I’d like to talk about character today. This is prompted by a couple of middle-grade books I reviewed recently for the Sacramento Book Review. As Donald Maass says in his instructive book, Writing the Breakout Novel, “Most of us do not for very long tolerate people who make us feel frustrated, sad, hopeless or depressed ― not in life, not in books.” Well, that is exactly what I experienced in these two books – the most obnoxious, unlikable main characters I have encountered in a long time, characters who made me feel frustrated most of the time I was reading the books. Honestly, if I hadn’t agreed to review the books, I’m not sure I would have finished them. The stories were not compelling enough to overcome the unpleasantness of the main characters.
I remember hearing at a workshop that writers need to create characters readers will want to cheer for. The main characters in both books were bratty, selfish, and downright mean-spirited nearly the whole way through. I found myself not only cheering for the other side, if you will, but saying out loud more than once, “Are you kidding me?” I wanted someone to come in from the sidelines and straighten those girls out.
Both these books came from large, reputable publishers. This is the kind of mistake I’m not too surprised to see in a self-published book by an anxious new author or from an extremely inexperienced writer, but I can’t imagine how this got past an editor at a big house. For one of the authors, it is her debut novel, but for the other, it is her seventh published book! I won’t be spending any of my time on her other books.
So what is it we can do as writers to build characters who make readers want to get their pom-poms out and jump out and down. According to Donald Maass, “It just requires identifying what is extraordinary in people who are otherwise ordinary.” This, of course, is not nearly as easy as it sounds. Unless we are writing fantasy or science fiction, we want our characters to be believable, which means they need to be fairly ordinary and very human. But I also believe most people have extraordinariness within them, and that is what we need to mine to build characters for whom our readers will want to cheer. I wish I had a good answer to offer here about how to do that, but I don’t. I can only tell you what I do. I try to look for the vulnerability in my character. That will lead me to what gives the character the best chance to become extraordinary by overcoming something that is frightening and difficult for him or her. And that’s where I think the writers of the middle-grade books I read last week missed the mark. They didn’t have characters who overcame anything difficult. Heck, they couldn’t even overcome their own brattiness and selfishness. They never would have even tried. The characters were just plain ordinary. So, writer friends, take a close look at your main characters and make sure the voices you hear in your head are cheering!