What makes an effective hero?
You know what, that word is too loaded. What makes an effective protagonist?
Some people will insist that the protagonist has to be likable. I don’t think that’s really true. We have a stable full of what used to be called anti heroes running through most media. Early fantasy had Conan and Elric, neither of whom were exactly warm and fuzzy, and popular entertainment today has given us Tony Soprano and Walter White. So I don’t think likable is a requirement.
What is a requirement is that we care about the hero. His or her job is to keep us reading, keep us watching. Make sure we’re invested in his fate. Usually, to make you root for her, but a well written protagonist can keep you riveted even as you root against her.
And generally, you want readers to identify on some level with the hero. We can empathize with Harry Potter’s struggles as he grows up, because we’ve struggled through those years. We can feel for Tony Soprano as he deals with conflicts in his family while trying to run a crime syndicate. We understand Walter White because we know the feeling of being powerless, and we see how feeling powerless in his marriage, powerless in his job, his financial situation, and finally, powerless in the face of his disease makes him take a stand. Makes him cross so many lines, not for the money, not for the financial security of his family after he dies, but because he needs to be respected, damn it, and if forcing the world to respect his brilliance takes becoming a drug kingpin and destroying countless lives, so be it.
Now, most of us aren’t going to battle evil wizards bent on world domination, or run a crime family or build a drug empire, but we have all been awkward teenagers, or battled with family or felt powerless and for just one moment wanted to put on a pork pie hat, spit in the world’s eye and demand some God damn respect.
So, yes. You can write a flawed protagonist. One that you wouldn’t bring home to meet mom. But, as a reader, I need to care about what happens to that protagonist. Once I stop caring, it’s not long before I stop reading.
And the final piece of keeping a reader invested, is you need your hero to retain some shred of humanity. Have some line he won’t cross. Drug empires and mob hits are one thing, but he can’t kick a puppy or it’s over.
As with most things, the appeal of the protagonist and readers’ willingness to go along are on a spectrum. Every reader draws the red line in a different place. Which is why not every hero is for every reader.
The best example of this is Stephen R Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant. It’s open to interpretation whether you stop caring before you actually hate him, or hate him before you stop caring.
The literary world is filled with a wide variety of protagonists. It’s up to the writer and the reader to negotiate where on the spectrum they can be successful.
Except for Thomas Covenant.
Screw that guy.