Writing Excuses 10.5: What Do You Mean, My Main Character Is Boring?
Key Points: Beware main characters being boring, and/or having no responsibility, accountability, or agency. Bland main characters need spicing up! Doing interesting things, in interesting places, with interesting people does not necessarily make a person interesting. Main characters need a personal life and motivation, but they don’t necessarily need a deep, tortured past unrelated to the story. Is your character an observer, without agency? Don’t just add quirks — raise the stakes, make them responsible and accountable. Make sure that actions have costs, that there are reactions and prices. Stakes are what you can lose, accountability is being responsible for your actions, the price you pay. Give the character flaws to overcome, a growth arc. Stakes and an arc come before quirks! Consider the triad of proactive, likeable, and competent. Where does your character change on those scales? Consider diversity in your characters and cast, to stretch yourself as a writer, but that does not mean your book has to be about diversity. Make your character a person first. Even mint in chocolate, everyday differences, can make a character more interesting. Characters need to be passionate, and should want more than one thing.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode Five.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, What Do You Mean, My Main Character Is Boring?
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we are talking character this month on Writing Excuses. Again, all of the episodes this month will deal with this topic, save for the wildcard next week. This week we want to kind of focus on the main characters. There is a problem I’ve noticed with a lot of new writers, and this is that their main characters tend to have two big flaws to them. One is they’re boring, and the second is they have no responsibility or accountability. I’m… I see this time and time again with new writers where they’ll have this really interesting and diverse cast and then a bland person in the center of it. Why does this happen?
[Dan] See, I ran into this exact thing with the manuscript that I’m currently writing. The new young adult science fiction that I’m putting together. I was looking at the cast of characters and I was thinking how neat they were and I thought, “You know, it would be fun maybe in the future to write a book from this side character’s point of view and then she’d be friends with the main character.” I realized suddenly, “Except that main character, if she’s not the main character anymore, she’s so boring.” She doesn’t have anything going for her except for the fact that she’s the protagonist.
[Brandon] This is why writing groups are so important, because you brought this out on one of my books we were working on. The Alloy of Law.
[Dan] The Alloy of Law. Your… What’s the main dude’s name? Wax?
[Brandon] Waxillium. Yes, Wax. I had written the whole book and he was doing interesting things, but he had no character arc. It wasn’t until you said, “Why is this guy the most boring one,” that I stopped… He’s not boring! Wait a minute.
[Howard] The disconnect here for a lot of people is that they don’t realize that doing interesting things, in interesting places, with interesting people, is not the same as being interesting.
[Dan] That’s exactly the problem that Wax had in that early draft. He was a gunfighter who could do magic, he did all these awesome chase scenes and investigations, but he himself was a blank slate.
[Mary] One of the things that I think happens is that people get distracted by the overall quest and they substitute that for any sort of int… Personal life of the character. At the same time, there is a danger that people will sometimes decide to try to fix that by giving their main character this deeply tortured past that has nothing to do with the novel that they’re actually telling.
[Brandon] No. That’s a really good point. Because sometimes… Batman is deep tortured past. That works. But it’s a deep tortured past that drives his current motivations and his interactions with people.
[Mary] So, one of the things that I also see is that a lot of times you will see a character who is there as an observer and other people have the agency.
[Brandon] Yeah. This is the problem with the whole accountability/agency thing that I was bringing up. Sometimes they’ll react, they’ll say, “Well, I want my character… My main character to be interesting,” so they’ll make them quirky. But lacking all responsibility and accountability.
[Dan] Harry Potter’s a wonderful example of this. He surrounded by interesting, active people who are better at everything than he is. But he’s the main character with his little quirks.
[Howard] Honestly, so is Sgt. Schlock.
[Howard] Okay, he is quirky. He is a weird looking alien. But in terms of accountability…
[Brandon] That’s true.
