The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible - Vladimir Nabokov

There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you - Zora Neale Hurston

07 April 2010

It's so frustrating...

It's so frustrating when a main character is passive, boring and dragging the whole book down with them. The novel I'm reading now never shows the resolution of a conflict. The girl runs away and her protector dispatches the villain off camera. Argh! Why is she even the main character? I'd rather be viewing events through his eyes.

In Nancy Kress's book "Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint", she says you have to decide who you're going to tell the story through. I dismissed her advice at first--I start with a great idea and a main character and I can't *gasp* change it!--but I've seen many instances where it would've been better to axe the main and use the sidekick or the opponent as the focus of the story.

The main protagonist should drive events, make the choices that affect how everything turns out, and preferably be strong. In Stephen King's "On Writing" he talks about how Carrie was never his favorite character because she was so meek and passive most of the time. It was a very successful book, but I don't think it would have been if she hadn't transformed into the evil, scary, exactor-of-vengeance she became at the end. Nowadays, most people's attention spans are shorter (as we are overwhelmed with books, TV and movie choices) and I doubt few people want to wait until the end before the character is interesting. I know I've decided to never buy another book by the author I'm reading now, no matter how it turns out. There's been too much agony along the way.

My feelings on this subject have affected my own writing lately. I've noted where a character behaves more passively than I'd like. I also found one instance where my main was saved by somebody else! That won't do. I'm now rewriting it so, even though people who care about him are trying to help, they can't, and he has to find a way to get himself out of hot water. I think it will make for a more engaging story, so it's worth the effort.

What about you? What really annoys you in books? Do you often find a secondary character more interesting than the main? If you're a writer, have you ever thought about making someone else the main protagonist?


  1. I have read a few books where the secondary character definitely should have been the main character. However, I guess one thing that made the secondary so interesting was how they reacted to the main. I've also read books where it would have been such a great book had it been told through someone's voice.

  2. It is great to have interesting secondary characters--but they should only serve to shine light on the main characters. They are essential to "showing" your MC's flaws and attributes. And they should have their own lives, but nothing that isn't important to the plot.

    Lately, I've read a few books that have to much EXCESS in them. Too many extra paragraphs and descriptions--like the author had a thought and didn't realize it was his/her thought, and not important to the book. This is frustrating!

    GREAT questions.


  3. I have thought about making someone else the main character in one of my older books, and actually ended up doing it. The book is MUCH better for it. While I think a character can start out weak, they must have an arc that changes them or else like you, I won't read anything by that author again.

  4. I agree with Michele, we should strive to fill our work with as many interesting and fascinating characters as we can, but not at the expense of the MC. I had a secondary character in my first book that filled out so well that I made her a co-MC in my second book. :)

  5. Mason--I agree! I think the best secondaries are the one's who are interesting because of their relationship to the main. They serve to focus attention back on the main character but through a different set of eyes.

    Michele--Great to see you again! Yes, it's so true that a secondary character's main function is to shine light on the MC without digressing from plot. And I know what you mean about tacking on excess description--the book that's frustrating me now does that too!

    Heather--Wow, I'm impressed that you were brave enough to change your main! I'm thinking about doing it in one of my older manuscripts, so it's nice to know that it can work out.

    DL--Making her a co-MC is a good way to go. If a great secondary outshines the MC and you never see them again, it can leave the reader wanting. The Millemium trilogy by Steig Larsson did it well. The girl with the dragon tattoo was way more interesting than the other main (who I have a feeling was originally the only main), so I wasn't too frustrated when I was in the guy's scenes, knowing we'd get back to her eventually.

  6. The problem with many main characters is, because they're such a presence in the story you can't make them too quirky or odd because these characteristics will get annoying really quickly. Secondary characters get to be more colourful because they're not centre stage all the time.

    That said, I try to write main characters who are interesting and have faults and flaws. Perfect people are boring.

  7. But, Laurel, why do you think that main characters always have to be strong? Can't a hero be someone who is weak and passive? Such people exist as well, so I guess it's normal for them to appear in books too. What I hate is when a writer put an immoral person for the main character and lets him win at the end as well. That annoys me extremely, when books are written by people who do not have a normal ethical codex.

  8. Elspeth--Too quirky is bad, I agree, but bland as cardboard is worse. I think what I mean is that they have to have some soul to them, some active participation in events, not that they need to wear an eye patch or stutter every fifth word. The main should be key to the story and not a passive observer (I'm talking modern commercial fiction: in literature anything goes).

    Dezmond--I prefer strong, but I don't mean muscles and gun toting. A strong character can be an abused woman who will not stand up for herself at the beginning of the story, but who protects her children, and then goes on to escape him at the end. I prefer mains that are heroes: people we can aspire to be, people who act on their beliefs (while still being flawed human beings). It is their will or actions that make them strong or heroic.

    As for anti-heroes, or immoral protagonists, I totally agree with you! I hate seeing evil people win. I won't read books like that. It's sad that some people do like that type of thing.