It’s no secret that strong characters are a key to bestselling fiction. Trouble is, there’s so much that can go wrong on the way to crafting that unforgettable protagonist. Over the years, as an editor and a slush pile reader I’ve seen the same pitfalls crop up again and again. Here are three of the most common ones to watch for in your writing.
1) The “floating character.” This is what I call a character who does plenty of things, but lacks personality or depth to give context to those actions; he or she floats through the story but are not grounded or connected in the way real people are. Even the most dynamic plot can fall flat without a clear sense of the protagonist’s back story, motives and emotional landscape; readers will spend time trying to piece together who the character is, instead of paying attention to the plot flow. In your opening chapters and as you move the story forward, be aware of questions your readers will be asking: What is the character’s family background (parents, siblings, children; does s/he come from a rowdy clan or is s/he alone in the world)? Any romantic history or current interests? Things that happened in childhood that affected who the character became as an adult? Greatest fears/hopes/challenges/triumphs? Likes and dislikes (interesting hobbies, unusual pet peeves)?
This applies not only to the protagonist, but also to the villain/antagonist, side kick, and other relevant characters. Once you have fleshed out your main character, be sure to spend time on your supporting cast to avoid a feeling of lopsidedness.
2) The question of likability. One of the top reasons agents or other readers stop reading a novel is that they “just couldn’t connect with the main character.” Does that mean a protagonist must always be charming and likeable? Not necessarily. In fact, characters that seems too perfect will come off flat and unrealistic. At the very least, they need a few flaws to make them come alive. Think of your closest friends in real life: would they be the same people without those (sometimes annoying) little quirks that make you love them all the more?
Even unlikable characters can work, as long as they’re compelling. These are the ones we love to hate; we’d stop reading right now, if only they weren’t so darn fascinating! An example is Benedict Cumberbach’s portrayal of scientist/mathematician Alan Turing in the recent box office hit The Imitation Game. Despite his arrogant and often unapproachable demeanor, Turing is a compelling character because we know something his peers do not—that he really is the genius he claims to be, and that he will succeed in spite of the challenges and detractors he faces. The other thing that saves this character is that we see glimpses of his difficult childhood and the social challenges he has faced throughout his life; it’s enough to make him sympathetic in spite of his glaring flaws. I won’t add any spoilers, but ultimately Cumberbatch builds this character into a figure that haunts you long after the film ends.
3) Voices that trigger reader pet peeves. Finally, there are a couple of voice issues that I saw frequently in the slush pile and that almost always led to a rejection letter. One is the excessively whiny or angsty first-person voice. It’s okay for your protagonist to complain now and then about the lousy hand fate has dealt him, or for your teen character to be a little antisocial thanks to pressure at home and school. Just be careful not to take it too far; readers don’t enjoy being hit with a wall of negativity in fiction, any more than in real life, and they also don’t want to feel like a stand-in for the character’s therapist. As mentioned in #2, if you are deliberately creating a protagonist that is difficult or prickly, make sure you show a glimpse of how she came to be this way, so that readers can sympathize. Then still go ahead and turn down the angst a notch. : )
Another major turn-off is “the rambler.” It’s a voice that constantly veers into musing, ruminating or philosophizing, at the expense of plot movement. If a story spends most of its time trapped in the protagonist’s head, you’ll lose readers fast. Keep characters’ thoughts and observations relevant and balance them with plenty of outside action.
By avoiding these three potential problems, you’ll be on your way to creating the kinds of characters readers want to spend an entire novel or series with—and that’s a giant leap forward for your novel.