It’s possible I hate your main character.
Now, that might be on me. The list below? Entirely personal. And, as always, in the hands of a master, none of this shit applies. A masterful storyteller can break all the rules and make the breaking of the rules seem like that should’ve been the rule all along. Your Mileage May Vary, but just the same I thought it an interesting exercise to list those things that make me want to punt your main character into a pterodactyl nest. Where he will be promptly ripped into ribbons and gobbets of man-meat.
1. No Agency: Reactive Over Active
The protagonist helps to shape the story through her actions. It’s just how she rolls. Only problem is when the reverse ends up being true: the story forever pushes the character. It’s like in a boxing match — some boxing matches are dreadfully one-sided, with one poor sod taking a limitless pummeling, his head looking like a Ziploc baggy full of ground bison. That’s not a good mode for your story. Your protagonist should not be constantly on the ropes. Sure, the inciting incident might demand reaction (“My daughter was kidnapped by angry polecats! To action!”), but the character must have or claim agency for herself. I despise characters who never grab the reins of the story, not even by the tale’s end.
2. Even Worse: Passive Over Active
Passive is worse than reactive. They’re not just ducking and guarding and feinting — these characters lay down on the ground and let the story defecate on their chest while the audience watches. The character is not a leaf in the stream that is your story. The character is not just a piece of fucking furniture.
3. Zero Redemptive Qualities
I don’t demand a “likable” character. I think likability is overstated. As I say, we need to be willing to live with the character for two hours or 300 pages, not be his best buddy. Just the same, I can’t abide a character who has zero likable or redemptive qualities. He can be selfish and shallow and doomed to his own tragic flaws as long as I have something to grab hold of to pull me out of the swampy mire of those most wretched character traits. “Oh, he’s a dick, but he loves kittens! He kills people for a living but he saves orphans!” Something. Anything. Please.
4. Punches Kids, Kick Pets, And Other Vile Acts
You can give a character as many redemptive qualities as he likes, but for me there is a line where a character crosses over and performs truly execrable acts that cannot be forgiven. I think of this as the Anakin Skywalker problem — I’m supposed to believe that Darth Vader is deserving of redemption by his hillbilly moppet of a son. “There’s still good in him.” Except then Lucas made the prequels and has Anakin murdering Jedi children, Force-choking his wife in a case of domestic abuse and, I dunno, probably setting up a brutal dog fighting ring on Tatooine. I can’t get past that. Ruins the whole thing for me.
5. The Ben Stiller Effect
I don’t want to feel a sense of unending embarrassment for your main character. Watching him, I shouldn’t be constantly wincing, crossing my legs, furrowing my brow. Do not let conflict be driven by the character’s ceaseless stupidity. Endless humiliating self-driven failure ceases to be interesting.
6. The Forrest Gump Problem
Reverse problem: your character’s success is driven by his stupidity. Every time Forrest Gump steps in pile of horse-shit it’s another unqualified success, somehow — “Oh, ha ha ha, Forrest Gump accidentally threw a Frisbee and broke the president’s nose and now we won Viet Nam and chocolate cake for everybody!” I can’t get behind a character whose rampant dipshittery is a cause for celebration.
7. Muddy Motivation
I need to know what your character wants and why he wants it. That is the bare minimum psychic investment I must possess for your character — motivation is the engine behind a character’s actions, and if I have no idea why the character does what he does, then I’m floundering about on the beach of your fiction like a dying porpoise. You can obfuscate a lot about your main character. But not that.
8. “I’m So Good I’m Perfect!”
“I’m a noble fireman and an astronaut and I can do no wrong and I’m made of adorable river otters and I help create the dreams of young girls with ponies in their hearts.” I hate your Goody Two-Shoes Never-Does-Nothing-Wrong character. Hate ’em. You’ve turned that character’s goodness into a shining dagger which you then plunged into my breast (tee hee, breast). Conflict dies in the hands of a perfect protagonist. We love characters for their imperfections. So allow them to be imperfect.
