Do You Have to Like Your Main Character?

likeDo You Have to Like Your Main Character?

Your main character—do you like him? Do you need to?

By and large, I would say that you do, if only to tolerate being around him while you’re writing the novel. And if you don’t like him, why would your readers? It’s hard to have sympathy or want things to work out for an unlikeable character.

Another way to think of this is as ‘getting’ your character. By that, I mean understanding your hero well enough so that you know how he would act outside the parameters of your story.

‘Getting’ my protagonist is something I almost always need to work on during the course of writing a novel. If I don’t feel I can see the world through his eyes, I have trouble moving forward.

Actually, I don’t like him

After consideration, you decide either that you don’t get your hero or you don’t like him. What can you do?

First, why don’t you like him?

You may find, on reading over the draft, that he comes across as superior or insensitive. The first instinct might be to go back and make him more humble or empathetic.

But I’d hold off for a moment to explore what’s behind these negative characteristics. In particular, ask yourself: Where is his humanness?

He’s superior. But people who look down their noses often are, deep down, scared that they themselves are wanting in some big and shameful way. Is that him? If it is and you can show the underlying fear and uncertainty, your readers (and probably you) will like him more or at least feel more sympathetic. You also create a much more complex character.

Similarly with his insensitivity. What underlies that? Does he walk all over people because he fears that if he doesn’t grab what he needs, he won’t get it? Doesn’t have to be that reason but whatever you decide on, ask yourself further questions. Why doesn’t he trust the world to give him what it needs? What would that look like? How would it come out?

So, although uncomfortable, not liking or getting your main character can actually produce some pretty useful results.

But don’t fall in love

So, now you like your main character. Or at least understand him. But don’t fall in love.

You know new love—the other person is perfect and can do no wrong. So, this is a boring character on the page. Allow the hero his dark side. You can understand him without excusing or explaining away his shadowy side. Makes for a much more interesting hero.

There is another, more pragmatic reason for liking your protagonist but still keeping a healthy distance. When you are editing your novel or having it edited, you or your editor may want/need to make ruthless cuts or alterations. It will be harder to see the necessity if you are convinced you have a perfect leading man.

Do I need to do this with all my characters?

I wouldn’t. First off, it’s a huge amount of work.

You might want to do the analysis of the antagonist is she is to be as complex as the protagonist. Another possibility is when the novel features two people who both figure prominently in the plot.

But I’d keep it to a dull roar. It really is a lot of think time.

Next post: do your readers have to like your protagonist?  You may be surprised at the answer.




In the post discussing how to address a first draft of a novel which is too short, I suggested various strategies like considering who the novel is really about, and why your main character is compelled to action at this moment in time. Another powerful way to augment your novel is to use subplots.

What are subplots?

Usually, your story has a main story line. It is what you describe when someone asks you what your novel is about.

Subplots are subordinate stories which flow from and feed back into the main plot. They usually use a secondary strand of characters, i.e. not your protagonist. They often provide depth or important information to the main plot.

An example

Your main story is about a spy during the Cold War who infiltrates a top secret facility not to steal its stash of ultra-important documents.

Pretty standard stuff.

But you can use subplots which make the novel richer and more complex.

Let’s say your spy’s nemesis is Colonel Rudger. And while we’re at it, let’s name the spy, too. How about Harold?

So Rudger suspects Harold but it’s just a gut feeling. While Harold is making his plans to infiltrate, Rudger is the star of a sub-plot on how he is going to catch Harold. Along the way, you develop Rudger’s character. Does he constantly doubt himself? Does he constantly want to test his theory à la Hamlet? Or is he blind to signals that he’s on the wrong track?

You can easily see how this sub and the main plot come together for an exciting finale.

In most novels, there are often numerous subplots. Not all of them have to figure in the climax but they can be vehicles for illustrating or deepening various aspects of the main plot. Harold’s girlfriend is tired of his neglect, not of course realizing that a day job and a spy job leave little time for romance. She is convinced Harold is seeing someone else and tries to track him which causes all kinds of problems. She doesn’t have to figure in the ending but the relationship probably needs to be resolved in some way. He breaks off with her because he needs to devote time to spying? Or he involves her in his secret? Either way, this subplot can provide twists and turns along the way.

Where are my sub-plots?

They are easier to find than you might think.