[Howard] There is not very much there. That is why… And I remember hearing this during 2004 and onward, a lot of people would ask, “Why is it that it feels like this story is really about Capt. Tagon when the story’s named after Schlock?” Well, because unconsciously, I’d uncovered this problem and realized, “Well, okay, Capt. Tagon is a more interesting protagonist. He’s more interesting to follow.” Schlock is a lot of fun to throw at a problem when you want to have things explode and things get eaten and whatever else. Since then, I’ve… I’ve mixed things up a little bit. But…
[Brandon] Yeah. One way to make this work better is to give the main character more stake in what’s happening.
[Mary] Yeah. I was thinking exactly that. One of the things about accountability is that it means that when you take an action, it comes with a cost. Frequently. Or that there is a price… Something that is at stake. We talk a lot about the cost of magic, when we’re doing world building, which we will talk about later in the year, but… That we’ll think about that, but we don’t often think about what is the price that my character has to pay in order to achieve this thing.
[Brandon] Yeah. This is actually how I had to fix Wax. One of the main things I did is I added a prologue in which we dig into things that have happened in his past. Some pretty awful events happened there that make him not want to be a law man anymore. Which is what drives him in chapter 1, which had originally been the start of the story, to leave and go home and become a nobleman. That simple torture between my past that I loved that had a horrible event and what I am now… Do I let myself get pulled back into this? Gave him a character arc. He was accountable then. He had a stake in it. Things went wrong last time. If I get involved again, will things go wrong again? Better to not be involved, right?
[Mary] Yes. I do want to draw a slight difference between accountability and stakes.
[Brandon] Yes. You’re right. You are right.
[Mary] Stakes are the things that you are… That you will lose, and accountability is being held responsible for your actions. That’s one of the things that a lot of times you’ll see… There are characters and they’re an assassin and that’s what they do, they go and they kill a lot of people. And they’re not really held accountable for doing these terrible things. So if you have your character doing things, I think that looking at whether or not there’s a cost to that is going to make it more interesting because that immediately gives you a source of conflict.
[Howard] Another thing that’s hugely useful, and when we interviewed Pat Rothfuss a few years back at WorldCon, he said, “There’s so many things that can happen to your main character that are worse than dying.” Often, a bland main character is driving the story forward, and your stakes are that, “Oh, no, we might die.” If you have created an interesting main character, they have things at stake. The reader can be concerned about things that are not, “Oh, no, you might die.” They might be things like, “Oh, no, you might decide to betray one of your friends in order to gain advantage over whoever it is that you’re fighting against.”
[Mary] Yeah. I think stakes are the things that the character wants, accountability is the price that they have to pay.
[Dan] Yeah. Now when you’re talking about accountability, being held accountable for stuff, that doesn’t necessarily imply, for readers who are unfamiliar with the term, that the cops are going to show up and arrest you for being an assassin. They’re not… You’re not saying they need to be accountable to the world so much as they need to be accountable to you as the author. They need to be accountable to themselves. They need to have some reaction to their own action.
[Brandon] Excellent. Let’s go ahead and do our book of the week.
[Dan] Yeah. The book of the week this week is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It’s a wonderful historical fiction, which is the genre that I read more than anything else. This one is read by Simon Slater, the audio version. It is about Thomas Cromwell, who was the other side of the story, The Man for All Seasons. This kind of upstanding Thomas Moore who will stand by his convictions. Thomas Cromwell was the other side of that, who was willing to do whatever it took to keep the kingdom from falling apart. So it kind of reverses that story, you get to see the other angle. It’s just a gorgeously written book. Read that, and you’ll find some amazing characters, some amazing tricks that get played with perspective and with the voice of the narrator. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.
[Howard] Or have it read to you by Simon Slater. Go out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse and you can start a 30-day free trial and get Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel for free.
[Brandon] So coming back into characters. I wanted to ask you, Dan, how did you fix your problem?
