What makes a main character, or protagonist, successful in a story? What tendencies should the writer avoid? This is a huge topic, so I will just suggest some elements I look for in a great protagonist, by highlighting some of my pet hates.
Pet hate #1: The ‘Flawed’ Heroine. (Or Hero). This is like that question in job interviews where they ask you about your greatest weakness. “Oh, my weakness is my perfectionism. Or my punctuality. Or the way I just can’t rest until I’ve done great work!” What a suckup. The boss can see right through you, you idiot.
Heroines in a lot of novels I’ve read (or started) have this kind of ‘flaw’. She’s stunningly beautiful but clumsy, or has no dress sense, or (I actually read a book like this) is terribly self-conscious about her magnificent bosom. This makes me grind my teeth. These flaws feel bolted on and, like crippling workaholism, are not really flaws at all in the eyes of the management/the love interest.
I like flaws that have an impact on a character’s life. Hilariously bumping into the Love Interest and making him drop his Mysterious Book – it feels so lame. I notice, too, that most of these flaws disappear after a single session of remedial training with a Gay Confidante, or a makeover with a Quirky New Friend. (These side characters are also waaaayyy overused, but at least I like them.)
A real flaw – something the protagonist must work to overcome – will be one that both offers a perceived benefit to the character BUT is holding them back. Say, fear of flying – it seems to offer safety BUT it is preventing career progression, contact with distant loved ones, adventure of a lifetime, et cetera. Or how about selfishness – it seems to offer material security, BUT never sharing means loss of meaningful human relations.
These flaws would have an impact on every aspect of the protagonist’s life. The reason for a flaw is where you’ll find the juicy stuff. Mr Darcy was all moody and sneering because he’d been pursued by gold-diggers all his life, as had his vulnerable younger sister. Disdain brought him safety from grasping social climbers, BUT it held him back from finding happiness.
Phobias are authoring gold, as I have previously mentioned. Check out this list of phobias to see how many things we might be afraid of. (Note: make sure you don’t fix your MC’s phobia with a shake of fairy dust. Phobias are gold because they offer big, challenging problems for a character to overcome. Be wary of trivialising a phobia. Understand why your character has this problem, how it helps them, how it’s holding them back.)
I think this formulaic insistence on a flaw in main characters stems from romance and action novels where otherwise the lead would be unbearably perfect. Good looks, youth, capability, professional respect – I loathe them already. But sticking on ‘clumsiness’ doesn’t instantly add depth, unless the author has fully imagined how such a flaw could affect the character’s existence.
You should also consider how the flaw is tied to the story’s final goal: how would the heroine’s innate clumsiness or giant bosom impact the thrilling climactic scene? I guess clumsiness could work. Either the heroine catches the MacGuffin at the end, overcoming her flaw (lame!) or drops it, but uses one of her many other skills to save the day (better). Just thinking about scenarios for the giant bosom one makes me cringe. We need a 38GG woman to land this plane or we’re all going to die! Right.
Pet hate #2: Completely unlikeable hero (or heroine). Ugh. A character known only by his surname stamps about gruffly executing people and showing off his giant expertise with minutely-described weapons. Occasionally, this person will encounter a beautiful woman and ‘bed’ her. Nothing makes Surname laugh, or cry, but he’s very good in bed. At the end of the story, Surname is exactly the same as when he started, but has fired a lot of specific guns and displayed a lot of brutality. He has no redeeming features – almost, no features. He doesn’t dream or feel or appear to be related to his backstory. Ugh.
I see this the most in science fiction. Soooo much tech, soooo little characterisation. I really don’t think that because we are In Space, we’re going to lose our personalities. As if to prove this, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars books are brilliant at showing all our human troubles, transferred to a dangerous new environment. His characters are lively, and passionate about their beliefs. They are relatable. He shows Russians and Chinese and Israelis all not getting along – and that seems highly plausible to me, even In Space.
I think this Unlikeable Hero trait is the unintended result of a long tradition of beloved action heroes. And sure – sometimes I think we all yearn for a simple hero who does his (or her) duty and doesn’t get all emotional about it. Biggles doesn’t chat about his feelings while shooting the Hun out of the sky. Hornblower is rigidly attached to the Navy even thought it regularly almost kills him. But both these heroes are likeable. They have friends, they try to do good, they have a sense of humour. Even Jason Statham in full Transporter mode is likeable – his character is a guy trying to do a brutal job, but his conscience battles his obligations in a way that even he admits can be funny.
The current most popular hero is Jack Reacher, created by Lee Child. I love Jack Reacher. He’s gruff, known mostly by his surname, can be extremely violent and use highly technical weapons, and he gets the girl every single time. But he’s so likeable. He has a strong conscience – like Biggles and Hornblower. He has a dry sense of humour. He can make friends and fall in love. And even though some things make him angry enough to seek vengeance, he seems at heart to be a decent guy. These are the elements I miss in some of that hard SF and gritty thriller writing.
Those are my top two dislikes in a main character. Do you agree? What are yours? Let me know in the comments!
I’ll be back tomorrow with O. I know that’s out of alphabetical order, but there’s a reason for it, I promise.
N will appear on Wednesday.