Thursday, February 4, 2010

What makes a good Main Character?

I talked last Thursday about what makes a book good. One of the first things I listed was a main character I can root for. Let’s talk a bit about what that does and does not mean.

There are two types of main characters:

An ordinary character to whom the extraordinary happens (think Jim Halpert from The Office ... and we can debate at a later date if he's truly the MC), or a character who’s already a hero (think Jack Bauer).

One of the mistakes I see new writers make (and something I also did early on) is making their main characters pretty much perfect. They have a zinger for everything, everyone around them thinks they’re fabulous (except the antagonist, who’s a total loser anyway), and they adapt easily to changes in their life. No one wants to read about perfect characters. Perfect characters are flat and boring. Give your characters flaws. And if you’ve got the “hero” variety of main character, be sure to give them something “human.” A weakness, a bad habit, etc.

Something I’ve recently started doing, which is a technique I learned from the fabulous Susan May Warren and Rachel Hauck, is finding a lie for my character to believe about him or herself. Like in the manuscript I’m working on now, Anna believes there’s nothing special about her. She’ll spend the rest of the book believing this, until toward the end when someone (haven’t quite worked out who yet…) will teach her about what makes her special.

So if your main character is falling a little flat, first make sure you’ve given them some flaws. If you have, try giving them a lie to believe about themselves/the world around them and see what that does for your story.

Questions? Shoot me an e-mail and we'll talk about it.


  1. I remember in the first book I ended up finishing, I realized my character needed flaws, so I literally sat down with a notebook and made a list with two columns. "Brook's Virtues" and "Brook's Flaws." I kept it handy during rewrites so I could be sure I kept bringing them up, LOL.

  2. Thankyou, Stephanie! I think I pretty much have a perfect main character;)

    Rosemary -- ooh, may I steal your idea with the notebook??? :)


  3. I think the "perfect character" thing is so common because we want them to be likeable. It's a pretty easy fix, Emii!

  4. Good job, Stephanie. I'll try to mention your blog on Facebook again. :)

  5. This post is so true and right-on! It's nice to root for characters to realize, like Anna, that they ARE special. In a novel I wrote in November 2010, my main character didn't believe in having faith because so much was going bad for her (and she also had a big temper). I think that somehow made her more likeable, and in the end of the book, she finds faith. So I think it IS good to have flaws.

  6. I'm 14 and am currently writing a book. So far, it's going pretty good... except for something that is kinda bothering me. I have the main character and the secondary character talking for the first time and I want them both to be likeable. The problem with that is I can't get the secondary character to seem like he doesn't like the main character without making him seem to mean, thus having the reader begin to dislike him. Also, I'm trying to get it to where their friendship starts growing and they eventually end up getting along well. The thing that gets me there is that it's kind of hard without making any sudden... I guess you could call them "jumps". Any suggestions? Also the title's name is Ace just in case you guys are wondering :P

  7. Hmm.

    Well, my advice would be, especially if this is a first draft, to not worry so much about what the reader will be thinking/feeling. It's critical that they bond with your main character ... but they don't need to like everyone all the time.

    If you're wanting their friendship to grow more organically, I have a couple suggestions:

    1. Think about the people in your life with whom you're friends. How did your friendships grow? This is especially helpful if you have friends who you didn't like at first. Try applying your life experience.

    2. Force your characters to spend time together doing something they both enjoy.

    3. Find some reason they HAVE to work together. Maybe helping someone else, or working on a project together.

    4. If there's an issue they disagree about, think about a way that you can have one of them grow to understand the other's position. Like if one of them believes that we control our own destiny and the other believes that's stupid, that we have very little control over our lives, how can you find a way to make them understand the other's point of view?

    Like maybe the one who believes we're in control is struck with a rare form of cancer. And maybe the one who thinks we have no control has to make a life-altering choice.

    When they begin to understand the other's POV about issues, it makes it easier for them to bond.