Writing Excuses 10.5: What Do You Mean My Main Character is Boring?

Characters are the focus of the Writing Excuses Master Class during February, and we lead off with an exploration of a common problem: the main character is often the least interesting person in the story. And of course, in the process of exploring the problem, we look at the sorts of things you can do in order to solve them. It something each of the hosts has struggled with, and we talk about the solutions we’ve arrived at (insomuch as we’ve managed to solve the problem.)

Sidebar: In Season 9 we talked about character attributes using a slider metaphor. If you want to catch up on that, here are links to Episode 9.1 (the three-prong model), Episode 9.25(sympathy), Episode 9.26 (competence), and Episode 9.32 (proactivity.)

Play

Take three different characters and walk them through a scene. Convey their emotional states, their jobs, and their hobbies without directly stating any of those. The scene in question: walking through a marketplace, and they need to do a dead-drop.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, narrated by Simon Slater

18 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.5: What Do You Mean My Main Character is Boring?”

  1. To push back a little I like to cite the Rocky & Bullwinkle example. Rocky (the Flying Squirrel) is boring. Bullwinkle (the Moose) is interesting. The show was successful as ‘The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” – Rocky obviously being the main lead and Bullwinkle the sidekick. It was not so successful as “The Bullwinkle Show”. Often it is better if the hero is a little on the boring side. This works well in “buddy” situations like R&B. Other examples from my childhood are The Lone Ranger and Tonto and The Cisco Kid and Pancho. Sure, the L.R. had his buddies all killed off but that was only used in his origin story. L.R. was the boring reliable one. Tonto was the interesting guy. The same is true of Cisco and Pancho. Cisco was boring and reliable. Pancho got all the best lines. The hero is the character you generally anchor the action on. She needs to be reliable enough to move all the action all the way through your story. Really boring is definitely bad. But a little boring is often a good thing.

  2. This is interesting when it comes to video games. Choosing whether the protagonist of a game is going to be a blank stand-in for the player or a character will change the way the story is written dramatically. I wonder whether the ‘stand-in’ option is influencing the way we write prose SFF.

  3. With respect to Dan’s remark about fixing his protagonist, “she needed more flaws,” and the notion of “giving” a character quirks and a dark past, I think this is a backwards approach to writing. The lesson needs to be that we craft situations that provoke the quirks, flaws, and dark pasts to leak or burst from the character.

    Characters are reflections of humans as we know them; they are flawed before they hit the page. It is up to us, the authors, to walk, crash, or hurl them into situations that draw those qualities from the character onto the page.

    Similarly, we can’t give real people flaws, but we can watch them encounter situations that reveal their flaws. To this end, Setting can be a valuable tool for showing a character’s strengths and weaknesses.

  4. Thank you so much, I have an accountability problem with my protagonist and I didn’t even realize it!

    One question, did you change microphone on the podcast since last season? It seems like this years episodes are getting much more feedback than previous seasons. I even downloaded previous episodes on the same device and they sound different. Is it just me?

  5. Fantastic episode, as usual 😀

    Same as Chris, I was about to ask about your microphones. Everytime someone talks there is background white noise or similar. For me personally it is quite distracting. Please, check if u can get rid of it.

  6. Awesome episode. I have this problem a lot with my characters, they don’t have conflict arcs.

    A question for your QA session on characters (I’m assuming you’ll have one since you had one on Ideas). How many conflict arcs (small and large) should you give your POV and other main non POV characters?

  7. @Hanna – I think about that all the time! Stephen King mentioned in interviews that his writing was somewhat different than what came before because his first introduction to fiction was through film where the ones before learned how to tell stories by reading, and his writing style was influenced by that. Now the people who first learned how stories work by playing video games are adults and writing books of their own, and I am so hype to see how that changes us as an artistic medium.

