How to Avoid Writing a Terrible Main Character
Be able to see things from many perspectives, not just your own.
It’s time! You’ve finally sat down to write that Great American Novel that’s been swishing around your noggin for the past decade? Great! Do it. Write it.
Anyone who has ever read anything about first drafts will have heard this general idea repeated ad infinitum: the first draft is the author telling themselves the story. Any subsequent draft should be geared towards telling your story to others (second draft is for your editor, third, fourth, fifth and onward are for your readers).
So, get rid of that shitty prologue and just start your story where the story actually starts, instead. Make sure you don’t begin your epic tale of redemption and scandal with your main character waking up from a dream, or brushing their teeth, etc. This establishes to the reader that you didn’t take the time to flesh out your main character beyond a mundane, just-barely-recognizable-as-a-person, human being.
Because if you had, you would have instead started your story with your main character panicking during a car chase. Of course, the main character is driving. The cops are on his/her tail, guns drawn- road blocks and tire puncturing devices in place- and the only escape in sight is certain death, life imprisonment… or, perhaps, to drive into the river. Death by cop, death of soul by life in prison, or river?
Perhaps this isn’t the best example, but you get the point. Start your story with a hook. A hook that shows your main character struggling with a decision that will ultimately affect their development throughout the rest of the novel.
If you start your book with an interesting scene, the reader is more likely to continue reading than if you start your book with Suzy picking a piece of lettuce from her snaggle tooth.
There’s a plethora of common mistakes I’ve seen authors make regarding character-building. Here are just a few:
1. The first few lines of the first chapter have nothing to do with the story because the author prioritized the boring shit every person does every day over actual character development.
The story begins! The main character is excitedly…looking in the mirror? This one is usually a cheap trick an inexperienced author uses to flesh out the character’s physical appearance for the reader. It’s a very low-effort way to describe what the character looks like. Worse- it’s boring as hell. The best way to write a fantastic character description would be through showing the reactions of other characters, at least in my experience. This is a more organic tactic that can be worked into the story. The character’s appearance is more of an aside than anything else. How important is it?
Well, you’ll get varying responses to that question. For me, it’s only important that I get a loose idea of what the main character looks like. I like to fill in the blanks myself. Other readers prefer a detailed description. Your best tactic would likely be to find a middle ground between the two, and just go with it. Or, better yet, do what serves your narrative and character the best.
If, however, the appearance of your character truly is important to the story, you will need to find more creative avenues through which to reveal how stunningly beautiful she/he is, or how horribly average-looking. If you have a beautiful character, then it’s easy to show just how glorious of a specimen he/she is through the way other characters react to him/her. If he/she is just a plain Jane/John, then that, too, should be noted through the reactions of other characters. Or, perhaps you have a scene where the character realizes that being average-looking has its advantages. That character certainly wouldn’t have to travel the murky waters of opposite (or same)-sex attraction. A friend would likely be just that- a friend- with no ulterior motives.
2. The character has no flaws.
This is another common mistake I see new authors make. The main character is perfect, or (dare I say) special.
No. Your character is not special. Definitely not special enough to have no flaws, or to have lazy flaws written-in almost as an afterthought. Clumsiness or shyness are not flaws that deeply impact the course of the story. Sorry. You’re going to have to try harder than that.
You want your character to be flawed! Flawed characters are relatable- they’re human. You want your character to make mistakes because of those flaws, and to learn from those mistakes, and develop into a new form of themselves from the experience. A well-rounded protagonist is imperative to the reader’s perception of your character as well as your story.
3. A character that is supposed to come off as flawed, but has so many flaws that are so deeply ingrained that they instead come off as an insufferable asshole.
I’ve edited numerous manuscripts that have this problem. Too many flaws. For instance, you want your main character to be a bit insecure? That’s great! That’s a common flaw that a lot of humans possess and can relate to. Wonderful. What you want to do is to show that insecurity. Have the character hang their head low after they’ve said something embarrassing, or show the character struggling to better themselves because they don’t innately have confidence. For the love of all that is holy, do not have your insecure character make a questionable decision and then proceed to question that decision a million times.
