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Take a look at one of this year’s winning entries to the Immerse Education Essay Competition from the Creative Writing category.
Congratulations to all participants and in particular to those who have won 100% scholarships!
Which key attributes make a protagonist likeable?
by Anais W
Protagonists shape the way we interact with stories. They become our immediate association with a series or perspective – Harry Potter memorably recalled by its titular figure – and their memorable attributes accumulate iconic significance over time – such as the emergence of ‘Bah. Humbug!’ as a loveably universal aphorism.
Likeable protagonists form the eyes we see narratives through attracting our empathy and admiration through a mix of relatability, growth, and iconic memorability. These protagonists often embody a liminal dual role of relatable and aspirational quality. Author Amanda Skenandore cites a mix of ‘all-too human flaws and larger-than-life qualities’  to construct a grounded, likeable protagonist. This hybridised concept is manifest quite literally in the mischievous student/talented wizard- ‘Chosen One’ Harry Potter. Sadie Hoagland extends this tenet through her assertation of powerful, ‘revealable’ characters . Authors may also embrace a relatable image of ‘nuanced, human selves’ through initially complex or murky characterisation, leading to cathartic ‘reveals’ or vicarious self-discovery throughout a series; the magical backstory of Jackson and Potter intensifies and symbolises their own, otherwise relatable ‘coming-of-age’ arcs.
Contrasting consistently familiar qualities, to be likeable, protagonists must also be fluid. Protagonists, coined by Barthes as the ‘accomplices’ to discourse , mirror the progression of narrative: microcosmically modelling thematic change. Harry Potter’s role as a primarily relatable insert of the audience into the wizarding world expands as stakes grow higher- culminating in his self-realisation after Dumbledore’s death, and eventual legacy/family of his own. Scrooge initially commands little sympathy, yet in fable-like fashion comes to epitomise lofty ideals of Christmas cheer, courting the favour of both moralistic Christian and generally festive readers .
Conversely, gradually corrupted, less-reliable characters, consumed by Robert Garner McBrearty’s concepts of ‘strong longings’ , attract the adoration of immersed readers. Aristotle notes in Poetics
that heroes should be ‘consistently inconsistent’  with flaws, even fatal hamartia, which reads as engaging and, to some degree, justified. In Rebecca, the obsessive, morally grey unnamed narrator commands our loyalty through ambiguating resurged Gothic fantasy and deceptive reality- even as Mrs de Winter grows disconnected from logic and reality, her amplified human desires engender a likeability in her eventual self-determination- ‘I am Mrs de Winter’ . Protagonists, as they evolve and shift, embrace an essentially human fluidity and fragility, captivating audiences to engage with their journey.
Ultimately, likeable protagonists are memorable: they encourage devotion and engagement in the reader. McBrearty notes effective protagonists ‘surprise us!’ ; even subtly, they subvert. In conservative Victorian Britain, Scrooge’s arc of humanist redemption embodies revolutionary empowerment and individual autonomy. Harry Potter’s adolescent struggles, recontextualised into fantasy fiction, achieve a memorable rendition of relatable human experience. In Rebecca, the distinctive voice of an ironically unnamed narrator – ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’  – constructs a dark, psychological reflection on self-determination .
Each protagonist exemplifies an essentially relatable body of social ideas through distinctive, iconic individual voice- resonating with readers, and inspiring likeability. The popularity of Harry Potter, A Christmas Carol and Rebecca is evidenced by countless contemporary engagements in fanfiction, and even reinterpretations in film. Each uniquely likeable protagonist – Harry Potter as an audience stand-in; Scrooge as an allegorical parable of redemption; and Mrs de Winter as an abject reflection of shadowed Romanic urges – exemplifies reliability, fluidity and memorability to impress their engaging narrative message, embodying a character ultimately ‘worthy of readers’ investment’ .
Aristotle. “Poetics”. In The Internet Classics Archive. Translated by S. H. Butcher. 350BCE. 2009.
[classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.1.1.html last accessed: 26th August 2022].
Barthes, Roland. “The Reality Effect.” In The Rustle of Language. Transcribed by Richard Miller.
New York: Hill and Wang, 1986.
Cox, Don Richard. and Gilbert, Elliot L. “Scrooge’s Conversion”. PMLA, 90:5 (1975): 922-924.
Du Maurier, Daphne. “Rebecca”. London: Virago Press, 2018.
Hoagland, Sadie. “What makes a good protagonist?”. Interviewed by Jack Smith. The Writer. 15 Nov. [https://writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/what-makes-a-good-protagonist/
last accessed: 26th August 2022].
Linkin, Harriet Kramer. “The Deceptively Strategic Narrator of “Rebecca””. Journal of Narrative
Theory, 46:2 (2016): 223-253.
McBrearty, Robert Garner. “What makes a good protagonist?”. Interviewed by Jack Smith. The
Writer. 15 Nov. 2021. [https://writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/what-makes-agood-protagonist/ last accessed: 26th August 2022].
Rohan, Ethel. “What makes a good protagonist?”. Interviewed by Jack Smith. The Writer. 15 Nov.[https://writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/what-makes-a-good-protagonist/
last accessed: 26th August 2022].
Skenandore, Amanda. “What makes a good protagonist?”. Interviewed by Jack Smith. The Writer. 15
Nov. 2021. [https://writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/what-makes-a-goodprotagonist/ last accessed: 26th August 2022].
Why Apply To The Immerse Education Essay Competition?
Are you a highly motivated student aged 13-18? Have you ever wanted to experience studying at Cambridge or Oxford?
The Immerse Education essay competition allows you the chance to submit an essay for the chance to be awarded a scholarship to the award-winning Cambridge summer school.
How To Apply To The Immerse Education Essay Competition?
The Immerse Education annual essay competition is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win a scholarship to a Cambridge or Oxford summer school.
If you’re aged 13-18 and you’re interested in applying to the Immerse Education essay competition then please visit our essay competition page for more details.