AgentSpeak: “Your Main Character? We Just Didn’t Hit It Off”

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This week I’m excited to continue the “AgentSpeak” series here on Word Café. Today’s topic is another comment frequently seen on polite rejection letters from agents:

“I’m sorry not to have better news. You have a lot of talent, but I just couldn’t see myself spending an entire novel with your main character.”

Reading this from your dream agent, you experience a roller coaster ride of emotions. Exhilaration (she thinks I have talent!). Indignation (how dare she insult my character like that!). Despair (she hates my book!) And finally, confusion (what does it mean, couldn’t spend an entire novel…?). Let’s see if I can shed some light here.

SadSuperheroWhat the agent could mean is that she just didn’t connect on a personal level with your main character and story—a situation I described in my previous AgentSpeak article. But more likely, she means you have created an unlikable character. Yikes. Now what?

As with many other elements of fiction, the likability of your characters is subjective; what appeals to one reader may put off another. But, just like real-life people, some characters manage to win over an almost universal audience. (Think Katniss Everdeen, Bilbo Baggins, Indiana Jones.) How do they do it? By being witty, funny, charming, and good (but not too good)—the same qualities that draw us to people in the real world. By displaying an ingenious balance of strengths and flaws, with the strengths ultimately winning out. By being unique, while showing us traits we recognize in ourselves.

Now, the converse: what characteristics do readers—including agents—most often shy away from? Here are some of the top turn-offs:

  • Characters who are cynical, angsty, jaded, or just plain mean
  • Characters who are flat or generic
  • Characters who feel like vehicles for a message or agenda, rather than real-life people
  • Characters who show no growth or change from beginning to end of story (unless that’s the point—a tough one to pull off)

Once you’ve identified some possible reasons for the agent’s dissing your protagonist, you’re faced with a tough choice: change him, or stand your ground. Only you as the author can decide which of those actions is right for your book. There’s always a change the agent’s opinion was a fluke. What if you still believe strongly in your character? What if changing him would compromise the heart of your story? Then your best bet is to go knocking on other agents’ doors. And before you do anything drastic, get a second opinion (and a third, fourth…tenth). Did another agent make a similar observation? Is your critique group having trouble with your character(s) as well? If so, there’s a good chance the public at large will feel the same, and that spells doom for your book sales. In that case, you probably don’t need to scrap your protagonist, but it might be time for a little nip and tuck.

6 responses »

  1. “it might be time for a little nip and tuck”–I admit I lol’d.

    It’s always a good idea to get a few other opinions before changing anything in your novel, unless the criticism rings true to you from the start. Of course, in the case of a protagonist, it’s not likely that you wouldn’t want to spend an entire novel with him or her because you already did! Sometimes though, what we think we’re writing isn’t what others are reading. That’s when putting the writing aside for a while might help us see our protag the way others see him/her. Then we can get out that scalpel. 😉

  2. This may be my biggest problem in writing. I always write unsavory characters who interest me. I’ve been told by so many people that the protagonist is hilarious, that they relate to him. Others, not so much. Others absolutely hate him.

    What I’ve never understood is why readers have to like a character. I absolutely hated Emma Bovary, but I loved reading Madame Bovary. Are readers confusing the protagonist’s voice for the author?

    • I don’t think readers have to like a character, but the character must be interesting enough that readers want to know how things pan out for him/her. “Interesting” is the key word.

      Super-hero, goody-two-shoes characters who can do no wrong and are practically perfect in every way are b-o-r-i-n-g (Mary Poppins excepted). Readers aren’t going to like them any more than they’ll like an unredeeming scumbag (probably less, in fact) and book sales will suffer. Remember, sales is what agents and publishers focus on most. They have bills, too.

    • This is a good point. I’ve also enjoyed novels without loving the characters, but it was because, as Elissa points out, they were interesting enough for me to care about their fate. In other words, I did connect with them on some level. In very rare cases, I kept reading simply because the writing was just so beautiful.

      I agree with what you’ve both pointed out: in today’s incredibly competitive book market, it’s hard for agents and editors to gamble on a story that *might* grab readers with an unsavory but interesting character. It happens–there are always exceptions to the rules–but it’s not something to count on. And yes, there are those pesky bills to pay!

      Bottom line: only you as the author can determine what you’re willing to compromise in your characters and your story. It’s not a decision to be taken lightly.

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