Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #2: Introducing the Main Character

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First impressions are important. We decide within seconds whether or not we like someone. And something as simple as the circumstances under which we meet can have a huge influence over our opinion of someone. The same thing holds true for your novel’s characters.

If you’ve been around the querying block for a while, you might have gotten the dreaded rejection letter that states, “I didn’t connect with the character.” This can really hurt. Especially if you, like most writers, love your characters as if they’re your own flesh and blood. How could anyone not love them as much as you do?

It could be the character itself (I’ll get into that another time), but it could also be how you’re introducing the character. In other words, it could be a bad first impression.

To help you assess your protagonist’s first impression, here are some of the most common bad impressions of protagonists:

The Inactive Protagonist

This lazy-bones character just sort of sits around and watches conflict happen around him. He doesn’t try to get involved, but is content to stand on the sidelines. He stands in the shadows and says, “Hey, look, a conflict…I think I’ll just stay here in my shadow.”

The problem with the inactive protagonist is that he doesn’t draw readers into the story. We read books because we want to be dropped in the middle of a conflict from the comfort of our own homes. An inactive protagonist is a bore.

In a character introduction, an inactive protagonist will make readers wish they were reading the story from a different perspective. Anyone involved in a conflict (even the bad guy) is more interesting than someone who isn’t.

The Whiner

“Everything is terrible. Nobody likes me. I can’t do anything right. Blubber, blubber, whine, whine.”

Nobody wants to meet a character who’s sitting around feeling sorry for herself (I’m looking at you YA protagonists). People have the most sympathy for characters who tough things out and the least sympathy for those who throw their own pity party. At her best, the whiner seems angst ridden. At her worst, she elicits eye rolls.

In a character introduction, the whiner can actually cause the reader to identify with the antagonistic force. Because for whatever reason, when people are feeling sorry for themselves, we like to see their pity party get rained on.

The Contemplator

Also known as the window gazer, the coffee drinker, the cigarette smoker, and the sit-around-and-do-nothing-but-think-er.

Conveniently, this character usually thinks about the things the writer wants the reader to know about them, such as a laundry list of their most interesting character traits. The contemplator is boring because he does not draw the reader into the story by being interesting and proactive. The contemplator relies on his own thoughts as entertainment. There are very few characters that will ever be interesting enough to pull this off.

In a character introduction, the contemplator can come across as a weak, bland character unable to carry a plot and unworthy of the reader’s time.

The Historian

The historian is like the contemplator except that the only thing he thinks about is the past: how he met his best friend at seven, how he once got a girl pregnant, and how he found out that apple cinnamon Poptarts are the best.

The historian seems to think that his story can’t start until the reader hears all about everything that’s ever happened to him up to this point. This is a majorly boring drag because readers want to be swept up in the interesting and exciting conflict of the moment!

In a character introduction, the historian will likely be labeled an incurable info-dumper who will spend more time focusing on the past than on the conflict at hand.

The Proactive Protagonist

This is the gold-standard of protagonists. The one you should all be aiming for. She is actively engaged in conflicts. She fights for what she wants, and she never sits on the sidelines!

Readers love the proactive protagonist because she’s fascinating. We can root for her goals right alongside her. We get sucked into her story from the very first page. We almost feel like we are her while reading the story! How fun is that?

In a character introduction, the proactive protagonist lets the reader know that this story is definitely about her and that she will take charge of it from the very first scene to the last.

Note that taking charge of the story does not mean that the character has to be strong and confident. A weak, wimpy character can still be proactive. For example: hiding from bullies, trying to disguise magical abilities, cleaning the house to please an abusive partner.

The key is that the character must be doing something. And that something must be motivated by a desire (not getting beat up, not being discovered as magical, not getting yelled at, etc.).

How to Instantly Connect the Reader to Your Character

It’s entirely possible to have a proactive protagonist that the reader does not connect with. This is because pro-action is just one piece of creating the perfect character introduction. The other pieces are as follows:

  • Clearly identify a conflict. What stands in your character’s way? Readers will want to read on to discover how the conflict is resolved and that tension bonds the reader to the character.
  • Clearly identify what the character wants. We can all relate to desire, and rooting for a character is fun. So make sure the reader understands what the character is attempting to accomplish.
  • Clearly identify one really awesome character trait. Is your protagonist smart as a whip? Gentle as a breeze? Brave as a toaster? Let the reader know the protagonist’s super-cool trait as soon as they’re introduced. Ideally, they should be using this trait to overcome the conflict of the scene.
  • Clearly identify one really sucky character trait. What is their flaw? What will they need to overcome internally in order to resolve the novel’s central conflict? Ideally, this flaw should impact their introductory conflict in some way.

Homework: The Proactive Protagonist Introduction Questionnaire

Answer the following questions about the introduction of your protagonist:

  • Does your protagonist fit the profile of the proactive protagonist?
  • Do we meet your protagonist as she is engaging in a conflict?
  • Is your protagonist’s desire clear?
  • Is your protagonist’s awesome, most interesting character trait clear?
  • Is your protagonist’s suckiest, most terrible character trait clear?

If you answer no to any of these questions, brainstorm ways to rewrite your protagonist’s introduction so that it more clearly represents your character and creates a stronger connection with the reader.

Depending on your time commitment to Novel Boot Camp, rewrite your character introduction or take notes on what you plan to change when you have time for revisions.

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

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What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

21 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #2: Introducing the Main Character

  1. Ryan Slattery says:

    Uh oh. My protagonist is active and drives the story forward with his actions, but also may be a bit of the whiner-type, especially when all his actions lead to horrible things at the beginning of act 2 all the way to the midpoint. In fact he commits suicide at the mid-point (taking pity-party to the extreme). Is there space for this kind of action (his major flaw is an overly-sensitive-guilt-complex), or is a rewrite in order?

    btw, this is another reason my story may need to be boosted up a level from MG to YA…attempted suicide seems a bit too risky for MG.