Was it right? Won’t it kill everyone? What if someone gets hurt? How could I live with myself?
Another negative symptom of a much-too insecure character can be something like this:
That was a stupid thing to do. Why would anyone want anything to do with me after that? I’m so awful. I deserve the worst.
My best friend is much more attractive. Why would this girl look at me? The way I talked to her was just ridiculous. I’m such a dumbass.
Self-flagellation only makes your character seem weak, whiny, and self-pitying. Your readers are not going to respect this character if you insist on a ton of introspection that details just how pathological that insecurity is. Of course, there are exceptions to this. After all, the mark of a wonderful writer is the ability to break rules effectively. But, for now, we’ll stick with what the average main character should and should not be.
This all goes back to the golden rule of fiction writing: show, don’t tell!
Here’s another example of a character flaw becoming a full-blown pathology: say you’ve come up with the quintessential bad boy who takes absolutely no shit from anyone. He’s the James Dean of your story, with that devil-may-care attitude, and of course he’s ridiculously good-looking. Women flock to this asshole because they simply don’t listen to the assholery that comes from his mouth, ignoring it in favor of his ‘piercing blue eyes that seem to look right through me,’ or some other trite garbage.
Many authors can take the flaw of ‘cocky’ and turn it into ‘huge, gaping asswad.’ Yes, I’ve seen this happen, too. The overly arrogant main character treats everyone like shit because he’s simply better than them in every single way, and he is acutely aware of it. He one-ups his friends, steals their women, does way, way too many drugs (as opposed to just the right amount of drugs for him to be endearing). Such a character could tempt readers to turn to drugs just to trudge through the story.
This main character has no redeeming qualities, so when the author inevitably tries to redeem them, the effort comes across as hollow and worthless.
Don’t write this character. Just don’t.
4. The character is so generic, you can’t find a single attribute or flaw that could possibly constitute even the beginning phases of a personality.
This is very common as well, and perhaps the most common mistake I've seen as a content editor. A lot of authors are afraid to write a character that could possibly be seen by any reader as grating, or angry, petty, self-pitying, or revenge-driven. They are afraid to anger any one reader, so they decide that the best route to take is to make a character so even-keeled and so, so, so boring that said character is essentially a cardboard cutout of a human being.
The character has no distinguishing features. They are of average intelligence. They come from an average family, their looks are generic, their thoughts are generic, their feelings are barely detectable, and their reactions to other characters are best summed up as ‘meh.’ The best example of this that I can provide you with would absolutely be the main character of the Twilight series. And yes, in case you were wondering, I am embarrassed that I read a single chapter of that series, let alone the whole thing. I just, I was waiting for it to get better. For the main character to get better. Well, it doesn’t. She doesn’t. In fact, it all just goes to hell, so don’t even waste your time. Yes, it's a best-selling, huge money-maker. This post is not geared towards writers who only care about making an assload of money. This is for those of you who respect the craft, and hey, if you make enough to live off of- fantastic
Don’t worry about offending readers. Write the character you want to write. Just make sure that if you want them to have a specific flaw or talent, that you don’t go overboard, or completely avoid giving them any personality traits. Make an outline. Give your character a backstory. Tell the story of the character to yourself so that you know why they are the way they are, and so you can subsequently show the reader who that character is.
For example: let’s say your main character grew up in an abusive household. Would that character likely be trusting of people? Probably not. Have them be wary when they meet a new person. Have them question the motivations of others, and not eagerly enter new relationships. Build their confidence slowly throughout the book so that the payoff when the big event occurs is as emotional for the reader as it is for the characters. Pacing is super important when it comes to character development! But I’m sure I’ll write about that at some point in the future. There’s no time for me to drone on about that one today.
This post is getting rather long, so I’ll sum it up: have some goddam empathy. If you aren’t an empathetic person, you’ll base your characters on stereotypes that ring hollow to your readers. No one will like your characters, and by extension, they’ll direct their anger at you in their scathing reviews of your effortless work.
I would explain how one gains empathy, but if you’re able to read this, I’ll assume you’re of an age where, if you don’t have it, you miiiiight be a sociopath, so no directions or advice can help you.