9. Though Maybe Cool It On The Imperfections
You can, of course, go too far with the imperfections, flaws and frailties though, can’t you? “He’s a heroin addict! And a compulsive liar! And gets off on autoerotic asphyxiation. He’s got one leg. And gambling debts! His kids hate him his wife left him he lost his job and his house and he’s allergic to bees and…” You hit a point where it’s equal parts pathetic and downright unbelievable. Hang your hat on a core set of weaknesses. Don’t hamstring the character with an egregious and endless menu of foibles.
10. Her Quirky Quirks Are So Heck-Darn Quirky!
Quirks can be cute. They can be fun. Michael Weston on Burn Notice always eats yogurt. Great. Fine. But don’t let them stand in for genuine character traits. You know the old saying: “Too many quirks poop in the soup.” I think that’s a saying? Whatever. Point is, it’s awfully easy to let a laundry list of quirks pretend to be the foundation of a good character. But quirks are hollow. Too many overwhelm with a disingenuous sense: quirks are a stand-in for authenticity. Doubly true when the quirks mount and become all too twee.
11. “Blah Blah Blah, Toshi Station!”
Whining is not an attractive quality in anybody. Including your characters.
12. Had It Too Good For Too Long
Characters can and should overcome conflict. It’s part of storytelling: characters encounter conflict and struggle to overcome said conflict. But it should never be easy. You remember that kid in school? Had lots of money, teachers loved him, always had everything handed to him on a silver plate by his robot butler? You hated that kid. You hate him in real life and you hate him in fiction. Characters should not slide through the story like a baby covered in bacon grease. Conflict shouldn’t just be speed-bumps or walls made of tissue paper. If a character has it too easy, then I find it equally too easy to quit reading your damn story.
13. The Shoddy Character Copy Machine
Oh! Look! It’s Superman! Buffy! James Bond! Bleargh. I don’t want to see a carbon copy of another character. If I want to read about that character, I’ll go read about that character.
14. “The Type”
I don’t want to read the story of any kind of “type.” I don’t want to read about an archetype or a stereotype or a… I dunno, a what’s a daguerreotype? That’s a thing, right? It’s a character who… is good with… daggers? WHAT AM I A WORDOLOGIST? (Okay, fine, before I get a fusillade of smug pedantic comments, I know what a daguerreotype is. It’s the French word for “penis.”) A “type” is just a piss-thin coat of paint to slather on a faceless mannequin to give the illusion of having a genuine character there somewhere. Create people who are real in the context of your world. Do not lean on the crutch of “type.”
15. The Everyman: Duller Than A Butt-Plug
I’m done with the Everyman. He’s just — ugh. He’s a cubicle wall. He’s a chewed up wad of cardboard. He’s a blank piece of notebook paper. Yes, yes, I get it — he’s meant to represent all of us and be the fictional representation of The Common Man but yeah, you know what? He mostly just comes across as boring. Few of us are truly as common as the phrase “Common Man” suggests, so, let’s divest ourselves of that dull-as-fucking-wallpaper notion and move on. Yes? Yes.
16. Those Angles Don’t Add Up
I don’t want a boring character, obviously, and yet I do demand some degree of internal consistency. The things she does need to add up. They need to come from a place inspired by her fears, her motivations, her past. If we know all along she’s got a lady-boner for revenge, then it’s a hard pill to swallow when she continues to perform actions against that revenge. But it falls to little things, too — she got shot in the leg but doesn’t limp, she’s from Philadelphia but doesn’t know what a cheesesteak is, she’s got black hair one minute and the next minute she’s a sentient recliner named “Dave.” You know. Little things.
17. The Inexplicable Cipher
Mystery is good. I like mystery. I like not having all the answers and feeling like I’m following a trail of your breadcrumbs and, hey, who knows, maybe there’s a pile of gold at the end or some kind of bear-shark-robot hybrid that wants my intestines to host its sharkbearbot progeny. What I don’t like is a character who’s basically just one big question mark: an unsolvable and unknowable puzzle. The character is our way through this thing. She is the lens that focuses our view of the story. If that lens is covered in bird foulings and other schmutz, then everything is muddied. Ciphers can end up as a cheap and lazy trick. Such artifice will earn you a Krav Maga crotch-kapow from yours truly.
