(Excerpted from Captivate Your Readers)
What's the secret to engaging potential readers and compelling them to keep reading? Make them identify with, root for, and worry about your main character!
Your novel can have an intriguing premise and riveting plot, but if your lead character is bland, wimpy, ditzy, arrogant, or lacking in personality or drive, readers won’t warm up to him or care what happens to him, so they’ll put the book down. Conversely, if your protagonist is fascinating, sympathetic, and clever, but complicated, readers will be drawn to him and start worrying about him, which is exactly what you want. A worried reader is an engaged reader.
“Living, vibrating human beings are still the secret and magic formula of great and enduring fiction.” ~ Lajos Egri
Unsuccessful authors very often have written a promising story, but have neglected to develop their characters sufficiently. You should spend as much or more time creating depth for your lead character and learning about her strengths and weaknesses, her fears, secrets, regrets, hopes, motivations, needs, and desires as you do on creating an exciting plot.
As Elizabeth Lyon points out in A Writer’s Guide to Fiction, “Characterization is the bedrock of fiction and the reason most people read it. What endures in our hearts and minds over time is the heroes, heroines, and villains. Less often do we recall their plots. The fiction writer’s greatest challenge is character development.”
A big mistake newbie fiction writers make is modeling their main character too much after themselves or someone they know. Instead, to hook readers, create a fascinating lead character, one who is larger than life, more charismatic, braver, more determined, and also more troubled, with more secrets and inner conflict than the average person you know. Those attributes will make them appealing and worth following and cheering on for a whole story.
Don’t annoy your readers by making your main character:
~ Flat, superficial – a cardboard character
To avoid a one-dimensional, boring protagonist, you’ll need to create a complicated backstory for him, including his fears, regrets, insecurities, and desires, as well as his hopes, strengths, and talents. Also, give him conflicting desires.
To get to know your character’s deepest secrets, his hopes and fears, his weaknesses and regrets, and his wants versus his needs, try putting him on the psychiatrist’s couch or journaling in his voice. Write in his secret diary every day, in free, stream-of-consciousness form – just let the ideas flow. Let the character vent his frustrations uncensored. What’s his strongest desire right now? Why is he afraid he might not get it? What or who is standing in his way or frustrating him? What is he worried about? Angry about? What secret is he harboring that he hopes no one will discover? Why? Let the character vent here.
Also, in the actual story, a sure-fire way to deepen your character and your readers’ engagement is to have him react more to events. Show how he’s feeling, through his thoughts and his emotional, physical, and sensory reactions, as well as his words and actions. An emotionally flat character will leave readers cold, and they’ll start thinking about what else they should be doing.
~ Nerdy, dull – lacking in charisma or sex appeal
As James Scott Bell says in Revision and Self-Editing, your lead character should have “grit, wit, and it.” Grit is courage, determination, and resourcefulness. Wit, the ability to make the occasional witty or humorous comment, can rescue a character from maudlin self-pity or a moment from being overly sentimental or sappy. Wit also refers to cleverness, the ability to solve problems and think quickly in sticky situations. And “it,” according to Bell, means “personal magnetism – sex appeal as well as a quality that invites admiration (or envy) among others. Someone who walks into a room and draws all the attention has ‘It.’”
So be sure to make your protagonist charismatic, with lots of personality and sex appeal – and plenty of attitude.
~ Too wimpy, too whiny, too victimized
Don’t have a primary character who’s fearful about everything, who’s always reacting rather than acting, who just takes what’s dished out to her. Or one who’s victimized, who doesn’t rise to the challenge or fight back. A character who’s constantly feeling sorry for herself gets tiresome quickly, and readers will lose patience with her and put the book down.
If you want your protagonist to start as a bit of a wimp, then get stronger as the story progresses, don’t go on like that for too long. Make her gather her courage and wits and search for ways out of her predicament. In other words, she needs to be forced by circumstances to become stronger, more courageous, more resilient. No one wants to read about someone with a million different phobias or who’s wallowing in self-pity or afraid to make a move to improve her life. We need to see some grit, some resourcefulness, some fight!
