Deepest Fears, Publishing, Storytelling, Teaching Writing, Uncategorized, Writer's Life, Writing, Writing Inspiration, Writing Tips

Whaddya Mean You Don’t Like My Protagonist?!

playground 1

I’m on the verge of launching a new story, which means introducing new protagonists and hoping they “play well” together. While their personalities are different than the characters from my first book, (i.e. the characters this post was about when I wrote it a few years ago) the lessons are essentially the same. I hope you find it a worthwhile read! -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…

Ah.

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?

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

  1. I don’t write fiction but had some of these same thoughts with my “real people.” When you know and love your characters, it’s more of a problem for me not to choose all their best traits. Yes, too “goody two shoes.” I think that flaws are what make them more relatable, and for readers to care what happens to them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t thought about that aspect of things, but I imagine that it might be even harder with real people- especially when there are family members involved!
      With fictional characters you’ve got more control over their traits (well, most of the time. Sometimes they seem to just create themselves) and it’s more a matter of trying to find a good balance of traits. And if they don’t come off as someone readers love, at least there’s no one (besides the author) who’ll take it personally.
      It’s an interesting process!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting post. Having not seen earlier drafts of your first novel so its hard to know what all you changed. But I can speak as someone who reads A LOT! Granted, I mostly read non-fiction. But not entirely.
    I would say it is extremely important to me to be able to like, respect and root for the protagonists. In so much modern story telling it seems “cool” to have badly conflicted and flawed main characters, anti-heroes are all the rage. And I absolutely hate this. Nothing kills a story for me quicker than a jerk of a main character; that is far FAR worse than a “goody two shoes”. So to some extent I might suggest having your “professional” readers take a hike.
    I certainly thought your first book was a well crafted and enjoyable read. The main characters were indeed likable and easy to root for. Although again, I only saw your final draft.
    I’ll make the embarrassing confession that the majority of fiction I’ve read is actually fan fiction. The absence of a professional editor is often obvious, but quality of writing can vary from juvenile to near professional (indeed, some of my favorite writers are also published professionally). The sand box there is often different as well, the characters are trying to service or mirror previously created characters that the reader already has knowledge and opinions of. A key mark of quality is capturing a character in a way the reader will accept. It is amusing to me to see how different writers often obviously like, dislike or even understand characters very differently than I do. This can be good, or utterly ruin a story.
    Obviously with your writing you can claim to own your characters in a much more complete sense. Of course that also means you have far more responsibility for them and to them. It is interesting to me how the freedom vs the responsibility could be very different.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words!
      Funny thing- as I was drafting that first book, I’d just come off of a couple of stories with big anti-hero plot twists and characters I’d been fond of turning out eeeevil, which I found pretty irritating. It definitely influenced me to write my “goodies” good and “baddy” bad. 🙂 That being said, different stories call for different characters, and I enjoy some of the twisty ones, but I do like to have someone to root for, too!

      The post-contest critique on the book was honestly hard to read, but I DID appreciate that they made me reevaluate my choices. I made some changes, and really thought through why I kept the elements that I kept. I’m happy with the final product.
      The characters in the new book have their own set of issues to work through… I’m happy with how it all worked out story-wise. I hope readers enjoy the journey! I guess I’ll find out soon enough…

      Fan fiction is an interesting animal- it can be so fun! I haven’t read any for a while, but it is interesting seeing different people’s “takes” on the same character. It makes me think of the many many Star Wars novels that came out years ago (of which I read quite a few :)) The huge difference between the way different authors portrayed characters made for an interesting read!

      One of the scariest things is letting that ‘ownership’ of characters go- once a book is out there, they aren’t entirely mine anymore. They’re open to analysis, critique… trying not to think about that too much!

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      1. So your characters are like your kids in many ways! And I’ll let that go before you go spiraling off in a bad direction…
        The plot twist thing is obviously complex. On one hand it really is good to have a surprise at some point and “not see THAT coming”. But yeah, if in the end I don’t particularly like any of the main characters, or if I feel “tricked” into liking someone who is ultimately unworthy, it almost certainly means disappointment. And that means something I’ll never read/watch/recommend in any capacity. Well, maybe if I knew someone had terrible taste. “This book was horrible, a complete train wreck. you might like it”. That seems unlikely. No matter how bad a person’s taste I probably won’t want to fuel sales for a book or movie I hated…

        Liked by 1 person

  3. That is interesting, as an avid reader – your post made me pause to wonder why I like specific characters in books and almost always the characters I like more are inherently flawed yet trying their best and evolving as the book progresses. I also like vivid descriptions of the time, the culture and the surroundings they are in that in some way influence their evolution and the plot of the story. Great points!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad that it provoked some interesting reflection! I’d agree, I enjoy seeing characters grow throughout the story, which they can’t do unless they have those flaws. Thanks for stopping by!

      Like

  4. Great advice. We would all like our children, and our paper children, to be perfect. But life isn’t like that, besides we aren´t perfect either. Only one reviewer ever said she didn´t like my main charcter and it cut like a knife! But then I realized that we all don´t like the same things in people, do we. The most important thing is that our characters are realistic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point Darlene- I think that the imperfections in our characters allow us to “see ourselves” in their situations, and make those bonds tighter. At least hopefully, if it’s done well 🙂
      And I appreciate your reminder that tastes in personalities vary. There are plenty of fictional characters that I would NOT like to hang around, but that doesn’t mean their stories aren’t worthwhile.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This was a really interesting piece Anne. And so wise. The book I’m writing, based around a soldier’s letters to his sweetheart Betty in WW2, is non-fiction, but a professional reader commented favourably where I had interjected fact with ‘faction’, little scenarios that I imagine took place. She encouraged me to write more of them. I don’t have Betty’s letters, so sometimes I’ve ‘constructed’ a letter which reveals a bit about her character (making it clear that it’s hypothetical) and sometimes a scene using dialogue between her and her sister for example. I think dialogue can reveal a lot about a character.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Your story sounds great. You will, however, have to call it creative nonfiction if you interject some of your own ideas of what might have happened. I just read the Tattooist of Auschwitz and the author was very clear it was a work of fiction based on a true story. Otherwise you can run into legal trouble. Good luck with your story.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Thanks so much 🙂 I am so excited to read your book- the tidbits that you share on your blog are just fascinating.
      Dialogue is one of my favorite ways that authors “show” who their characters are. It’s nice that you’ve found a way to incorporate some into your family story in a way that works with your format!
      Dare I ask- do you have a goal for when you’re hoping to complete the project? (Just because I want to read it! I never really know when mine will be finished because of life and all the craziness it entails!)

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Great point JPC- relatability is so important, even in the heroic characters. I think that’s why the “superhero” genre so often creates backstories with their MCs being weak, flawed, humble etc (and I think that’s one trait that draws kids into their stories.)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I love this, Anne! I was laughing because we all feel that way about our characters. At least, most of the time. When I began writing the first of three books, I did NOT like my character. She was a pain in the neck. But after writing the story, I realized she was just like someone I know (LOL). That helped me to understand why she did the things she did.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you got a chuckle out of it, Gail! Those characters can be awfully cantankerous, can’t they? But you make a good point- when we understand the WHY of their personalities, they become easier to work with. (You’ll like the upcoming guest post by JPC Allen I think: What to do when your character becomes a problem child 🙂 )

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