Deepest Fears, Uncategorized, Writing Inspiration

Whaddya Mean You Don’t Like My Protagonist?!

playground 1

I first posted this over a year ago, before most of you had joined me here. It seemed worth a revisit, in hopes that the little writing lessons I have learned (sometimes the hard way!) will be useful.  -Anne

Playgrounds are difficult. Supervising three children on our morning excursions leaves me longing for my afternoon coffee.

My eldest is an organizer. Last week she had half a dozen kids using the wood chips that covered the ground as ‘ice cream’ in a makeshift shop, which they ‘sold’ to other children, stashing other wood chips in a hole in the playset for a bank… it was elaborate.

My middle child has followed his big sister around for years, allowing her to run the games. That era seems to be ending. He will still go along, when he wants to, but he is also beginning to assert his independence. He spent most of that day trying to time out a run up the slide between other children sliding down.

My youngest just wants to play. She wanders and dreams and I try to steer her away from wandering too close to the swings, again.

I…I try not to hover. I keep a sharp lookout that they are all safe, but I try not to worry about the bumps and bruises, the dirty faces and the woodchips in their hair and whether the other children like them.

‘Try’ is the key word. How can I love my little crazies so much and not worry about them?

I feel some of the same anxieties for the characters in my stories.

After all, I have given them life, in a way. I’d like them to be happy in the little world I’ve made for them, able to muddle through their story and hopefully come out better for the journey.

The trouble is, like my children, these fictional people don’t live in isolation. They need to be able to play well with others,  but in their case, the others aren’t their peers. They are their readers.

No one wants their kid to be ‘that kid,’ the one left on the sidelines, the one desperate to be liked but forever lonely.

No author wants their creation to be ‘that character,’ the one readers write off as cliché or predictable or unlikeable.

However, my protagonists didn’t exactly come out of their first exposure to professional readers looking like the popular kids. My feedback from the Athanatos writing contest pointed out a number of weak points.

Please, don’t write this type of character- it’s overused.

She’s too sweet.

Avoid using this name- we see it all of the time.

And so on.

The critiques were kindly given, and meant to be helpful. Still, my first instinct was “Mama Bear.”

mama bear

WHAT? Oh yeah? Well YOU don’t know them! And I deliberately tried not to write her that way- GRRRRRAAAA!

When calm returned, I skimmed through my draft. Ok, some of the criticisms fit, maybe, but there were reasons why the characters acted that way…


There was the problem.

I knew my characters backwards and forwards.

My readers didn’t.

I needed to do a better job of portraying my protagonists. Their motivations needed to be clear if they had any hope of being likeable. With a goal in mind, I got to work.

“Likeability” Can’t Be Forced

From childhood experience, I knew that if my characters seemed overeager to be liked, they would probably fail. (I mean, how can you NOT like him? Look, he speaks in poetry, saves puppies, volunteers every weekend, everyone in the BOOK likes him, you HAVE TO LIKE HIM!!!!!) Like the ‘cool kids’ on the playground, they’d need to come by it naturally.

But, What Do They DO?

If you’ve written at all, you’ve surely heard the advice, ‘show, don’t tell.’ I searched out any places in the books where I said nice things about the character. If they made sense to the story, I kept them, but otherwise they were chopped. I searched out scenes where the characters showed admirable qualities, and strengthened them.

Flaws are Good.

No one likes a show off. I knew that my characters had flaws, and that these flaws drove them. My female protagonist is so overeager to maintain good relationships with her remaining family that she bends over backwards and sacrifices happiness to keep the peace, and inadvertently puts herself and others in danger. My male protagonist is so hyper-responsible that he almost gets himself killed because he can’t handle the guilt of someone else being hurt on his watch. Re-reading, I realized that I hadn’t shown the darker sides of these traits, and as a result they both just came off as ‘goody-two-shoes.’


I wrote and rewrote, trying to give my paper people room to breathe, to be flawed, to interact with others in organic ways.  Several drafts later, I hope that I am closer to realizing that goal!