As Jack M. Bickham says in his little gem, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them), “Fiction writers too often forget that interesting characters are almost always characters who are active – risk-takers – highly motivated toward a goal. Many a story has been wrecked at the outset because the writer chose to write about the wrong kind of person – a character of the type we sometimes call a wimp.”
So don’t model your hero or heroine after someone you know. They need to be stronger, braver, more resourceful and more intelligent. As Jessica Page Morrell puts it in Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, “Fictional characters venture into physical and emotional territory where most of us would fear to tread.” Readers who lead a humdrum life want to escape and vicariously live a more exciting one, through the head and heart of someone who’s not afraid to challenge herself and confront her fears head-on.
~ Cold, unfeeling, arrogant
Your main character can and should have a few inner conflicts and character flaws, but overall, she needs to be at least somewhat sympathetic and likeable – not cold or arrogant. Your reader wants to be able to identify immediately with your lead character, to start caring about her and worrying about her. If the readers don’t warm up to your protagonist and care about what happens to her within the first few pages, they’ll very likely put down the book and go on to another one. If you have a tough hero with a gruff exterior, try to show some glimmers of hope, some redeeming qualities early on. Maybe show him to be sensitive or caring in some small ways, like perhaps he rescues a dog or cat in the traffic. Robert Crais does this with his gruff, strong, silent hero, Joe Pike.
Also, don’t make your character:
~ Too perfect
A too-perfect character is insufferable. Don’t make your hero or heroine constantly cheery, selfless and giving, stunningly beautiful or handsome, super popular, or perfectly sculpted and toned – in other words, too good to be true. Perfect people are both boring and annoying. They’re boring because nothing really challenges them, so we can’t identify with them; they’re annoying because they don’t have to work for things like the rest of us – everything’s handed to them on a platter. And they’re so unrealistic we think they must be faking it. And let’s face it, we’re probably jealous of them. You want readers to identify with and bond with your protagonist, not envy them.
Nobody likes a “goody-goody two-shoes,” and unless you’re writing a story for very young children, a main character who’s always positive (a “Pollyanna”) is annoying, too. So be sure not to make your protagonist nicer, kinder, or more selfless than your average person. Give them some character flaws, some secrets, regrets, and insecurities, a weakness or two, and maybe even a phobia.
Along the same lines, don’t make your protagonist:
~ Too smart, too powerful
If your hero is ultra-smart and all-powerful, even big problems and challenges will be minor, a mere bump in the road. If he’s not sweating or stressed or in danger, readers aren’t going to worry about him. And if readers aren’t worrying about the hero or heroine of the book, they aren’t emotionally engaged. Which means they can put down the book at any time and look for one that engages them. So don’t make your character a genius or invincible. Give him some human qualities and foibles. Even Superman could be weakened by kryptonite and was vulnerable and off-guard whenever Lois Lane was threatened.
On the other hand, don’t make your character:
~ Clueless or oblivious
If your protagonist is too dumb to figure out what’s going on, to pick up on all or most of the clues, readers will feel like yelling at him or throwing the book across the room. Readers have no patience with a detective or other hero who’s dumber than they are. They expect to meet a bright, resourceful main character, one who’s worth their investment of time, one who warrants their support. If something obvious is staring your character in the face and he’s not seeing it or getting it, find a way to make that info less evident, so a smart, savvy character could realistically miss it.
Similarly, don’t make your character:
~ Ditzy, silly, or immature
Beware of airheads. They can be great for minor characters, but your hero or heroine needs to be someone readers can admire and identify with, not someone to scoff.
So when inventing your story’s protagonist, be sure to make him likeable, charismatic, and complex enough to be interesting. He should be intelligent, brave, and somewhat strong, but with emotional depth and a few flaws, secrets, and insecurities or vulnerabilities. And he needs to be able to draw on inner strengths and resources to take on adversity and overcome odds. If your main character is flat, boring, perfect, arrogant, dumb, or a wimp, readers won’t want to follow him for a whole story. They’ll lose patience and find another book to read.
And don’t make your villain 100% evil, either! He or she also needs to be multi-faceted – and intelligent, determined, and powerful – a worthy opponent for your protagonist.