Sympathetic Characters

A standard line in a rejection notice is that the agent or editor didn’t find the lead character compelling enough. That charming piece of boilerplate can be interpreted in many ways. The narrative approach might be too distant with its characters. The protagonist might have too many bouts of internal monologue, clogging up the action. Yet one possible reason stems from the simple fact that they didn’t like the main character. 

Dostoevsky had the right idea: as readers we are more interested in evil than good. From a character standpoint, good is dull. We spend the 800 pages of Brothers Karamazov enjoying Dmitri’s recklessness and Ivan’s coldness, not so much Alexei’s morality. When regarded from a writing standpoint, good leaves a character with no engaging flaws. 

People trying to write a novel are understandably confused by this conundrum. I frequently encounter books in which the hero is the baddest of the bad. The impulse to do this makes sense. Being an outright rebel is distinctive. In terms of a plot arc, someone who starts off bad can then make progress toward becoming good. 

So what’s the problem? In a nutshell, we may not want to spend an entire novel with her. The acts that a heroine commits add up in the reader’s emotional calculus. If we become repulsed enough by too many acts of wickedness, the book goes down on the night table and may never be reopened. 

How do you incorporate both good and evil? The answer lies in another facet of human nature: the hope that things will turn out all right. I’m all for evil, in terms of setting a character apart. That’s the fun part of life (just in novels, mind you). Yet I also want a lead character who has redeeming qualities. Maybe he is abrasive to his parents—but he is kind to a younger sister with ADHD. Your heroine may cast aspersions on her idiotic male work mates—but she looks up to a mentor who is helping her prepare for grad school. 

As readers, we just want someone to root for. If the protagonist already possesses a kernel of goodness, we know that can grow. A character, like a person, isn’t all one way. If a heroine has four defining qualities that are bad, make sure the fifth one is good.

Exercise: Early on in a novel is the best place to plant seeds of hope, and because of that, a two-step strategy can be effective. Start by inserting a short back story that displays the character’s goodness. Even if that encounter soured the character supposedly forever, the reader’s moral faculties are already whirring. Hey, that was a nice thing to do. If you then follow up with a glimmer of that same impulse in the ongoing story, you’ve cemented an article of faith.



Some novelists scorn the use of notes. They want the writing process to be organic. As more pages are written, the vague whorl of a book inside the writer’s mind takes better shape. A protagonist gains his stride. A plot starts to follow a logical sequence. Pretty soon, as the toy maker Geppetto declared of Pinocchio, the author exclaims: “It’s a real boy!” 

While I advocate working organically, I also believe in being economical. Writing a novel can be likened to exploring a medieval city, with many crooked blind alleys that, while interesting along the way, lead to nowhere. For my first novel, I wrote 200 pages before I finally realized who my main character was—and then had to start all over again at the beginning. Do you really have that much time to spare?

You can work from notes and still be organic. Good notes help a character gain definition right away. I have read debut novels in which I vaguely sense where the main character is coming from—but she doesn’t have enough unique qualities to stand out. The author has not put her idiosyncrasies on the page—because she hasn’t stopped to think what they are. You can do this deliberately. 

Write a character sketch that is focused entirely on finding out her little tics. You want to stay away from generalities. Focus on specific attributes. She can’t help stealing little things while shopping, for example. A pack of gum, a cellphone car jack, etc. Not worth much, but she loves that thrill of having it in her pocket as she goes through the checkout line. How long has she been doing this? What was it like the first time? Has she ever been caught? 

You can go deeper than that too. Did she have a special talent early on that her mother suppressed because it was antisocial? All of these questions have specific answers. When you consider this aspect of your heroine before the book starts, your notes will ensure that it frames your writing about her.

Exercise: You can also use these notes as a way to reject what at first seems like a promising idea. Perhaps you decide that your protagonist eats Cheerios for breakfast. He’s done that since childhood, indicating a conservative bent that marks his overall personality. That’s not a bad idea, but then ask yourself: is that really the best way to indicate his conservatism? If you, for instance, had him insist on paying the check when eating out, then you might be able to write a scene in which his girlfriend yells at him in a restaurant.


