Thursday, April 7, 2011

Getting to know you - Meeting the main characters for the first time

I'm often called upon by new writers to do a critique of their manuscripts. It's always interesting to find a new writer who has something to say. Lately I've been seeing some interesting characters and some who make a bad first impression. Several of these new writers have great ideas for the stories and characters one could love. Still I didn't like what I saw or what I read. What happened here?

In one story, the main character was over-shadowed by the adults in the story and by the writer's idea of how to present him. In a second the character seemed nebulous. Wordy without having anything to say. The third introduced both a hero and a heroine acting in ways that were designed to turn the character off.

There's a song from The King and I that has always run through my head when I'm beginning to develop my characters. "Getting to Know You." Always makes me want to show the main characters in a favorable light. What about you?

Even when we're meeting a stranger for the first time would you rather see them in a positive light, unless they're the villain. Showing the heroine having a temper tantrum isn't a great way to let the reader want to know them better. Sure characters can change and grow but the initial impression is often what counts. Letting the reader see the hero or heroine doing something distasteful doesn't bring that moment of saying I want to know this person better.

All three times I had to be a bit harsh when I spoke to the new writers about my initial impressions of their characters. I don't like to do this. I always want to say, "Oh, wow, I really like your characters. The only problem I find with your story is something easily fixed." When I have to say I don't like your hero, heroine or even the villain, I feel sad.

The first view of a character will stick in a reader's head. One can show the problems the character is having without making the hero or heroine a person the reader doesn't want to know.


  1. Sound advice. Thanks!
    I'm working on my first book. But.. I have a skeleton of a 2nd book. It starts showing the antagonist doing something bad. But one quickly learns she's loony-tunes. In some way, you gotta love her, especially when you read things from her POV. It needs a lot of work, and I intend to keep 'Getting to Know You' in my mind as I do it.
    Again, Thanks!

  2. I agree. The characters are what I remember about a story.They need to be more than stick figures. We have to care about them. If we don't, the readers won't either. They need goals, ambitions, and faults. They need a background, inner conflicts as well as outer one.

    Thanks for a good article. Here's to creating memorable characters.

  3. Making a character likable and worth hanging around even when they're doing something wrong or bad is one of the biggest dance acts writers face, I think. I know I spend a lot of time analyzing writers I like to try and figure out how they kept me reading even when their main character was doing something I hated -although not out of character!