Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Editing Series - Creating Likable Protagonists


Today we're going to talk about creating a likable protagonist.  Now this might seem elementary.  If you want people to keep reading your book, you need them to like your main character(s), right?  Of course. 

Your main character should be someone the reader roots for.  Someone they can aspire to be.  Or someone they empathize with.  Too often we see this advice and we write someone who's just too nice.  This type of character never does anything wrong.  They're the kind of person you'd avoid at all costs in real life because they are just so annoyingly Good. 

On the other side, we can try so hard to avoid the Too Nice trap that we write a character with so many quirks/issues the reader can't connect with them. 

Characters, like people, are filled with shades of gray.  They're neither all good or all bad. 

I forgot that when I was writing. 

The fastest way to make me stop reading a book is when a character is just too perfect.  Give me Batman over Superman any day.  Han Solo and Darth Vader are sooo much more interesting than Luke.  I like characters who have issues.  Or quirks.  The anti-hero is my favorite type of character. 

So what did I do to mess up?  Well, it wasn't that I gave my characters too many quirks.  It was that I mentioned them too often.  The quirks grew until they took over the scene and dwarfed all the other issues in the book.  It made my characters too difficult to connect with.  That's Bad.

So how did I fix it?  I didn't remove the quirks, I scaled them back.  Way back.  I didn't realize this until my editor mentioned it, but by bringing up odd behaviors over and over again, I was actually diluting their impact.  So I cut some of it.  And she was right.  Now when my character's neuroses show up, they heighten the tension and my readers have more sympathy for the character. 

In addition, I used other characters to highlight my MC's good points.  For example, let's say you have a MC who is beautiful or nice or "insert good quality here", but she's so painfully insecure that she doesn't believe it.  You can have other characters remark about her appearance (or whatever), but she shakes her head and turns away.  Now the reader knows two things.  One, the character really is beautiful/nice/whatever, and two, she doesn't believe it.  Nice trick, right?

Sounds strange, but not mentioning my MC's quirks as often and having other characters highlight her good qualities worked.

So what do you do if you have the other problem?  What if you've written a character that's just sooo perfect your readers throw up a little in their mouths when they read about her?  (Okay, maybe that's pushing it...then again, maybe not.) 

Easy, you do the same thing in reverse.  Tone down their Wonderfullness.  Don't keep mentioning how beautiful she is.  Or how smart.  Mention it a time or two and then drop it. 

Play up some of her negative qualities.  Don't pretend she's perfect.  No one is.  Even Superman has clumsy Clark Kent as an alter-ego.  Think about people you know.  Think about the Best People you know.  Even they have issue/traits that are irritating. 

Have other characters talk about those problems.  Maybe your MC is beautiful but vain.  Do the same thing I mentioned above for the quirky protagonist. 

Have one character say something like, "Golly gee, MarySue is beautiful, but she sure spends a lot of time looking at herself in the mirror."  MarySue can overhear this and walk away in a huff as she pulls out a compact to make sure her mascara isn't smudged.  See?  Now you've moved from a flat, one dimensional character to a fully developed one.  (But, please use more interesting examples than this in your story!)

The trick to creating a likable protagonist is the create a relatable protagonist.  They don't have to be perfect.  They don't have to be irreparably flawed.  Your reader does have to care about that character, which means your characters need to be real.  Real people are never all good or all bad.  We're filled with quirks and contradictions and shades of gray.  Make sure your characters are too.

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