Back to the Future

Legends have been spun about authors who write hundreds of pages that don’t end up in the actual book. That sounds like a nice ideal, but really, how much extra time do you have in your day? I’d like to suggest a more targeted approach, based on that page of general notes about Len. 

Let’s take getting thrown down the stairs as a child. You can, of course, write out that scene—a five-page flashback that makes your hair stand up. Yet what will help you know Len better comes from the framing circumstances of that incident. In the first place, why Len? The psychological literature shows that usually only one family member is chosen by an abuser. So why Len? Does he have siblings? What are their ages in respect to him? How does the father’s abuse of him affect their feelings for him? Why does his mother allow it to happen? 

You can see how many questions can be generated simply from that one incident. Now we’ll break it down further. Let’s say that you decided Len is the oldest in a family of three. In your experience, what is an oldest child like? Bossy or introspective? Does what you think about an oldest child align with how your protagonist acts? No? Maybe he acts more like the fourth child lost in a brood of six. What is your own personal experience of feeling passed over by your parents in favor of another child? 

Now, you see, Len is no longer an abstract notion. Feeling passed over by your parents hurts. You could write a page just describing what a pair of selfish jerks they are because they always gave Bobby the biggest Christmas present. Can you focus on one incident like that where you really wanted recognition that never came?

A page of general notes can be multiplied into 20 pages of detailed explorations. Are you wasting valuable time? Not to my way of thinking. Just consider this fact: you will wait months for a literary agent to pick you up and then more months for a publishing house to buy the book. If they turn it down for the hoariest of all rejection letter reasons—“I didn’t fall in love with the character”—you may wish you had spent more time exploring at the start.

Exercise: Focus on one note, such as that staircase incident. Don’t write about the action: the pain of the tailbone, the scraped wrist, the broken arm. You’re trying to go deeper into the psychological scar. What led up to that attack? What happened as a consequence? What turning point in Len’s life occurred that night? Isn’t that why you’re bothering to write about it in the first place?


That First Blush

The genesis of a new story is one of the most refreshing interludes in a career of writing. A new idea comes to you. It concerns a topic that stirs your fancy. You know you could write about it with passion, because certain elements—on the broadest of thematic levels—speak to you. You start writing notes, and the idea seems even stronger once you’ve laid down a few basic parameters. At the end of a writing session, or several, you are beaming inside with happiness. This one, you know, is going to be great. 

Before you go too far, however, let’s consider a practical point. A great idea without a great central character isn’t going to take you too far toward the goal of being published. That’s because a publisher wants a unique product above all. If that sounds crass, welcome to the way trade publishing really works. A publisher is thinking in terms of the copy that fills the back cover. Inside a publishing house, the marketing department plays an important role in whether a book is accepted for publication.

Let’s return to the glorious freshness of the new idea. Ask yourself at a very early stage: what characteristics does my main character possess that are unique? That requires you think through their situation in life. Single? Married? With children and how many? What about the parents, perhaps with problems that still plague the main character during the course of the novel? Do you have any back stories about their upbringing that has an impact on how they act during the course of the novel? Try to see if you can write 10 pages on what this person is doing before the novel starts. Above all, what is distinctive about all this stuff? What sets your character apart from all of the hundreds of other main characters that you’ve loved reading about?

The reason to start thinking this way from the beginning is that the peculiarities of the protagonist can have a strong influence on how you shape the novel. For instance, I can’t imagine Into the Woods by Tana French without the haunting back story about the protagonist losing his two best friends as a child. You too can use the three or four prime ingredients that make your character special as a way to give your novel a flavor that no other novel has. 

Exercise: From form comes action. Once you have decided on several defining characteristics, think about the possible outcomes of such a trait. Then exaggerate those outcomes to the very outer edge of believability. If the character likes to  appease others, because her parents fought constantly when she was a child, think of the absolute worst situation in which his appeasement could place her. See if you can design that sequence so that she has to wallow in that position for as long as possible. 

“Find out what your hero or heroine wants, and when he or she wakes up in the morning, just follow him or her all day.”  —Ray Bradbury


Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.