18. Atlas Pooped
A character is more than just his philosophies. We are not the sum total of our beliefs. We have friends and family. Hopes and dreams. Secret plans and bizarre sexual peccadilloes requiring an oil drum full of egg whites and Abe Vigoda in a too-tight wetsuit. If your character fails to possess those things and is just a mouthpiece for his (or worse, your) belief systems, then I will come to your house and beat you about the head, neck and butthole with a copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
19. He Tells Me About Stupid Shit
The novel form is great in that it gives story and character room to breathe — but the novel form also offers authors enough rope with which to hang themselves and the whole audience. Just because a novel gives you room to talk doesn’t mean the character should sit there for page after page talking about completely inconsequential piffle. It has to relate back to the story in some way — if your character goes on for three pages about breakfast or toilet habits or animal husbandry and none of it reflects or relates to the story at hand, I am going to want to throttle that character for wasting my time. First draft is a great place to let characters off their leashes. Subsequent drafts should cage those unruly assholes.
20. Truly Fearless
Fearless characters don’t hold my interest. Oh, I like a character that seems fearless, that acts like she doesn’t have one scaredy-widdle-bone in her whole body. But just the same, real fears need to manifest — she must have things to lose, must have things she cannot abide, must have things that haunt her.
21. Not Actually The Main Character
I want the main character to be the protagonist. This doesn’t need to be true, technically, but fuck it, I like it and this list is all about me, nyah nyah boo boo. Sure, you can have a main character who is a witness to the protagonist’s journey and is an observer to the changing world and the unfolding tale, but you need to be really powerful talented to pull that off and get away with it. Let your main characters drive the story as protagonists. Don’t give us a main character who somehow remains secondary to the tale being told.
22. The Motherfucker Dies
Pet peeve time: kill off your main character and I get squirrely. Twitchy. Stabby. There’s an, erm, quite popular “vampire apocalypse” novel a few years back that did this and I had to put the book down. And stomp on it. And punch trees as I held them responsible for creating the paper on which the book was printed. You can maybe get away with this if your cast features an unholy host of “main” characters (I’m looking at you, GRRM), but it’ll still earn you the stinkeye.
23. Wait, Fellas, Come Back, Come Back!
I wanna spend time with your main character but then you run off, leaving me behind like a fat kid who just dropped his ice cream in the sand. I want to hang with great characters, I don’t want you to keep ditching me and having the action happen off-screen or off-page. Root me to the character. I want to be duct-taped to that sonofabitch. Don’t give me a kickass character and then abandon his perspective for half the story.
24. Stagnant As Swamp Water
The heroic mode allows main characters to not change but instead change the world. That’s totally viable. What burns me is when neither is true — the character doesn’t change, the world doesn’t change, nothing changes, it’s all one big status quo circle jerk. Something or someone must change.
25. There’s No There There
Worst case scenario: your character just has no substance. He has no soul. This isn’t a technical writing thing, and it isn’t even a thing you can stick with a push-pin and say, “Here, just give him dark hair, some Mommy issues, and a loyal sharkbearbot companion.” But for some reason the character fails to feel real, fails to allow the audience to transcend the page or the screen and see the character as a Real Boy rather than a Wooden Doll. It’s a sign, perhaps, that you just don’t understand the character you’ve written, that he is held at an arm’s length and you have not yet found that empathetic psychic bridge between the two of you. There’s no easy way to solve this conundrum, sadly — my only advice is to hunker down and figure out what it is you haven’t figured out about your main character.
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109 responses to “25 Reasons I Hate Your Main Character”
Ah, I needed that this morning. I’ve been puzzling over a few things as far as my characters go, and this was the kick in the ass I needed. Thanks!
George Lucas should be shot for the new Star Wars movies, by the way. They were…well, they were just awful.
You probably didn’t name drop because you didn’t want to name drop, but that ‘vampire apocalypse’ novel you had to put down, ‘The Passage’ by any chance?
Where am I? Oh, right. Yeah I’m with you. I think some of these things CAN work if you are a genius. I am not a genius, so I don’t try them 😀 Hopefully I’m not doing them by accident either….