Consider any of the secondary characters. All of them have potential to be a subplot.

Ways to choose might be a character whose motivation has been told rather than shown. Show not only what he did in more detail but why. Or Harold might have a troublesome family. A sister perhaps who is the last word in nosy. A subplot could be Harold fending off his sister’s inquisitiveness.

A story with just a main plot can come off as flat or two dimensional, but subplots in add complexity and depth. This makes the story more engaging for readers.

And is a great way to up the word count. Not of course what the artist in us is focused on. But doesn’t hurt.

Fixing Deus ex Machina


Fixing Deus ex Machina

In the previous post, I pointed out how even an accomplished author such as Robert Harris can get caught in the Deus ex Machina trap. Let’s talk about how to avoid it.

The Machina bit—how to tell

It can be hard to identify this. You may have had a sudden brilliant idea which would work things out for your heroine and wrote it out. But when you’ve done that, pause for a moment.

First off, take a skeptical look at your climax and resolution. Is there enough build-up to make both credible? That is, is it what most reasonable people might do to resolve their problem? Does the heroine have the skill, experience, guts, etc. to pull it off? Or has someone suddenly ridden out of the blue for the rescue? And yes, Prince Charmings would fit this description.

If you’re not sure, ask friends, family, etc. They don’t have to read the whole novel. Just explain the issue that the heroine is facing and how it is resolved. If you get nods, you’re probably good to go. If you get puzzled expressions and lots of questions you may have an inadvertent Deus ex Machina.

The fix bit

It may look like an insurmountable mountain but actually, the fix can be easy although possibly time-consuming.

Deus ex Machinas, almost by definition, come out of nowhere. And make the solution you propose unlikely or unbelievable.

But the answer is not necessarily to change the ending. The answer is more likely to be going back into your story to introduce enough elements so that the resolution doesn’t feel to your reader like an easy way out for you.

An example

Let’s go back to our hero on a crumbling cliff. A bomb goes off and kills the enemies but not the hero. If you really want to keep this ending, think about how to make it credible.

Could the hero take a huge risk and jump down to the rocks beneath the cliff before the bomb goes off? If so, you need to establish earlier that he is a dare-devil type with highly developed agility (and show, don’t tell, please).

Or could the enemies be fairly incompetent bomb makers and the bomb just stuns them? If so, you would need to have more than a couple of scenes showing the enemies’ incompetence and particularly in bomb deployment. An opportunity for some humor if you want to take it that way?

I’m not saying that any of these would be fabulous saves to your story but the point is that you can go back into the story and build in what you need to make the ending credible.

For example, in Munich  which we discussed in the last post, the author Robert Harris could have included some subtle scenes where the secret agent/secretary does things which are unremarkable at the time but, on reflection, are clues the reader fails to pick up.  For example, the hero could be irritated because the secretary keeps trying to tidy up his papers. Or he keeps running into her as he is going about his mission. He remarks on it but in a by-the-by way.

It is often effective to introduce these hints when the reader is being distracted by some high drama related to the main plot.

So, it’s not that you can’t have a bomb going off. But make sure there are enough illustrations/clues/hints in the preceding scenes so that your reader’s reaction is “How clever,” rather than “Huh?”

Deus ex Machina: Robert Harris’ Munich


Deus ex Machina: Robert Harris’ Munich

I love Robert Harris’ books but even such an accomplished writer can fall into the trap of Deus ex Machina.

Love Robert Harris’ novels

I just want to repeat this as I would not want to put you off reading Robert Harris. He is an exemplar in using research to illuminate and not drown the story (memoir and historical fiction writers, take note). Fatherland, one of his earliest, brilliantly uses what might have happened in Nazi Germany after the war. The Cicero Trilogy is another example of meticulous research turned into compelling reading. He also writes exciting contemporary novels like The Ghost, which has been turned into an equally gripping movie called The Ghost Writer directed by Roman Polanski. So, are you convinced that I like his writing? Let’s proceed.

What is Deus ex Machina?

Deus ex Machina is a literary term which loosely means that the writer writes himself into a corner. He creates a great dilemma for his protagonist but there is no way out. The hero is on a crumbling cliff and his enemies are waiting just below him on the mountain. Suddenly, a bomb goes off and blows up his enemies. Our hero makes his way safely down the mountain and lives happily ever after.

