Monday, May 18, 2015

How do I make sure my book has the right kind of main character?

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Birch House Press). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

(This post is part of the Writing A Novel From Beginning to End series. You can find other posts from this series on the Looking For Something Specific? tab.)

Once I've written a chapter or two of my book and decided it's an idea I want to pursue, it's time for me to give some deeper thought to the people who will populate this world. Today we'll focus on the main character, and next week I'll talk about the supporting cast.

I believe there's nothing more important to a story than the characters. Perhaps that's my bias showing (my story ideas tend to come to me in the form of "This type of person is in a certain situation, and I need to get her out.") but I can't think of a story that I loveor even likethat doesn't have strong characters.



For example, there's never been a time where I've said, "I loved the book, but I didn't really like any of the characters." But there have been lots of times that I've said, "The concept was really good, but I didn't enjoy it because I didn't like any of the characters."

This doesn't necessarily mean your character has to be likable in the traditional sense. I've been watching Mad Men for a number of years, and I still can't decide what I really think about Don Draper. Readers often want to spend time with a character they like, yes, but I don't think it's enough to make your main character likable. I think it's much more important that they're interesting.

So when I'm thinking about my main character, the question I first ask is:

What is it that makes this character interesting? And how will I get that on the page?

There's no one answer for what makes a character interesting. Sherlock Holmes is interesting because he sees things normal people don't. Harry Potter is interesting because he's been dropped in a world he doesn't understand, and is told he has powers that he doesn't understand either. Katarina Bishop from Ally Carter's Heist Society is interesting because at fifteen, she's a retired thief.

But what about a story that doesn't have such a high concept plot?

In my favorite Sarah Dessen book, This Lullaby, Remy interested me because as a teen she was planning her mother's wedding, and because she had a bold way of talking. In Eleanor and Park, Eleanor interested me because she had a quiet strength that was evident from page one, and because it's clear her life is falling apart around her.

Sometimes characters are interesting simply because they say things in a way we wouldn't think to or they approach a situation differently than the average person might.

Another thing that can make characters interesting to us is to see them doing something very well. We love that in a character. The opening scene of Cars shows us Lightning McQueen racing in a very bold way his rookie season. Something about seeing a character excel appeals to readers and viewers.

Make it your own: Pull out the first scene of your book. What kind of situation do we first see your character in? What's interesting about the way they're behaving? What is it about them that you hope will draw in the reader?

What does this character lack?

If I'm going to drag my main character through a horrible ordeal, I'm of the opinion that they need to come out on the other end fulfilled in some way. Not without their scars, of course, but I want them to have a new purpose or deeper understanding or something of value.

The way to make sure you accomplish this, of course, is to make them lack something at the beginning of your story. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry lacks a sense of belonging. Katniss from The Hunger Games lacks freedom and hope of a good life. In Frozen, Anna and Elsa lack meaningful relationships. Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity lacks knowledgehe has no clue who he is.

Make it your own: What does your character need that they won't have until they go through their journey? How do you show that in the opening?

How is this character wounded?

Harry Potter is an orphan. Katniss lost her father unexpectedly. Anna and Elsa are kept from each other; Anna doesn't know why, and though Elsa does, the knowledge only fills her with fear. Jason Bourne doesn't know yet how he's wounded, but he suspects that when he figures out who he is and what he's done, he's not going to like it.

These characters are all shaped by these wounds, and they impact the choices they make throughout the story. Many times, the climax of the story involves them overcoming doubts and insecurities that these wounds have left them with.

Make it your own: What wound does your character have, and how do you reveal it?

How is this character strong?

If Harry Potter had just moped about the Dursley's feeling sorry for his orphaned self, we would have closed the book at chapter two and never thought of him again. Even though it's effective to have a main character who's been wounded in some way, readers don't want a character who wallows, do they? Katniss is strong in how she provides for her family. Anna is strong in how she continues to love her sister deeply despite all the barriers between them. Bourne is strong in that he's relentless in his search for who he is, despite also fearing the answer.

Make it your own: How is your character strong, and how do you show that in the first chapter?

I'd love to hear about your main characters! Pick one (or more) of the questions above and answer in the comments below.

