Most readers want to like the protagonists of the books they read. Even if the main character has a long way to grow to become likable at the beginning of the book, they had better have something that makes them sympathetic or the reader is going to find someone else to spend time with. Most commercial fiction is populated with sympathetic characters, people we want to root for. But what about when your otherwise likable character makes a mistake?
There’s an old saying among writers, “Reality is no excuse for fiction.” That means that just because something happened in real life, if it’s weird or unlikely you probably shouldn’t have it happen in your book. (The only exception to this maxim is when it makes things worse for your hero, and even then you have to be careful.) We’ve all made boneheaded mistakes, done things that in hindsight we can’t believe we did, things we should have known better than to do. That doesn’t mean our characters get to be stupid, though. They can make mistakes, but you’d better give them a good reason to be blind to the right path or your readers will let you hear about it. And you’d better sell it.
You can hit all your marks, give your character the right emotional backstory that perfectly justifies her inability to trust, or commit, or stop being a workaholic, but if the reader doesn’t feel it, they won’t believe it.
So how do you do that?
- Understand your characters. Have at least a basic knowledge of your characters before you start so you know where they’re coming from. This makes it easier for you to know how the character will choose between A and B as they progress through the story. It’s okay to build up that background as you go along, just be sure you go back in the revision phase to make everything consistent.
- Multiple layers. You can’t just tell the reader that the character was hurt by her boyfriend and you can’t do it just once. Show how that experience is still affecting her years later, in several different ways. Then you can show how the events of the story are causing her to grow beyond that old, limiting experience.
- Which brings us to: Show, don’t tell. I know, this is an oldie. And you don’t have to show everything. Sometimes telling is the right way to move a story along. But putting a reader IN a scene, so they can watch how it unfolds and how the character reacts, rather than being TOLD about what happened, helps the reader feel it.
- Tell it from a different character’s perspective. Sometimes you can break the above rule (sort of) by having another character tell about something that shaped the protagonist. By showing that other character’s reaction to the events, you guide the reader’s reaction as well.
That being said, even if you do everything right, you won’t sell it to every reader, every time.
Writing a novel or short story isn’t as much of a group effort as writing for Hollywood, where directors and actors interpret the writer’s work before the audience ever sees it, but it’s still collaborative. Obviously, your editor will have some input. Less obvious is what the reader brings to the story. Every reader has his or her own way of viewing the world. Sometimes that bias prevents them from understanding why a certain experience shaped the character a certain way. The character’s reaction is not what they would have done. If you do your job well, most readers will be able to experience the world through the mind and the heart of your character for that little time they’re inside your creation. But the magic doesn’t always work. Not every book is a good fit for every reader, every time. And that’s okay. If the author does her job, the rest of the story will be satisfying enough for the reader to keep turning the pages, even when the character makes a mistake.
* * * * *
For the 28th and 29th of September, DANGEROUS TALENTS will be Free. This is the last time this year that the first Vinlanders’ Saga book will be on sale.
And if you haven’t already done so, you can get a Free fantasy story by signing up for my VIP Newsletter. Just click on Get a Free Story in the Nav bar above. (I won’t spam your inbox or share your email. The only time you’ll hear from me is when I have a new book or when a book goes on sale.)