Which leaves the reader thinking, “Wait a minute—where did the bomb come from?” and/or “How come the blast didn’t destroy the cliff, too?” This is Deus ex Machina. The resolution to the story through an unexpected and often unbelievable event not engineered by the hero.

Robert Harris’ Munich

Munich covers the events which led to the signing of the Munich Pact in 1938. The Pact was negotiated between Nevil Chamberlain, the then Prime Minister of Great Britain and Adolf Hitler, Chancellor and dictator of Germany. It was Chamberlain’s attempt to stave off conflict with Germany through yielding to Hitler’s demands and is widely seen as an at least an ill-advised and at worst, a shameful piece of appeasement. Which did nothing to prevent the outbreak of war.

Hugh Legat is an ambitious but junior member of the British diplomatic corps who is taken to the Munich conference because of his friendship with Paul von Hartmann. They met at Oxford and Hartmann is now with the German Foreign Office but secretly opposed to Hitler. He has promised the British government a document damaging to Hitler only if he can turn it over to Legat.

He does so but it is stolen from Legat’s briefcase and it seems inevitable that Hartmann will be arrested.

Okay—spoiler alert but necessary.

All is saved because a British secretary, also in Munich, but barely mentioned in the rest of the novel, is a secret agent who stole the document for safekeeping.

This comes out of the blue. Harris is known for his clever and unexpected endings but this one, I think, slips into Deus ex Machina territory. Instead of “Oh, how clever—makes sense but I didn’t pick up the clues,” I thought, “What? Where did she come from?”

Next post: Let’s talk about how to avoid Deus ex Machina in your writing.

Avoiding Predictability


Avoiding Predictability

In the last post, I said that I hated Downton Abbey because of its predictability. I want to spend this post on how to keep your stories fresh.

But isn’t all fiction about predictability?

So here is where it gets complicated. Kurt Vonnegut, author of many iconoclastic, often sci-fi, novels like Cat’s Cradle and Slaughter House Five, maintained there were only six basic plots. Boy Meets Girl, Cinderella, etc. So readers, however unconsciously, are looking for your novel to fall into one of these formats.

If you buy this idea, and perhaps surprisingly, I tend to, then you’ve gotta think that it’s one for predictability and zero for freshness.

However, I don’t think that’s true. As Vonnegut also points out in A Man Without a Country, it is the unique perspective you bring to the writing which makes the work exceptional and worth reading.

So my writing should be unpredictable

Not that either.

Not if it means that your calm, cool and collected protagonist suddenly grabs a kitchen knife and stabs her calm, cool and collected husband. Because one of the annoying things about readers is that they also have unconscious rules for your characters. And one of them certainly is that what they do has to make sense in the context of the personalities you have already established for them.

Otherwise, the reader will find the action puzzling, erratic, and even unbelievable. And if so, you kick them out of the continuous dream you’re trying to create.

Creating surprising/fresh stories

Now, I’m not trying to suggest that your characters can’t or shouldn’t do surprising things. Not at all. But they can’t come out of the blue. One of the most convincing ways to do that, I find, is to imbed clues in your narrative which might not be noticeable to the reader. Then when the character does something startling, the reader should be able to remember those non-obvious moments so that you can retain the element of surprise while still making it consistent with the traits established thus far.

I know that’s a bit wordy but here’s an example.

The spouse of an abusive husband seems to just take it and even, in that sickening but common tendency, does all she can to please him. A friend comes over when she is doing the dishes. The friend urges her to leave him but she maintains she loves him. Right about then, she drops a plate which breaks. You might have the wife be terrified of her husband’s reaction to mask this clue.

Later, the wife notices that her husband’s suit jacket is split at the back. She widens it. He makes an important presentation without realizing the problem. He returns, boasting of how well it went. That evening, she quietly repairs the jacket and rehangs it.

So, if she eventually stabs her husband, while it might be surprising, it doesn’t come out of the blue nor would it seem unbelievable.

A unique perspective which keeps your writing fresh doesn’t mean erratic.

A final note

The problem with writing is that there are almost always exceptions to prove the rule. While generally, readers expect continuity in the story, techniques such as stream of consciousness have worked, James Joyce’s Ulysses being an oft-cited example. The movie Moulin Rouge starring Nicole Kidman is another example where a coherent story is lacking and it totally works. That’s writing for you.