  2. Justyna says:

    Another great post! I’m learn so much already, thank you!
    check list:
    a) I did identify main conflict clearly (or so I think) which is abusive relationship.
    b) MC desire is clear as well – family for herself and her daughter
    c) week trait that she overcomes – prepared to “take” the abuse in order to have a man in her life, but that changes over time and she stands up for herself.
    I do have a problem though. She is a bit of a contemplator mixed with historian. She thinks a lot about her relationship. Historian bit is more of narrators issue (mine 😉 ). There’s a lot of scenes (with conflicts) that leading up to main conflict. I don’t really know yet how to change that. I will work on it.

  3. Roman says:

    Another great and helpful lecture. Thanks again for the much needed help. I think that my Protagonist meets all of the requirements of a engaging character. The first page she is actively doing something that his highly dangerous and for which she could have had other more qualified people do for her. Her desire is made very clear within almost the first sentence. Her positive trait are revealed through her actions, she’s strong willed. Her negative trait is her bad habit of looking down on people and distancing herself from those who are different from her. This will create internal conflict because of the plot which forces her to work with people that she hates. so, I think that I am on the right track.

  4. Julie G says:

    I have two main characters, who have alternating POVs in the story. They’re going to end up in a relationship, albeit a very rocky one, and they’ll butt heads quite a bit at the beginning to get there. They both have goals to achieve and they help each other to get there, and the reader will see the way they change and develop as persons along the way.

    I’ve heard that novels with two protagonists are difficult to pull off. The main argument I’ve heard is, “How will the reader know which one to root for?” I don’t think that’s an issue with my novel: they have a few things that they’ll fight over, but by the middle of the story, those major differences are going to be resolved.

    But I’m not really sure I’ve got two protagonists. I can see one as being more “central” to the story than the other. However, the other character is really important, too, and has their own story goal, motivation, character strengths and flaws etc.

    So my question is, how do I know if I’ve got two protagonists (and is it even that important to stress over that as long as there’s at least one), and if there ARE two, then am I kidding myself in thinking this could work? 🙂

    xxx

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      It is generally advantageous to have one character be more important than the other in a situation like the one you are describing. The biggest challenge you will face is trying to fit two complete character arcs into a novel that is split evenly between two characters. Even if your novel is 100k words long, you’re talking about a children’s book length of character development for each of the main characters.

      That is not to say that it cannot work, but simply that you’re correct in identifying a potential risk with this structure.

      If one of the protagonists is slightly more important, I would capitalize on that as much as possible so that she/he takes up more room and features more prominently.

      I’m not sure if that helps at all!

      • Julie G says:

        No, that helps a lot! That’s pretty much decided it for me, thinking about how little space I’d actually have to develop both characters. Actually, working on the first draft, I’d already noticed that for the second half of the novel, there’s not that much happening for one of the characters and a whole lot happening for the other. But in the first half of the novel, it’s the opposite. So I guess now, I have to bring out the main character more in the first half, and that should fix things.

        I might also add in a prologue so that we get the main character’s POV sooner. My first 200 words weren’t doing so well as an introduction anyway, so that might fix both issues!

        xxx

  5. Lara Willard says:

    This is excellent! It would be paired well with Donna MacMean’s “Rooting Interests.”

    One of the reasons I tend to stay away from YA is the whininess. Holden Caulfield and all his disciples, I do not like.

    An opening I’d like to add to this list: “Morning Openings” in which the character wakes up, gets dressed, and/or eats breakfast. Unless this is as hilarious or engaging as the opening sequence of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (which introduced action and conflict right away, I might add, even before Ferris got out of bed), then it’s overdone and tired.

    I think writers think they can get away with inactive, whiny, contemplative, or historian protagonists by giving their protagonist something to do. Washing dishes, going for a drive. But the character is still not doing anything of *purpose.* My formula for every scene I write is character + goal + obstacles. Okay, I write some filler scenes, but the scenes I keep in the manuscript, the ones I don’t cut, are ones in which my character has a goal, but things keep getting in the way of that goal.

  6. Julie Griffith says:

    I need to think some more about my protagonist’s best and worst traits. I’d also better take a look and see if my protagonist comes off as too whiny. I intentionally made her a little self-deprecating. I thought it was kind of endearing that she doesn’t realize how pretty, interesting, etc. she is, but I don’t want her to come off too negative either. I laughed when I read about the contemplative and historian protagonists. My first attempts at novel writing had stuff like an entire chapter where the MC was lying in bed, thinking about her past. Lol. I think I made every rookie mistake in the book the first time around (including starting w/a dream), but I guess that’s how we learn.

    • gillianstkevern says:

      Agreed! Trying things out is the best way to learn, and part of that is making mistakes.

      I think a self-depreceating protagonist can work, if her POV is quirky or funny enough to make up for the negativity. In real life, one of my best friends is incredibly pessimistic, but she is funny enough that you don’t immediately notice!

  7. gillianstkevern says:

    I am really enjoying these lectures! I am currently in the process of rewriting my first chapter for the third time. I have a proactive protagonist, and a couple of different layers of conflict that he is involved in so I feel pretty good on that front. As far as making sure that his most engaging character trait is evident, as well as his main flaw, however … They’re there, but I think I might need to emphasize them a lot more.

    So another informative lecture and a very useful homework assignment!

  8. Linda Vernon says:

    Ellen this is just wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. It’s invaluable. You have such a great way of taking “vague notions that something” is wrong and pinpointing them exactly. And in a really entertaining way too!

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