[Dan] [laughing] I am still in the process of fixing that problem. Stage one for me was to realize that she needed more flaws. What you said earlier about the gut reaction that a lot of people have is to give it a dark and tortured past. Which is going over the top for most… In most cases. But she was too perfect of a character. She was too much of a stand-in for the reader. She was overcoming a lot of obstacles, but she was not overcoming any personal flaws within herself. So giving her some of those, giving her some things that she did wrong, that she had to grow a little to get out of, made her more textured.
[Brandon] Right. When a character doesn’t quite fit their role, they become more interesting to us automatically. A lot of times when we talk about making characters more interesting, we talk about quirks. I think that shouldn’t be the first place to go. Having quirks in a character and interests and passions, hobbies… These are important, but really, when we drill down to it, it’s much more important with the idea of stakes, with the idea of an arc. I’m going to reference you to three podcasts we did recently, where we talked about sliding scales, proactivity and where we talked about likability and where we talked about… Oh, what was the third one?
[Dan] Proactive, likable, and competent.
[Brandon] Competence. When you move those scales up or down, you can do things to your character to make them more flawed and not fit the role that they’re in. So if you’re having trouble with this, maybe listen to those three podcasts.
[Howard] Those are back in season nine, I’ll link those in the write up.
[Dan] Put those in the notes.
[Howard] Hey, I had a thought. We’ve talked a little bit about it doesn’t have to be a dark and tortured past. If you have a character who has a fairly vanilla past, nothing dark and tortured, nothing awful, things are running along pretty smoothly and then they are put in a situation where bad things are happening, they are learning horrible thing. One possible reaction to this is to reject that the world could actually be this bad. To look at this and not want this. That is a conflict that… It’s a conflict that I find myself in, just reading the news. I don’t want to believe that things like this actually happen, in Syria or in Iraq or anywhere. That, in and of itself, can be an interesting driver for a character. You don’t need to make them… You don’t need to have murdered their parents by…
[Mary] Jane, my main character, had a very happy childhood. She… There was really nothing wrong in her life, except that her sister was prettier than she was. That’s… Wow, that’s tragedy. But the arc that I gave her was… The long arc was her recognizing that she had been living in a naïve bubble, and that she had been protected and been a child of privilege. Recognizing that not everybody else is. So that’s… There are a lot of things that you can do without giving your character a dark and tortured past.
[Mary] The other thing that I kind of want to talk about in terms of… While we say giving your character quirks and all of these things is not the first place to start, at the same time, one of the things that will make a character stand out is if they are coming from a different place… Societally, you do have a diverse cast. Those quirks are not just quirks, they are reflections of the character’s past and their back story. So while you don’t want to spend a lot of time sometimes working out exactly… My character went to third grade and… I think that looking at a diverse cast…
[Dan] Yeah. Stretching beyond yourself. We have a tendency as writers to consider our own gender and ethnicity to be the default. Stretching yourself beyond that and forcing yourself to consider people who were raised in a different economic background than you were or who are a different gender or who come from a different country or simply a different anything…
[Mary] Because all of those things come with back story and societal baggage that’s going to impact how your character interacts with the problems that they encounter. I want to say that when we’re talking about having diverse characters, this doesn’t mean that your story suddenly needs to become about diversity. It’s that it will change how that character interfaces with the problems that they run into, like I… Just as a very simple thing. I am 5 foot seven. My brother is 6 foot one. When I need to get something off the top shelf, I have to get a stool. He can just reach up and grab it. That’s a really small thing. But anything about your personal experience is going to inter… Affect how you approach problems. I view my writing through the lens of puppetry because that’s my back story. So if someone’s coming from a place that is, where they are of a different ethnicity than the other characters in the cast, a different gender, a different age, a different degree of able… Ableism… Or disableism… That’s… Is that actually a word?
[Brandon] It is now. I declare it.
[Howard] A different level of vocabularisticness?
[Mary] Thank you, yes. A different level of awkwardness. Then that’s going to affect how they interface with the problems. That inherently is going to make them more interesting.
[Howard] I’ve had some interesting conversations here in which I have had to… I say here. We are at the Writing Excuses 2014 Retreat. A little bit of noise?