Mira Grant’s “Feed” did the ‘kill the viewpoint’ before the final confrontation, too. Even more unforgivably, it was a first-person book. That’s a _COLOSSAL_ cheat, and all for a bit of manipulative emotion that she obviously couldn’t think of a way to generate through proper writing.
Just guarantees I’ll never pick up another of her books, either as Grant or in her own name, Seanan McGuire.
Yes, I know that this is technically a spoiler. But given that the entire novel is badly spoilt by the clumsy handling, I consider it a public service.
Yeah, whoa, spoilers.
I don’t really subscribe to the school that, “I didn’t like it so it’s okay with spoiling it for other people.”
I found myself agreeing with pretty much everything you said, as in, those are the things I like in a protagonist/main character, too. I just never thought to put it into words like this.
#14, though. I think it’s easy (cheating) to make characters that are archetypes for the sake of having archetype characters. I just read a book on romance novel archetypes, and found that even before I had the knowledge that those types existed, I was using them unconsciously. But better than that, my characters weren’t so cookie-cutter (at least I don’t think so) that I could pinpoint their archetype into one category, sometimes they were all over the place. I still don’t know what my heroine protagonist truly is at heart (according to the book, I mean. I know what she is to me, as a character in a book, that is.). So I think maybe that’s what I’ll take away from #14. That cookie-cutter characters are a snooze. Because sometimes your characters are just going to look like an archetype no matter what you throw at them. As long as they’re interesting and move the story along.
As I plan to spend part of the day writing a scene in which an MC’s worst fear materializes, I found this list both entertaining and useful. (He doesn’t die.) 🙂
When I’m critting drafts for other people, I find a surprising number of instances in which people don’t let their main character *do* anything. Favoring “big damn heroes” as I do, I just don’t get it.
Heh, nice list. Hrm. This is a tough question to ask without spoiling anything, but here goes: Do you read Jim Butcher, and did he get away with breaking one of these rules recently or not?
#10… Juno… that’s all I’ll say.
I’ve always had a question about the “something must change” aspect. How does that apply to a mystery? What significant changes to the character or the world took place in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” or “Murder on the Orient Express?” Or, skipping ahead a few decades, Chandler’s first novel, “The Big Sleep”?
In each of those, the characters remained the same, and the world only changed for those directly affected by the events. In fact, the Big Sleep required a bit of a coverup to be sure the world didn’t change.
So, in the case of a British-style puzzle mystery, what changes?
@Victoria: I think, it’s “I am legend”. And it’s one of the best Fantasy/SciFi-Novels of all time.
(@Victoria, @LeisureLorence — no, not I AM LEGEND. And maybe, just maybe, I’m talking about THE PASSAGE. A book many loved, of course, so YMMV.)
First, that picture of B-Dub is cuteness personified. Also, it’s the Baby Overlord face of perfection. You know, that face they make when you’re sure if they could speak in sentences, they’d say “This restaurant SUCKS!! I want to speak to the manager RIGHT NOW!” 😉
Next, that list awesome. That is all.
Ben Stiller effect: brwahahahahah!
“Secret plans and bizarre sexual peccadilloes requiring an oil drum full of egg whites and Abe Vigoda in a too-tight wetsuit.”
Whew. Thought I was the only one.
I completely agree with Chuck about the Star Wars movies. Thems babies sucks like a Hoover Deluxe. After seeing the horrors that Anakin committed, I didn’t want to see him redeemed; I wanted to see him die in some manner slow and painful. It also didn’t help that Lucas picked an actor, who couldn’t emote pain if you shoved a cattle prod up his ass. Wow, I wanted to spray Lysol on my eyeballs after seeing that last movie.
Good list and a nice reminder that ultimately stories are about people. Even a novel like Watership Down is basically a story about people in bunny suits. And if you don’t find people fascinating, you might want to rethink your pursuit of writing fiction.
Hubs just read The Passage and got seriously pissed off a few times, even though he said it was a decent story.
@Bill In British mystery what changes is the amount of knowledge the reader gains about the character – the plot (the crime) doesn’t test the character the way it does in noir or American mystery…and it’s only later when you look at pastiches do you see the same emotional toll on British characters (like the non-canon Holmes books where he opines over cocaine and wants to do naughty things to/with Watson).
