Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

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Loving your characters too much

Writers are usually inspired to write because they have a character in their heads who won't go away. The plot arises from the initial problem or desire impelling that character to act, and the narrative follows the consequences of that action to a satisfying end.

It's natural to make your main characters, especially your protagonist, likeable. After all, you're probably likeable yourself. The public's appetite for anti-heroes has never been strong, for the good reason that reading about creeps and louses isn't a particularly satisfying reading experience.

Readers enjoy stories about acclaim, success, or romance, because they get to share these with the protagonist. You, the author, also live a fantasy through your protagonist. You want to see what would happen if you were faced with certain choices. How would you act when challenged by the Sheriff of Nottingham? Wouldn't you like to win the gold, the girl (or boy), and all the glory? Who wouldn't?

But to give him the gold, the girl and the glory is to fall in love with your protagonist. Of course you like your protagonist: you are writing about him or her, after all. They dominate your thoughts, you can't bear to have anything bad happen to them, and it's satisfying to give them every single witty remark you ever wish you'd ever made, all the physical or moral courage you wished you possessed, every good thing that ought to be the reward of virtue.

Is this bad? Aren't there many books selling right now with protagonists like that? Yes. But they are not great books, nor books that will live past their print run. While there is a place for fantasy fulfilment novels, they are seldom considered 'well written' because they lack the grittiness of reality. There are no James Bonds in real life. Readers enjoy a fantasy now and then, but their hunger for story is satisfied only by lifelike protagonists dealing realistically with the fabric of life. An inflatable doll, no matter how curvaceous, is not a human being.

If you are worried that your book has drifted into fantasy, when you had planned to write about reality, here is a checklist for you who might love your protagonists too much:

  1. Does your protagonist lack character flaws? Or, if he or she has a few weaknesses, are these flaws (such as deep modesty) also loveable?
  2. Do all the other good characters unhesitatingly like, love, or support your protagonist? Do they put the protagonist's needs before their own?
  3. Are the bad guys merely foils for the protagonists, e.g. as selfish and catty as she is generous and thoughtful, as cowardly and cunning as he is brave and straight-talking?
  4. Are the impediments and problems challenging your protagonist too easily overcome? Are they straw targets, existing only to demonstrate the protagonist's virtues? Conversely, are they so great (saving the world) that no real person could solve them?
  5. Are the rewards gained by your protagonist, having triumphed over adversity, disproportionate? Do beautiful men surrender themselves to her? Does he become the leader of the international federation by acclaim?
  6. Does your protagonist never err?

If you have answered yes to any of these questions, and you don't like having to answer yes, then you want to write realistic fiction rather than fantasy. You must now solve the problem of the protagonist who is loved too much.

1.  If you have prepared a biography for your character, look at it critically. (If you haven't written one, now is the time, because sometimes loving a character too much means not having seen them fully in their lives.) You might have listed her favorite colours, her birthday, and who was her best friend in primary school, but have you listed the nastiest thing she ever did as a child, or the act of which she is most ashamed? Sit back and laugh at your protagonist. What are his pompous or unlovable quirks? Does he pick his ears in public? Has he a prurient but ridiculous secret? Consider your family and friends, how they are each made up of appealing and tiresome habits, then round out your protagonist in a similar way.

2.  Now look at your other good characters. The major characters need to be fleshed out with their own weaknesses and flaws. Think about why the good Duke of Mallaprin would swear loyalty to your prince-driven-from-his-throne. Or why the canny police officer would throw in her luck with your crusading attorney. Minor characters need less work, but you should know why each person in your story is acting the way that they are. A good person might be helping the protagonist from less than noble motives, or their support might be conditional, or it might falter when things get tough.

3.  Why are your bad guys bad? What made them that way? Do they have any redeeming qualities? Even a Mafioso can love his children. Are they evil per se, or is it simply that their goals and your protagonist's are incompatible? A pleasant man can seem a monster if he plans to build his factory on a local woodland. See the world through the eyes of your antagonist for a few minutes, and return to your story with this insight.

4.  Every impediment facing your protagonist should have the potential of being too great to be conquered. One of the frustrations with early television detective series is that the crime was always solved. Any police detective will tell you that life isn't like that. When your protagonist tackles something, there has to be a good chance that he or she will fail. If he is to succeed in the end, perhaps he loses some battle along the way, or suffers a lasting reverse. The prince regains his throne, but the good Duke dies. A dancer finds true love, but gives up her chance of greatness on the stage. In real life we lose sometimes more than we win. The fate of your protagonist should reflect this.

5.  In the same way, your protagonist's final victory should be examined. Would your plucky young attorney really be made partner, marry the gorgeous police officer, and live happily ever after? Are you giving your protagonist not just the cake, but the whipped cream and the cherry too? How many of the people in your life achieve everything they want? Make your protagonist's reward convincing by its restraint.

6.  Let your protagonist mess things up through his or her own character flaws. If his pride makes him blow his proposal of marriage, that gives the plot impetus, as Austen well knew. If he learns from this, as Darcy did, it is a most satisfying read. Sometimes your protagonist will err fatally and will have to live with it forever. Let his or her response drive the narrative.

Good fiction is life with all the boring bits taken out, not with all the hardship taken out. If you want to create characters who are dynamic and real, keep your distance from them. Be objective about your most lovable character, be cynical about the best person's motivation. Once you have accepted that they have flaws and failings, you can create living characters who will create a natural, satisfying plot for you. Such characters linger in the minds of their readers and are, yes, loved.