47 comments:

  1. My MC is Dorlin Hull, and he's...interesting. Well, to me, at least. Dorlin was born to an elf and human, and his birth ended centuries of war between the two races. My villain did not like that, because it created a hole in his plan to master the space-time continuum and reach Asgard. So he burned down Dorlin's home, and his parents with it.
    What he didn't know was that those two parents were very powerful Flameweavers (legendary peacekeepers), and while they could not survive the flames, Dorlin did so easily. Astonished, and very very worried, my villain who by now had seized power of the human kingdom and become the Emperor, took him in as his apprentice, and told his that it was the elves who killed his parents. Dorlin went on to become a skilled assassin, dealing "vengeance" to the elves in form of planned assassinations. But when he came of age, something terrifying happened--fire started popping up in his hands, fire that could be used as a weapon but also came with a lot of pain. This normal for Flameweavers, but he did not know because no Flameweaver was left alive to tell him--almost all were killed by the Emperor. This was also serious, because Dorlin had a morbid fear of fire. This is where the story opens. Dorlin is on a mission, when he is ambushed by a rival who has come back from the dead. Eventually Dorlin discovers the Emperor's plot, with the help of some comrades-in-arms and later mentors, and claims his destiny. It also wraps up the internal conflict nicely--Dorlin has a sort of family at the end, and he is no longer a servant, of his fears and the Emperor. Originally, I wanted to make him the "Chosen One", but since that's so terribly cliche, I instead simply made his powerful and scared, and as he was the last healthy Flameweaver alive, everything fell to him. Nothing was prophesied, it simply happened that way. Sorry for the long comment. Cool post!

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    1. Furthermore, my MC lacks a sense of trust, because nobody has ever trusted him. He also is strong, because while he fears fire and his master, he still does the right things because revenge (or what he thinks is revenge) has left him sort of hollow, and thus he wishes justice for others the same way he seeks it for his dead parents. So even though he is cold, sadistic, and comfortable-ish with killing, he only kills the ones who in his mind deserve it. Am I making any sense, or am I just ranting?

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    2. A little of both:) Ranting is good.

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    3. That sounds really interesting! Very creative!

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  2. Ooh! What does the character lack? is one I've never heard before. I'll have to think about that one.
    My MC is wounded because he had to drop out of highschool to provide for his family after his disabled father lost his one secure job. My MC's willing, because he loves his family, but the stigma and disadvantage of being a highschool drop-out hurts.

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  3. My story's actually kind of different-- it doesn't really have one main character, as there is a group that is together through virtually the whole thing. However, the story ends up revolving around two of these people in particular, so they sort of become the main characters out of that group. I'll just pick one of those-- Ray Scott.

    You could say Ray lacks an inner peace with himself because he has a huge secret that he has kept from his closest friend for years, and that really bothers him. He wants so badly to tell the truth, but he's afraid she'll be angry with him for keeping it from her for so long. He has other friends that he is growing closer to, but he has known Georgie for most of his life and he feels he is cheating her by not being honest with her by trusting her with a very drastic secret. He just can't find the courage to DO it.

    He is strong because despite this inner war with himself, he is a good, dependable friend with a caring spirit, and he has a strong desire to fight for the good of the world, even if that means putting himself in danger. He's excellent for the monumental task he is assigned in this story.

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    1. You can have multiple POVs and MCs. It's harder to pull off, but done right it can make the story stronger. I have five first person POV in my WIP, and I love large casts.

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  4. At the opening of my story, my MC, Kate, has lost her best friend. As a result, she feels lonely and lost. Then when she discovers her gift for magic, Kate realizes her best friend wouldn't have wanted her to mope around--she would've wanted Kate to be strong and do the right thing. Thanks for the post, Mrs. Morrill!

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    1. Sounds really cool! That bit about the magic, especially, sounds quite intriguing. :)


      Alexa
      thessalexa.blogspot.com
      verbositybookreviews.wordpress.com

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    2. Thank you, Alexa!

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  5. My MC is definitely wounded. Lissaer Jianca (or when undercover, Scarlett Kielglass) is wounded because in her home city, she was constantly bullied, and abused for not being physically strong enough and a 'real woman.' In the first chapter, Lissaer is betrayed into an illegal gambling ring. Self-confidence is something she really lacks. However, she pulls through with her inner strength and extreme intelligence, and never, ever, pushes aside her morals. Great post, thanks for the tips!

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    1. Undercover? Is she a spy then?
      And she sounds cool! Quite well-developed.