But in Brit Mystery, the reader learns more about the character in broad strokes — maybe some personal history, maybe a snippet of home life or a little B-plot, the development is lateral, not for depth.
Swinging over to Chandler, a lot of the impact of the plot isn’t expressly stated, but it’s assumed it will happen next…even if next isn’t in the book — He shoots the guy in the apartment, lets the girl get arrested, whatever, the character has to deal with those consequences…but we won’t see it, and if done well, we get hints as to how hard/intense that “dealing” is going to be. (In the Big Sleep, it’s the fact that there had to be such coverup that warrants the possibility of a changed character)
The safest “change” in mystery is that the victim remains dead and the killer is caught, which is somewhat contained within the story bubble and doesn’t impact globally (unless the globe is defined as being smaller and story-relevant-only).
That makes sense. Further, at the very least, the primary thing that’s changed is the mystery has been solved. The story begins with a variable (X) and the story solves for (X) as driven by the actions of the protagonist. The world hasn’t changed in a dramatic sense — but the aberration of the mystery has been obviated so that the status quo could return. Sometimes the “change” needed in a plot is a move *toward* a status quo that was broken by the inciting incident of the story at hand.
Required reading at every writer’s conference. Should be printed and pasted in visible writing range. (Yes.) Nuff said.
Thanks for sharing your insight. It helps a lot.
At first I was like, nobody goes around saying “bleargh”, but then I took another look at your avi, and I changed my mind. You probably say “bleargh” often enough. Sometimes I say “Aye” and really surprise myself.
I completely agree. Recently, I find myself encountering more and more protagonists that I want to beat with sticks, and those violent urges really detract from the reading experience. It should not be difficult to connect with the protagonist and *stay* connected. Some of this may be attributed to misguided attempts to be artsy-fartsy by those who do not have the talent to break the rules with style and flair, but I think more often it is sheer ignorance. We are not taught the art of novel writing in grammar school (or even grammar itself, these days), so it should not be surprising that many writers simply don’t know any better. Whatever the underlying reasons, the truth remains that insufferable protagonists lead to poor sales, general embarrassment, and authors’ families wearing sacks over their heads in public to hide their shame.
I agree with all of these. When I get comments from editors/agents/beta readers about “not connecting” with my MC I know it’s because I haven’t connected and have to go back and see why I haven’t connected. I always try and give my MC flaws and imperfections to go along with the bravery/hero thing (I’m talking in my fantasy books). Yeah, Star Wars? Ugh. Used to be one of my faves, no longer. Lucas ruined it. Still like the originals on VHS and won’t give those up.
Your timing with these lists is uncanny. Border-line creepy.
My current project has two protagonists, although you think one (Cid) is the antagonist until you reach the second act (is that allowed? doing it anyway). My problem is, I am so in love with Cid and I’ve filled him with so much character (bad, sarcastic, arrogant character) that he makes my other protagonist, Charlie, seem like a cardboard cutout. But, Charlie is supposed to be kinda boring. Safe. He does change though later on, so I guess that’s okay? I donno. It’s a fine line. I want you to like the guy, but I don’t want him to make you fall asleep, either. Urg. Gotta work on it. I will use your list to guide me, like a wordsmithy sherpa.
I totally agree with these. I especially hate it when the main character is so bumbling that every conflict must be solved via deus ex machina. Sheesh, get some skills or get off the stage!
Are ya kidding? The scene in Star Wars when Anakin kills the Jedi kids was the best part. I’m not saying that because I’m a sick bastard (I’m a sick bastard, just not that sick), I’m saying it because we are talking about man who blew up a planet, who helped to hunt down and destroy the Jedi, he was evil episode six. BUT, he should have never turned good. That was stupid. He cut off his son’s hand. If that was my dad, I would carve him up like turkey, and no, I wouldn’t try turn him good. He’s a sith!