    As for myself, I had this problem with the book I just finished. Thankfully, my friends accidentally gave me some good ideas for interesting and unique personality traits that I haven’t actually seen used too much in modern books. So fingers crossed it actually works (test reader response after I added them was fairly positive).

  8. I’m going to disagree with you on the point you made about Harry Potter. I think the books clearly show that what Harry wants more than anything is a family and a home. One of my favorite moments in the book is when Sirius invites Harry to live with him at 12 Grimmauld Place. Also, Harry often finds himself at home with the Weasley’s and even at the end of the first book when Hermione asks “Feels strange to be going home, doesn’t it?”, Harry replies “I’m not going home. Not really.” All that being said, I don’t think I can argue against Ron and Hermione being more interesting characters.

  9. As a congenitally disabled writer, I have a vested interest in character diversity. As you guys mentioned, though, it’s so often poorly done (particularly vis-a-vis disabled characters, something you’ve covered very well in other episodes). Too often, writers seem to treat character diversity like a Hollywood casting call – “okay, I need a woman here, a person of color here, maybe a short person here, done!” It makes me wonder if that’s how those authors actually see the *world* – a mass of average, white, straight, ablebodied folks, and then “everybody else”. I don’t mean that as an insult to “average, white, straight, ablebodied” authors, by the way – I have known disabled writers and writers who were black/latino who also treat character diversity this way, and over the course of discussing *why*, it turned out they *did* essentially see the world that way, with *themselves* as the “other” – which is really sad, when you think about it. Writing can and should be far more empowering than that.

    On a related note, I actually have the opposite problem when it comes to character diversity; it’s very difficult for me to write ablebodied characters. Since I was born with cerebral palsy, I walk like Frankenstein’s monster and I have to think about every step (consequently, when I dream, I look like I’m walking the same way I always do, but my field of vision is smooth and glidey, as though I’m in my wheelchair, and my dream-self has little sensation from the waist down. I assume that’s because it can’t reconcile “cerebral palsy walk” with “smooth field of vision” so it just cobbles together the least confusing bits.) That weird “half ablebodied” dream self is the only touchstone I have for “what does it feel like to be ablebodied,” so I’m often found asking my ablebodied friends questions like “so, does your field of vision bob around when you walk?” or “can you sit down and stand up again without using your hands?” or “hey, you’re about the height of my character, how high can you jump?” because I have *no idea* how to answer those questions, and I can’t test those things myself!

  10. Hi WE Team – Great Podcast, Thanks!

    Now that the pleasantries are covered, let me get to my query. (shameless, I know)

    I understand the principals of readers needing to be emotionally invested into characters, raising the emotional steaks, in late, out early, and Dan’s “Ice Monster Prologue” – but what happens when all this power packed tension and fun backfires?

    Example: I’ve tried to raise the emotional steaks in my prologue: A militia have backed a group of travellers into a cave. They won’t stop until everyone inside is dead. Inside the cave are 10 people. They are outnumbered, running out of ammo, and are systematically being eliminated. POV is a woman who is giving birth (breech birth). She’s also been shot in the leg. But before the baby is born, the midwife is shot and killed.

    BOOM BOOM BOOM – I’ve cranked the intensity dial to maximum capacity! Unfortunately, Peer review agree – “who cares? This is a prologue! – readers don’t know these character well enough to care.”

    Side note: The POV character for my prologue will die before chapter 1 (surprising, yet inevitable), as the story is about her child. Thus it’s pointless to waste time on the woman’s back story. Likewise, I can’t write the scene from the new-born’s perspective – I mean, I could, but that would be plain weird (ga-ga goo-goo, Bang! Bang! wah!!!!). If this is, perhaps, a POV issue, I could always write it from the only other character’s perspective to make it out of that cave alive – the person that has to deliver the baby and escape… but that isn’t much better. I kill him in Chapter 1.

    Do you have any suggestions, insight, comments, or mint chocolate bars? –Mmm Yummy!

