Monday, September 19, 2011

We Have To Like Your Characters

I don't care how good the storyline is, if the characters in your story are people we don't like, then your story is dead in the water immediately.

I think that too often, there are writers out there that know where their story is going to. They know how things will turn out in the end of the story and, we as readers, will come to like the ending. With that said, however, if we don't have a "buy in" from the very beginning of the story, we won't want to wait around until that happy ending shows up.

I have been reading a lot of submissions lately that are really making some efforts to find issues and characters that people may have steered clear from in the past. I applaud these authors. In a way, they are trying to carve a new niche in the market. The problem, however, is that the things the character does in the beginning - the way they behave, and the things they say - become huge roadblocks for that real story to be told.

Now maybe your goal is to tell a redemption story. The character has made some mistakes in the past and we want to see the change. That approach is fine and I don't want you to throw the idea out. But, with that said, you have to somehow show the reader there is a glimmer of something good hidden inside. The other characters might not see it, but the reader has to see part of it. Even if the person is really bad.

I think the best thing to consider here is the idea of first impressions. What you show to the reader in the very beginning sets the tone for everything. If, for example, the first image we see of your hero is someone who is a male chauvenist and a punk, how can you expect us to see him in any other way? If we see the characters acting in immoral or illegal acts, then this is how we see them.

Where I have seen this more often than not has been when writers try to show us a flashback for either a prologue or chapter 1. They felt there was a need to see what happened in their past for us to understand them now. Yes, we need to know this, but that sequence you just showed us cast a bad light on them.

Simply think of what you want us to know about your characters. How do you want us to see your characters? Make that your first image for the readers.



  1. This post makes a lot of sense. We should present our characters to the readers through an image that can portray who they are. This will be really important for me to think about durign revisions. Thanks so much for the great advice.

  2. Great advice, Scott -- thanks for sharing. I'm having a bit of a hurdle with my male protag, because some beta readers perceive him as (too) pushy, too domineering. I'm struggling to balance that negative perception with his carefree, maybe -- yes -- a bit self-centered, inner self. Thanks for pointing out what needs to be done :)

  3. I had this exact problem with a character that was trying to turn his life around. Instead of showing his growth, I had concentrated on his weaknesses. No one liked him. In the rewrite I emphasized his goals and how hard he was working toward him. My readers felt the change made a big difference.

  4. True: I'm not going to stick around for 80k words if I don't like the characters, or at least find them interesting.

  5. Great post. Thanks.

    It's very timely too. I'm just in the planning stages for my next project and I have a character who becomes more likeable as the story progresses. I've been trying to figure out the best way of introducing her so the reader can bond with her and not be put off by her faults.

    The first impression is obviously crucial. Thanks for making me think about it.

  6. Excellent post. I have to say I avoid books that start with a flashback, or the hero/ine travelling anywhere whilst thinking about the past. That can come later, in little dribs and drabs. But an info dump at the beginning does turn me off as a reader.

  7. Excellent questions to consider, Scott, for character development. Thank you! You've given me aspects to consider for developing my story's main hero.

  8. It seems this is a common problem! I also had a critique partner say she didn't like my main character, and I thought (defensively) "That's because she's going to change into a better person by the end!" Meanwhile, I don't much like the main character in a book on CD I've been listening to this week. The only reason I've kept listening is because I saw the movie, and I already know she's going to get herself together by the end. So, now, after I finish eating crow about my own MS, I'll go back and look for ways to insert something likeable about my MC too. :-/

  9. A good example of this might be Mr. Brooks (the movie). The essence of the character is pretty darn evil (the guy's a serial killer) yet we know he wants to change. He's made a nice life for himself, complete with family, and struggles to put his psychological issues to rest. You feel almost sorry for him and cheer him on in his efforts, waiting till the end to see if he'll succeed or fail.