But Anakin was never the protagonist. Obi-Wan was the protagonist. Anakin was too busy being emo to be a true hero, hence why he turned. He was the antag in training, which is why the big bad wanted him. Lucas did a shitty job explaining the story. Why did Lucas had to have Vader a goodie-two-shoes in the last episode? I’m a huge Star Wars fan, but that never sat well with me. Sure he wanted to love his son, but by the choices he made, as hard as he became in order to live with himself for his acts, he was beyond redemption, which is what should have made him even more threatening to the protagonist, Luke.
“Hey Luke, I kill kids for kicks, blow up planets, chopped off your hand while dropping the bombshell of being your father on you, and now, as the fate of the galaxy rests on your shoulders, I’m going to destroy you.”
Much more menacing.
I don’t have set rules for the main character so long as they are written well. But if the writing sucks, then it doesn’t matter. A lot of these rules are great examples of bad writing. Too perfect, too stupid, ect. Which is great advice for someone wanting to create realistic characters. Balance!
You distilled the reason I can’t watch Ben Stiller very succinctly- thank you.
I will disagree with you on Forrest Gump though. I always thought the point was that Forrest didn’t fight with his own intellect (well, cause he couldn’t) the way characters like Jenny and Lieutenant Dan did. He couldn’t talk himself out of doing things because he never saw the obstacles- he just plowed ahead. The rest of us are just smart enough to get depressed over the wrongs done to us and the unfairness of our circumstances. But Forrest is like a puppy who just shakes everything off and wanders off until he finds something else that catches his attention. It’s not that we’re supposed to admire stupidity- but that we should realize that over-thinking everything is just as big a handicap as being unable to recognize obvious hazards. Just my two cents.
These are all the reason’s Mike Leigh’s “Happy go lucky” . Makes me angry just thinking about it.
I think parts of #7 & 8 are why this YA novel I’ve been trying to pimp for too grumble*grumble long is going no where.
I was married to #9. Don’t look at me that way. I got better. Key word is the WAS.
And can I do a round-up for #15? *cheers*
And I agree with @Amy – your timing is borderline creepy. Have you hacked into my desktop? Are you in my files reading my drafts? (I am now imagining Bdub in a little Link outfit and wood sword doing Navi’s (you!) bidding.
@John/@Chuck That makes way more sense than I’d hoped to expect. Thanks for the views on it. That actually takes a lot of the pressure off of my MC, as that was the one thing on the list that I’m sure applied. (Others still may.)
Hey, I put that book down too. I didn’t stop on it because I’d gotten it from the library, but I just wonder what on earth JC was thinking.
Also, sharkbearbot is the right kind of sidekick. A map? No.
But I love my sentient recliner named Dave who used to have black hair when he was a she!
I LOVE this! Thanks for posting!
You pretty much listed all of my pet peeves when it comes to characterization. Nicely done, sir.
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Totally agree and am actually rethinking a MC in something I thought was finished. However I’d point out that LOST killed off main characters pretty effectively. Perhaps the exception that proves the rule. As for Forrest Gump, I see the point, but arguably Forrest put himself in all those situations (that just happened to turn out historical) and behaved as he did to win over Jenny. Gump is more a straight up love story than anything else and from that point of view, Gump was acting, not reacting.
Best blog post ever!
Oh my god, I thought I was the only person in the entire world who cringed at the Ben Stiller Effect! Whoa! Nice article.
Number 22, I completely agree. I have not read and will not read anything that Nicholas Sparks because one of his books which was turned into a movie back in the 90’s and involved sailboats. I watched the movie version (he wrote the screenplay so he doesn’t get to blame Hollywood for this one.) and when the end came, I literally stood up and shouted at the TV, “What the fuck? He would have been better off if he had remained a drunk and never met her!” This book and movie get my vote for all time suckiest end to a story ever.
And because of this, I will NOT ever read or watch anything that Nicholas Sparks is involved in. NEVER.
I can’t agree with #22. Oh, sure, like any plot device or story event under and over the Sun it has been badly used (though I think commercial pressures have prevented it from being overused). But because a bunch of lesser writers screw up killing the main character doesn’t mean it’s an invalid approach to a story.
I see it so seldom, I would like to see it more. The many failures and few successes that would result from this would be far more refreshing to me than the legion of well executed stories that grant their MC full Plot Armor plate.