      Alexa
      thessalexa.blogspot.com
      verbositybookreviews.wordpress.com

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    2. Thank you! Yes she is a spy, of sorts. The reveal of her true reasons for being in a different country is my plot twist, so I don't want to completely spoil everything. ;)

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  6. This was really helpful :) I'm still working out a lot about my MC, Gwen, but she's interesting in that she's created several fake personalities for herself for a variety of reasons, and only one person who's still alive has ever seen her as who she really is.

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  7. LOVE this, perfect timing. I especially like the questions that you've posed, particularly that of "what does the character lack". I feel like so many stories fall flat because either a) the character is perfect or b) it isn't clear what exactly the character lacks.

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  8. Honestly, sometimes I forget to consciously make my characters interesting. I like reading books about ordinary people in not-so-ordinary situations, or at least, different from my kind of ordinary. So I guess that kind of spilled over into my writing. But the thing is, I think as my characters develop personalities of my own, they become interesting. They're not special in obvious, you-could-never-ever-be-this ways. The MC of my novel that's...still somewhere between sci-fi and fantasy is just a normal girl taking care of her family after her father's death. I find her interesting because of how she chooses to react to things and just what makes her who she is--the same ways I find my friends interesting. She is unique in a way that's tied to the plot (kind of hard to explain concisely) but that doesn't come up until halfway through the sequel, so it's not the main focus, if that makes sense. :)

    Good points! I'm loving this series already.

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  9. Ah, thank you for this post. My MC almost always fails these "likable MC" posts, which is especially amusing as every single person who reads his novel(s) tells me that he is their favorite part of the story. (Maybe the novel is just /that bad/... ;)) However, I was happily surprised to be able to answer almost all of these questions.

    I think the most fitting one for Pitch (the MC) is the one about what he lacked. In the opening, he's mostly just interested in figuring out his past and saving his own skin. By the end of the story, though, he is completely willing to give his own life for the young girl he's committed to protecting. The selflessness that he acquires over the course of the novel is likely my own favorite character thread.

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    1. LOL! I have had trouble with the likable MC. The likable MC posts aren't rules set in stone, if readers like him you're doing something right:)

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  10. I'm writing a book with multiple MCs, so posts like this are always helpful:) My favorite MC is the only criminal in a futuristic society. He could easily slip into the misunderstood character with a demented past, but instead he is the most optimistic and social character out there. Contrasting his dark killer nature is his love for kids and animals.

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    1. "Contrasting his dark killer nature is his love for kids and animals." He sounds awesome!


      Alexa
      thessalexa.blogspot.com
      verbositybookreviews.wordpress.com

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  11. Thanks for the awesome post! My character lacks friendship, and her only hope of truly living is distant. She also has a frustrating condition where she has to steal, or she'll die. Wanted for just being alive, she is unable to ask for help, beg, or show her face.

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    1. Steal or die? Sounds intriguing. Is it like an actual disease?


      Alexa
      thessalexa.blogspot.com
      verbositybookreviews.wordpress.com

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    2. Seriously? And I thought my characters had problems...sounds like it would make a great book! I hope I get to read it someday!

      Ellie
      http://thespellboundreader.blogspot.com

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    3. @Leo: sounds super cool. And I agree with Ellie, great book premise!

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  12. My MC, Faith Adrianna Ray, is interesting because she sees the world through different eyes.
    She lacks love and courage. (She lacks feeling loved, she is an overall loving person.)
    She is wounded by her realization that in a time of need when she has the chance to call a friend there is no one to call. She is strong because she sees the world as a beautiful and odd thing even when she is miserable and has no reason to be hopeful and optimistic.

    Thank you for writing such a great post!

    Keep on writing!
    God bless!
    -Megan

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    1. Oh she sounds sweet! I especially like characters who see the world through different eyes. Getting a new view on life makes the entire story that much more fascinating.


      Alexa
      thessalexa.blogspot.com
      verbositybookreviews.wordpress.com

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  13. Hi
    I've been reading this blog for a while, and this mightbe the second time I've posted. I'm commenting because I have strong, and I've found out, unusual opinions about likable heros. For me, what makes a hero likable is a strong morale compass, especially when they might not have one because of the circumstances. I tend to get annoyed by characters who make stupid decisions (even if this is their flaw, or is related to it).I don't really care to much if the character is perfect (this I know for certain, Vision from the newest marvel movie is a good example). I know this is not a good writer's opinion, (I don't write much anyway) but this is how I feel.
    Rebecca

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  14. My MC, April, is a rebel right from page one. The fact that she's still trying to fight back after two years of watching her life fall apart, and her fiercely loyal nature, set her apart from an average person. And she's also hiding a secret that has the potential to change the fate of the world. So yeah, you could say she's interesting.