A good character needs a balance of positive qualities and flaws, of personality quirks and inane normalcy to live and breathe and become more than just flat words on a page. They need these things, this attention to background to become likeable- more than that, to become relatable for their readers.

Writers- what tricks do you use to make your characters likeable? (Or at least interesting- whether a character needs to be likeable is another topic 🙂 )

Readers- what stands out about the story characters you love?





19 thoughts on “Whaddya Mean You Don’t Like My Protagonist?!”

  1. I really enjoyed this post Anne and have referred to it in my own blog. Although my own book (which I am working on) is non-fiction, using letters written by a ‘real’ man, the principles are the same. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was so perfectly worded! Thank you for sharing. These problems that you’ve described are issues I’ve found in some of the books I’ve read, but I’ve had a tough time describing the issue. I think for me, it’s a pet-peeve of mine to hear a character or narrator constantly praising another character. I know I’ve done it in my own writing, but I try to keep it slim. It is something that jumps out at me when I’m reading, so I appreciate your tips on cleaning that up.
    I like to use my character’s strength against them. I tend to do this a lot with my heroes. For example, I might have a man who is extremely honorable so I’ll put him in the position where he’s honor-bound to do the very thing he least wants to do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yes, a constantly-praised character who doesn’t give evidence of deserving it wears thin quickly 😉 Thanks for sharing your technique- using your character’s strengths against them sounds excellent! (Though I imagine it drives your characters crazy 😉 )

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating and well conceived both from the point of reader and writer. I need to muddle on this one for a bit. It should be an easy answer — what do I like to see in a character. But as I sit here, it’s harder than I think! You offer some wonderful tricks/observations to consider… pondering.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! So much of it (at least for me) is just a gut reaction- it’s hard to quantify just what I like about characters, or dislike. I’m trying analyze better so that I can write better 😉


    1. Having met them, I can safely say that your characters live and breathe, sweat and bleed and laugh and are more like meeting some new people than reading pages. Now, would I like to have them all over for coffee? Probably not (esp. since I like keeping my heart in my chest) but they make fascinating reading! Hang in there!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Well, who are the most interesting characters in the literature you love best? Why are they? I don’t write fiction, and am constantly amazed when I read authors who can create really rich, complex and completely believable characters. When I was reading Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, I found myself praying for one of the characters, she was so “real”!

    Rebecca West in her Aubrey Trilogy does a great job. And my most recent favorite example of outstanding characters is Middlemarch by Eliot. These authors show you the most through dialogue, that of the particular character with others but also what other people say when he is not around. It’s like eavesdropping on the family or village.

    This ability to write revealing dialogue must require a skilled ear for hearing and remembering how people really talk. Oh, and then, there is the dialogue within the mind of the character! Eliot is wonderful at that, and also Von Arnim in The Enchanted April, where she gives voice to thoughts and feelings that often are confused and unhelpful to the thinker herself, but when the author puts them on the page they create sympathy with the character as a fellow complicated human.

    Forgive my rambling — you really made me think about this question, and it’s hard to stop!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I enjoy hearing your thoughts! You made excellent points, and I agree that it’s the depth and complexity of great characters that make them resonate. I’m impressed when an author manages to write a character that I don’t particularly like, but still can’t help caring about because they’re so real. Middlemarch is a wonderful example- the flaws that Elliot wrote made her cast seem more like flesh and blood than characters on a page.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Elizabeth Goudge creates characters whom she makes you love even if you don’t like them, but she doesn’t seem to have this ability with dialogue, so she tells you herself most of what there is to know about them, and I get tired of that.

        It was interesting to me in Middlemarch that some truly unlikable characters like Mr. Casaubon received the author’s help in explaining them directly, giving background as to why they were seemingly unable to develop. I guess that is a bit of realism, that not everyone learns their lessons!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hmm, I could see that being tedious. I love getting to “know” a great character through dialogue too. Of course with Mr. Casaubon it wouldn’t have shown his internal struggles since he couldn’t have expressed them, but I’m glad she shared the “why” of who he was (even if he never grew past it)

        Liked by 1 person

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