[Howard] And that was enough noise. You guys are awesome. Where I confessed to despising mint in chocolate.
[Mary] I did not know that.
[Dan] What’s wrong with you?
[Brandon] I’m there with you. This couch agrees.
[Howard] This couch agrees. Now you…
[Dan] Our couch declares war on your couch.
[Mary] No. No. Let them not like mint in chocolate. More for me!
[Howard] See, that’s the way I described it…
[Dan] Our couch undeclares war on you.
[Howard] I used to describe mint as an abomination that is performed on chocolate. That raises the stakes for a lot of people. Now the way I describe it is mint is what you put in chocolate if you want to protect it from me.
[Howard] I… This sounds silly and kind of lighthearted, but if you have characters who won’t drink the same brand of beer or won’t… One’s a vegetarian and one isn’t, and they like different flavors of foods… These are the sorts of interesting things that we deal with every day and that we understand.
[Dan] Now I want to stress again what Mary said about how adding diversity to your cast does not force your book to be about diversity. I ran into this problem with Partials. I knew I wanted to have a female main character, and for the first several chapters, I was just trying to make the book… Trying to write her as a girl. And realized, “No. The book’s not about her being a girl anymore than I Am Not a Serial Killer is about John Cleaver being a boy.” The book is about her being a cool character. Get past that, just write them as people.
[Brandon] Right. Passions play a lot into this. What’s coming… You’re passionate about your mint, that can alone make you interesting.
[Howard] Or evil.
[Brandon] When we say quirks, people think, “Oh, that means I need to make it so that they do something silly in every chapter.” This is not what were talking about.
[Mary] We’re talking about being…
[Brandon] We’re talking about being passionate.
[Mary] And specific.
[Brandon] Yes. Yes. Specificity. But I mean, you look at the passions… This is the big difference between Harry and Hermione. If you go in the book and say, “What does Harry want?” It’s so hard to figure out.
[Brandon] What does Hermione want? You can say right out the gate what Hermione wants. This is a big distinction in them as characters.
[Mary] The other thing also is that while there is something that a character will want, they don’t always want just like one thing. So if you have a character that wants one thing and only one thing and it’s the same thing that they’re questing for, then you will wind up with a character who is one-dimensional.
[Brandon] Yes. Or is annoying.
[Brandon] And annoying.
[Howard] I want there to not be mint in the chocolate, and can we go out for sushi, and I need a nap.
[Mary] Oo, I’ll second the naps. And sushi.
[Brandon] We’re going to give you a writing exercise. Now remember, like last month, this writing exercise will go through the whole month, but you can pick different ones that we do through the month and not have to have done this one, but if you want to keep going through the month, we will give you ways to expand upon this. Now, one of my favorite character writing exercises is to take three different characters and walk them through a scene and have them interact with this scene. Then you are trying to convey each character’s emotional state, and make them all different, each character’s job, and each character’s hobby, without saying anything relating to those three. You can’t say, “He was angry.” You have to convey that. You can’t say, “He was an architect.” You have to convey that. You can’t say, “She loved collecting bugs.” You have to convey this. And do it all in a page. We’re going to give you a scenario to go through.
[Mary] You are going to have a character who is walking through a marketplace and they need to do a dead drop. Which means that they have a package that they need to drop off for someone else to pick up. This is a common trope in spy novels.
[Brandon] That market is going to be the same through all three of your writings of this. But the way the main character acts should be very different in every scene.
[Howard] The market can be on a space station.
[Brandon] It can be. It can be whatever type of setting you want it to be. On earth, another planet, whatever. I made my group of students at the Writing Excuses retreat go through this one. So they wrote three different scenes.
[Mary] I do the same thing with my students with the same goal, so they don’t have to… But they have to do it in three sentences. Which is why I’m a short story writer and you’re a novelist.
[Brandon] Epic fantasy.
[Mary] [inaudible] Chihuahua.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.