  11. @Meg, I have the same problem with seeing depth. I only use one eye, and that eye has no lens other than a fixed-distance contact lens, so I have no depth perception and I cannot focus. I “focus” by putting glasses over my contacts to change my fixed focal length, or moving an object into my focal length, or squinting. In other words, I have contacts for close up, glasses to go over that for computer distance, and another set of glasses that are for far distance (driving, movies, lecture hall, play, show, reading menu on the wall etc). Walking around, I just live with being really near sighted to avoid having to wear glasses and switch them around all the dang time. I cannot usually recognize people far away and cannot read signs unless I pull out my glasses.

    Also, I have no 3-D vision at all. I cannot catch a flying object someone flings at me unless I get lucky and they aim it to perfectly hit my hands. I have a very hard time estimating differences in distance (like, it’s about 50 yards that way, or that’s about 10 feet long). I really have to think hard about it, really visualize a man about 6 feet tall, and think, yes, that’s about 2 men, or 1.5 men, or visualize a football field and think, yes, it’s about half of this, or 2 of these. I move about in the world normally, and I can drive a car, but still, I don’t see the world the way most people do.

    I’ve read about people like me who are able to regain 3-D vision as adults, and they say the world looks *nothing at all* to normal people like the world looks those of us with one eye.

    This makes me somewhat nervous when I write descriptions. Not only do I find some descriptions in books a little baffling at times, I’m worried what I write for descriptions will sound strange to normal people. I figure I’ll just have to have patient alpha readers with 2 eyes that will catch any errors in distance or depth that I will surely make. It’s frustrating.

  12. But, on the positive side, if anyone has any one-eyed characters they want me to check for accuracy, let me know! 🙂

    (ps — Brandon — not to be overly picky — but Gaz wouldn’t have seen any darkness in his field of vision. Just like you aren’t aware of the idea of “darkness” behind your head).

  13. Well, I’m a day late and a dollar (or two) short, but I finally got my homework for this episode finished and posted on my blog: http://www.amybeatty.com/blog/2015/2/7/writing-excuses-homework-episode-105

    I’m not seeing any links to other people’s homework. I hope this doesn’t mean nobody else did this exercise, because I found it really interesting to think about how the scene (and story) would change depending on who the main character is. If anyone is having a hard time getting started, I found episodes 6.11 and 8.31 very helpful for this one, maybe you would too. 🙂

  14. Hey Henckel, I know my opinion is not one of the ones you were looking for, but for what it’s worth, my recommendation would be to set the prologue aside for now and start writing the main story. Start with some kind of action (with the story in motion–in late) but don’t ramp it up so high at the very beginning that there’s no “up” to go from where you started. You want the tension to be able to increase throughout the story until you reach the climax. It’s good to begin with things already in motion, but if you start out with climax-level action, then it’s hard to make the actual climax feel climactic in comparison, and readers feel let down. Let the beginning give a sense of who the main characters are, why we should care about them, what direction they’re moving (figuratively or literally), and what setting they’re moving through, and make us curious enough about what they’re up to, or what’s happening to them, that we need to turn the page and keep reading to find out. That’s enough for a beginning.

    You can always come back to the prologue later when the rest of the story is in hand. You might find that looking at it with fresh eyes, you have a better idea of what to adjust to make it better. Or as you get deeper into the main story, you might find a creative way to put in that information–that the main character was born in a cave during a fire fight and his mother died there, etc.–at a time when it’s more meaningful to readers, and that a prologue isn’t necessarily…well…necessary. Depending on the story, it might even be interesting to dole the information out a little at a time to build the main character’s “mystique”.

  15. Not that you asked but one character that really sticks in my mind, after all these years, was Anhaga Ballas from Ian Graham’s “Monument.” The character is terribly flawed and despicable yet compelling.

    Another memorable is Christopher Snow from Dean Koontz’s “Fear Nothing”.

    Great episode.

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