might just annoy you, because perhaps she does stupid things and there's a certain amount of objectivity in that which can't be ignored. My answer to that is this: I'm sorry if you hate Ella. I tried to make her raw and human, and perhaps I failed miserably. She's not the I-don't-care-what-anyone-thinks, I-get-things-done, tough-as-all-get-out, calm-and-serene sort of character, so if that's what you're searching for in a protagonist, fair warning: You'll hate Ella, and most likely Whitewashed.
Protagonists are hard to create. I'll be honest, I've become a lot more lenient on protagonists since I started writing. I get the struggle, and the frustration that can ensue when readers hate your protagonists. Whenever I read and the protagonist does something annoying, I try to be generous. Hey, nobody's perfect. Nobody is going to do things the way I would. And that's okay. It's not a prerequisite that readers fall in love with your protagonist (though it would definitely keep the book more interesting). And who knows—one day, a few years down the road, a formerly hated protagonist might become suddenly understandable, because readers change. Protagonists do, too. We're all only human, after all.
(Unless your protagonist is non-human, in which case...I'll do another post on that later.)