    She's lacking freedom, and the ability to choose for herself. Her life has been torn apart, and there's nothing she can do about it. And she also lacks the ability to see when something's hopeless. Stubborn fool.

    She's been wounded by her parents' death--even though they didn't actually die, she doesn't know that yet, and at the start of the book, we see how she's built up a sort of mental shell, refusing to show just how much her screwy life has affected her.

    And as for strength, her determination and loyalty are at the core of who she is, and both qualities show in the opening paragraph, tied in closely to that rebellious streak. Life hasn't exactly been kind to April, but she's determined to make that change.

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    1. Wow, you show her strength in the opening paragraph? Cool. She sounds like a lot of fun, a very strong, determined, resilient heroine. One I could admire, and happily follow to the end of a book. :)


      Alexa
      thessalexa.blogspot.com
      verbositybookreviews.wordpress.com

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    2. Thanks! :-) She has definitely been the most fun of all the characters I've worked with in the past.. I get so frustrated with characters who just let things happen and don't try to make them change, or ones who seem to need someone holding their hand all the time, so April is kind of like my response to all those pathetic heroines.

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    3. Haha, I understand that. Like she said in the post, strong charries are more fun to read about.

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  15. I have quite a few MCs from various manuscripts, but I'll just talk about Elliot because he's my first. Elliot is interesting because he's a very intricate character: there are so many layers to him that he hides, even from himself. It's like, you think you know him, but then he throws a curveball and suddenly everything he does makes more sense, as you slowly understand his life and motivations. At least, I hope that's the readers' reaction, lol.

    Oh goodness. Sweetie lacks so many things. At the heart of his story, Elliot needs to learn to trust: God, himself, and the people who love him.

    He's a foster kid, but he's also spent a lot of years wounding himself by holding his past pain close to his heart and burying it underneath all those layers, til he hardly even knew it was there. He never really let it heal.

    He has a very unique strength, I think. Because, on the one hand, he doesn't think he has much worth, but on the other, he accepts it as a simple fact and that fact doesn't stop him from living. He sets a ceiling on what he can reach, but still kind of goes for that ceiling. He's also very loyal once he decides to care about someone, and he has a rather sacrificial love, willing to do anything for his family and friends. As long as it's best for them, it doesn't matter what happens to him.


    Alexa
    thessalexa.blogspot.com
    verbositybookreviews.wordpress.com

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    1. This sounds like a character I would love. The idea of him having layers that even he doesn't realize is brilliant! My family fostered for a time and I can really sympathize with what he might be facing.

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    2. I love the name Elliot.

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  16. Ace is interesting because he's got everything on the outside, but feels unfulfilled on the inside and can't get the girl he likes to like him back against his logic. Plus, he's unusually skilled in magic. He lacks understanding of what it truly is that makes someone valuable. He is wounded because he is feeling trapped by the sky-high expectations placed on him, despite his meeting all of them so far. He is strong because he doesn't crumple under pressure - he keeps going and keeps excelling.
    Mara is interesting because she is Destined to kill someone, but is fighting the idea that she will and is living in denial of what everyone in the world says. She lacks basic acceptance and encouragement from the masses. She is wounded in that no one, save one person, shows that they believe she can deny her Destiny and reach the end of her life without having fulfilled it. She is strong is that she continually pulls herself above the criticism and nay-saying and plows forward, belief in herself renewed.

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  17. Hi!
    Sorry this is so late!

    My MC, Atarah, really lacks a sense of self-worth. She believes all she is useful for is the life of a strolling minstrel, nothing more.

    She is wounded because 1) she was orphaned at a young age, and 2) her "guardian" only kept her for the profit she brought him.

    But Atarah is strong, because she knows that her life is in Jireh's hands, and he won't let her die until her task is done.
    She has another strength, but I can't quite pinpoint it...

    What do you think?

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  18. So, I have a question about this. MC has gone through a lot of revision over the years, but one thing that's always stuck, and has worried me a tad is that he's... not likable, I guess. He's grumpy, stubborn, and rather close-minded for quite a while. I'm afraid that will turn off readers, even though he still has plenty of depth to him. Do I tone him down, or find a way to make his coldness likable?

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    1. I have the same problem. My character is mean and self centered but goes through a big change at the end. What should I do?

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