#4 is too much fun not to try now and then. Esp. if one doesn’t care about commercial success for a particular project.
The main character doesn’t change in a Brit mystery? Try Gaudy Night, old chap.
Ah, sigh, but if you come from a family so poor they can’t afford extra dogs (cats are OK because they take care of themselves), and no adult bothers to prevent extra puppies…
There is also the issue of Viking temper, which can be disastrous…
Should I lie about that like Garrison Keillor? I won’t. I can only try to change my own life.
You’re right of course.
Great list, great advice. Would also love some insight into how you taught the newborn progeny to obey the KILL THE PRIME MINISTER command. LOL
When I first read the title, I thought, “Oh, yeah? Well, he doesn’t like you, either.” Once again, however, you have a great list that is fresh and original, yet still seems like someone should have written it 50 years ago.
Except for the Ben Stiller Effect. Seriously. You deserve a Ph.D. for coming up with the term and describing it. The painfully awkward shouldn’t be a schtick. It pisses me off to see it sometimes.
I agree, disagree with some of these. Specifically, I remember reading a series where I’m sorry but THE MAIN CHARACTER SHOULD HAVE DIED. I fully expected him to die. So did he. The last three books he’d spent preparing for his inevitable death. It was set up so that psychological/physical/realistic recovery from that point would be impossible.
But no, the author killed his best friend instead, tacked on a happy ending, and sent him back to his old life.
[…] Chuck Wendig on 25 Reasons I Hate Your Main Character. […]
Hank Rearden is cool. Full-blown character with full-blown rights to exist. #atlas
Anakin is cool, too. The trouble is not with Anakin, it is with the storytelling of episode III. There’s a giant leap in character development that doesn’t really make sense, so it is kind of surprising and unbelievable that he sets off to mow down some kids all of a sudden. It’s Lucas at fault, not Annie; he just needed to paint him bad over the next 10 minutes of the reel.
Btw, @Dale: Cutting off one’s hand is a classic initiation ritual of Jedihood. Show me even one Jedi who hasn’t lost his or cut some off at one time or another. Obi-Wan is notorious in this – he cut them off in droves, alien hands on remote planets, girl hands in shady barrooms, droid hands all over the galaxy etc etc ad infinitum.
Great thought provoking ideas — as usual. On the question of “muddy motivations” however — just why did Hamlet not kill Claudius in the first act? Was he really crazy, or just pretending? Isn’t the “muddiness” or ambiguity of Hamlet’s motivation what makes him, arguably, the greatest character in all of fiction? The fact that he’s bigger than any interpretation of him can be?
This is a really great list. I’m pretty sure my character is safe from all this, but I won’t know till I get some beta reader feedback =) Though now I have a nice list to point my betas to, if they end up not finishing my MS. I can say “Any of these 25 reasons speak to you?”
Thanks for making it as informative and entertaining!
Sheesh, now you tell us this stuff. Turns out I’ve committed at least ten of these in my first novel alone… which is about how many copies it sells a year.
Sadly, a couple are diametrically opposed, so I guess you can’t easily have all twenty-five in one book. Well, okay, not all twenty-five and self-respect…
[…] No that isn’t you my readers and subscribers, I am forever grateful for your input here and will continue to be so. No, this is an amusing and informative polemic against poorly written or developing primary characters. See the link here. […]
I actually love writers who have the cojones to kill of major characters. Kim Stanley Robinson kills off two main characters and his most interesting supporting character by the end of the first book of his Mars trilogy, and I adore that series from beginning to end. I felt the deaths in A Game Of Thrones and The Passage were important to the story.
Maybe I’m ghoulish? Or maybe it’s a cultural thing. When I was in my teens I used to watch telenovelas in an attempt to improve my Spanish. It didn’t happen a lot, but there were several where they killed off main characters a third or half-way through the show. It was disconcerting at first, but I got to like how it shook up the story. A popular French novel I read a couple of years ago knocked off its main character at the end. I thought to myself at the time that no way would an American writer make that choice, but to me it seemed audacious.
But I agree with pretty much everything else on the list.