I, as a reader, don't want to feel sorry for a character. I want to understand their struggle. I want to see them rise above their challenges and face their demons.
I heard a great quote from the tv show "Leverage." It said something to the effect of "Surviving a tragedy doesn't make you a hero."
And it stuck, those words. They batted around in my head until I could finally grasp the truth.
Slam your character with a tragedy. Write a Young Adult story and kill the parents. Write a romance and rip a loved one away. Those events alone won't make a hero (aka a read-worthy protagonist).
No, it's not what happens to the character, but what they do with it.
In the show, the protagonist, Nate, lost his son to cancer. The insurance company he worked for refused to pay for the experimental treatment, so he quit and drank to dull the pain.
Nate's a good guy who's suffered an incalculable loss. But it's not the tragedy that propels the story. It's what he does with it.
He gathers a group of misfits--a hacker, thief, grifter and thug and organizes them into a team. Then they pull cons on bad people to help good people.
Now he's compelling. Now's he's heroic.
So, today's tip- look at your protagonist. Are they sympathetic or compelling? The answer lies not in the tragedy they face, but in the actions they take.