Writing Excuses 8.30: Writing Reluctant Characters

What’s a reluctant character? Well, it’s somebody who needs to be dragged along into the adventure, somebody who isn’t the sort of self-motivated, go-getter that we so often populate our books with. These characters feel a lot like real people — our world is full of folks like this. The trick lies in making these characters interesting to read.

We offer some examples from things we’ve read, some general structural tricks, and some of the tools we’ve used in our own work, including examples from Glamour in Glass, The Way of Kings, and The Hollow City.


Create a character who is either weak or reluctant, determine why they are weak or reluctant, and then write the decision point.

Celebromancy, by Michael R. Underwood, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal, who gets to make a light-saber noise as part of the narration…

21 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.30: Writing Reluctant Characters”

  1. In one of the first novels I wrote I had a very reluctant character who was only going through the motions because his wife had committed suicide and it threw his life into a downward spiral. The guys who read the novel absolutely hated him.

    Maybe I should revisit the story and the character with this.

  2. Nice choice for a cast, team. My question is this, can you ever see a point in which a reluctant character is so reluctant that they seriously could not care less – they wouldn’t even care if their life bled out of them right then and there. Is there a purpose for these characters? I’m sure there is. I’m just throwing that out there.

  3. I disagree with Brandon when he thinks he fixed Sazed (which I’m pretty certain he is talking about in his reluctant depressed character). I can’t totally put my finger on it but I think I found Sazed’s arc to be uninteresting because of how much fun he was to read in the earlier books. I think it is an arc that maybe just doesn’t work by definition (to go from awesome to depressed and their time is made up of crossing religions off of a list). Brandon talks about arcs a lot and he talks about the Everyman arc and the Superman arc and Sazed seems like he was a Superman who downward spirals into an Everyman but then ever further into a begrudging bore. Sazed was so much fun and he was also a great foil (serious, scholarly foil if that can even be classed as a foil archetype) that loses those good attributes. It made his chapters really un-engaging because he was literally un-engaged with what was going on around him even though the rest of the plot and characters were ramping up and you could feel the tension crescendoing he was disassociated from the world around him. I guess that means Brandon wrote him correctly because he comes across as depressed but that’s also the rub because in real life depressed people are disengaged and generally not interesting to interact with so reading about them is probably a good reflection of that. It’s a conundrum.

  4. I think one of the best examples for a reluctant character is Fitz from Robin Hobb’s Assassin series. He’s thrust into a really tough situation from a young age. I think one of the keys is to not have the reluctance be based in lazyness or cowardice. In the Assassin series, Fitz is reluctant because he’s forced into a terrible life due to a father he never met. He steps up and takes on what comes at him because it’s his only option and he does come to love his new friends and family, but you can tell he would rather be elsewhere. After all, at the conclusion of the first trilogy after he helps save the day he becomes a hermit to get away from the politics and all the problems of his life.

    I think Robin Hobb is just about the best author for writing a reluctant character who is still likeable, at least in the Assassin series and even the first book of the Shaman series.

  5. @merryxmas
    I obviously can’t speak for exactly what Brandon was talking about though I’m fairly certain he wasn’t talking about Sazed. I think he was referring to Kaladin. The checklist being the attempts to protect what he could to at least distract him from his past failings.
    I haven’t finished the Mistborn trilogy yet so I don’t know what Sazed’s arc is but the description seems more fitting to the very depressed Kaladin

  6. I know The Hobbit is the classic example of a reluctant hero. But you guys need to get a broader set of references. Not everything needs to trace back to Tolkien or Star Wars.

    You did a segment on reluctant characters without mentioning The Big Lebowski. “All the Dude ever wanted was his rug back.” That role has become a defining character for Jeff Bridges. It shows that a reluctant character can carry a story and still be very popular.

    I love the show. But sometimes I wonder if all of the hosts are stuck in the epic fantasy and YA sections of the library.

  7. Reminds me of that all-important rule from stage improv: never say no. That is, don’t simply refuse or refute what someone’s just said, because that can kill a scene dead. In the same way, a unmotivated character, poorly written, is just a black hole for ideas and energy. (Heck, depression is like that.)

    Which led to a thought: Instead of absorbing every positive thing that comes their way, make them deflect it in an interesting — and if they’re a big part of the story, changing — way. One approach might be to make them funny, similar to how Dan has described using humour to make creepy John Cleaver more likeable.

  8. Good food for thought.

    I find it is more innately difficult to make a reluctant character interesting than a pro-active character, and especially more difficult to make depressing characters interesting and engaging for the reader.

