For those of you who don't know, I am a HUGE fan of the Winnie the Pooh franchise. When I was pregnant with my son we didn't know if we were having a boy or girl until he was born, but you know what? It didn't matter. I was going to decorate the nursery with beautifully gender neutral Winnie the Pooh decals regardless.
My son is eight now, and he's more into Legos, Star Wars, and trying to sneak in a game of Call of Duty when he thinks I'm not paying attention than anything that has to do with the Hundred-Acre Wood. The only rumbly tumbly he is ever concerned about is his own-- and The Boy just will not stop eating and growing! He's nearly at my shoulder! And he's only eight!
(please excuse the mom-freakout, my baby is clearly a baby no more)
Despite the fact that Pooh and Friends no longer grace his bedroom walls, I still purchase Winnie the Pooh "books and such" whenever I have the chance. For myself. I refuse to give up this part of me. I've been a fan since... my whole life.
And as a fan, I've noticed a few things over the years (read: decades).
1. In a group of many, Pooh is always the lead character.
If we count Kanga and Christopher Robin, even though they are the two most rarely seen, there are nine protagonists. But the stories always start with Pooh. He drives the story forward from beginning to end, or rather, his need for Hunny drives the story forward.
The lead character has the main goal that pushes everything and everyone else into action. The lead is the main driving force. Basically, the story revolves around this person. If you were to remove that character, the plot would fail. This doesn't necessarily mean that the lead has to be the viewpoint character, but they usually are (especially in middle grade and young adult novels).
2. Pooh ultimately has the most at stake in the stories.
In the eternal quest for his next "smackerel of something", Pooh and his Friends go on many adventures. But it all boils down to whether or not Pooh will satisfy his empty belly. Everything else is just a subplot.
3. Pooh's goal is primal, and appropriate for the intended audience.
What is a primal goal? Something that any human can relate to-- love, hunger, survival, etc. This is the most effective type of goal to keep a reader engaged in the story.
Pooh's primal goal is to calm his rumbly tumbly. Being that he is a character meant for young children, this is an appropriate goal for that audience. Even an oblivious newborn can relate to hunger. But something like love? It's not quite so cut-and-dry. Hunger is what makes Pooh an instantly alive character we want to succeed.
4. Pooh is not the only defined character.
Having a lead character with a unique personality doesn't negate the need for a defined supporting cast. Every character in the Hundred-Acre Wood has their own quirks. Owl is a "wise" know-it-all, Eeyore is apathetic and depressed, Piglet is nervous and scared, Roo is curious, Tigger is adventurous, Rabbit is a perfectionist, etc.
Pooh is the most endearing of them all, though. He is just a pudgy, cuddly, "silly old bear" who wants some Hunny, and is always ready to help others when they need it. A good lead character is proven worthy by his supporting cast. His friends love him so we are inclined to love him, too. Again, this loveableness is appropriate for the audience.
The older the audience, the less need for an entirely loveable protagonist-- but you still need a protagonist with a primal goal. You still need a protagonist that drives the story, above all the rest, who is so interwoven with the plot that you can't remove them. You still need a protagonist with something to lose (something at stake). And you still need a protagonist with defined, unique characterization, someone that a reader is willing to associate with through the length of your story.
Who are your favorite lead characters, and why?