    I remember listening to the audio commentary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 6, and the writers or producers were saying how this particular season’s tone and feel was too dark and moody. Buffy herself had been brought back from the dead, and was in an intense state of depression and reluctance to even live. They said they overdid the dark feel (or did it too well, maybe) to the point where it made the viewer feel depressed, disengaged, down, uninterested. They nailed her character, yes, but they overdid the feel of depression for the viewer too much.

    So, I find writing depressed scenes or characters a balancing act between portraying the character/scene accurately and making sure the reader enjoys themselves.

    Thanks for another great episode.

  9. @Galactic Panther: It’s been a while, but I think he was talking about Dalinar. The addition of an external voice (his son) was what solved the problem.

  10. Thomas Covenant (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chronicles_of_Thomas_Covenant) is certainly an archetype of this trope. It’s very interesting to see how Donaldson creates an engaging story while the main character is fighting tooth and nail the entire time to not be involved, while also being personally weak and even despicable in the beginning.

    Of course, this makes his final transition into the hero all the more awesome and moving.

  11. I wanted to bring up what a single good prop can do for a reluctant hero. I’m thinking of Arthur Dent from HHGTG. It doesn’t matter if he’s on a Vogon ship on Frogstar World B, his bathrobe clearly shows that he never meant to leave the house. The absurdity of every setting he’s in, and his unwillingness to be there is brought home when you remember he’s still in his bathrobe.

  12. Just wanted to say thanks guys for another energised and focused cast. I’m so glad you’ve returned to the ‘how to do this’ rather than the ‘examples where it happened’ format. I also loved hearing more from Dan. This was a much more balanced cast than we’ve had lately. Really interesting points and gave me a light bulb – Dan’s point about the character having a goal, even if it’s not related to the story. Thanks.

  13. An awesome reluctant character is the protagonist (Harry Niles) in “December 6th”, a historical fiction novel by Martin Cruz Smith.


    The character is an American living in Tokyo just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. All he wants is to be left alone and allowed to live his life, but his underworld contacts and multiple governments thinks he knows more than he does. His entire motivation throughout the book is “What is the least I can do to get you to leave me alone.” Smith also uses a little mystery by not revealing if Harry really knows anything or not.

  14. Brandon was definitely talking about Sazed. He mentions it in his chapter commentaries The Hero of Ages. And for the record, it worked for me. Sazed’s countdown kept my interest piqued, whereas a loved character of mine in Dance With Dragons successfully was portrayed as depressed, but left me disengaged as a reader, and in fact instead of having a checklist, George Martin instead just kept on repeating the same thought over and over again (word for word), and it rather annoyed me that nothing was happening in those chapters.

  15. For reluctant characters, I also recommend checking out Dr. Petworth in Malcolm Bradbury’s Rates of Exchange. He is sent to the communist country of Slaka to give a lecture. He clearly doesn’t want to be there; doesn’t understand anything that’s going on; and the greeter at his hotel keeps calling him Pervert, because she thinks that’s his name.

    Even though a lot happens to Petworth, including getting caught up in love and international intrigue, he doesn’t talk much. He’s spoken to and things happen to him. (Warning if you read the book: the opening pages are annoying as they relay a story that sets up a key theme rather than getting to the action. Stick with it.)

  16. Well, heck. I was waiting for Mary to make her light-saber noise. Guess I’ll have to listen to the next podcast. :)

  17. Remember to read the description of the podcast. It doesn’t say Mistborn, it says Way of Kings, so Brandon is talking about a Way of Kings character :)

    Anyway, I love this episode. A perfect example that I think of for reluctant character is Marlin of Finding Nemo. There’s even a symbolism of the clownfish leaving the anemone since in real life clownfish never go far from the anemone, since it represents the character coming out of his comfort zone. It helps in that story to keep the character proactive by what motivates him. It helps to think of how to make a weak character overcome weaknesses and be a character that the audience will love.

  18. Just gave this cast a re-listen. Have to say, Kaladin ended up being a fantastic character, so the progression certainly helped fix what wasn’t working in his characterization. Though he expressed his feelings, the “woe is me” problem never really hurt his scenes, at least in my opinion. It also was rooted in the fact that Kaladin has some very good reasons for feeling like he does, valid and understandable reasons. That, more than anything, gives him justification and therefore the acceptance of the reader to read through those depression bits. The flashbacks of his days before the events made him who he is also break up the trouble of reluctance. And, it will be interesting in 2 months for us to see where Kaladin goes from where he left off. Fascinating character, who started with problems. Goes to show what dedication and hard work can do to fix what is “broken”.

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