3 Ways to Make Your Main Character Suck More

I once returned a book because the “lovable” main character was so perfect, that I found myself daydreaming of punching the author in the trachea.

Kangaroo Punch
The girl working at Barnes & Noble asked why I was returning the book. I told her I couldn’t finish it because I hated the writing. She did a poor job of hiding her judgement of my apparent douchiness and I got my $27.99 back.

I have yet to meet a real human being who is still perfect and polished once you get past their facade and BS. Don’t write main characters who keep their walls up to the audience. That’s fake and unrelatable. If a character has a facade, reveal a deeper part of them to the audience so we know they’re hiding something worthwhile from their loved ones.

If there’s nothing to hide, then it’s just a dog poop brownie. Looks like a delicious brownie on the outside, but it’s just shit on the inside.

Nobody wants a shitty character when the audience was promised something good on the inside.

In an effort to maintain a trachea that’s intact, follow these 3 tips I wish I knew when I started writing, and your readers (probably) won’t hunt you down like this kangaroo I hired to find that author who cost me $27.99.

1. Your Character Needs To Be Worse

I used to create the most angelic, unblemished characters. I envisioned all my readers aspiring to become like them.

Of course I didn’t want to make them unrelatable. So, I added a flaw. Not too big as to make them unlikable, but big enough so readers could empathize.

An abomination was born.

Kim Kardashian

They were the fakest people on planet earth, akin to Kim Kardashian: as plastic as a barbie. No flaws. Perfection is boring and unrealistic.

People are deeply flawed, capable of great sin and great love. A light peppering of either sin or love is tepid. Being tepid is flavorless.

And if you are… a kangaroo is just around the bend.

You’re suddenly very aware of your trachea.

 

2. Stop Being So Abusive

Don’t find excuses to bring up your characters flaws. That’s abusive to your character, and it weakens potency.

If I made a character (going to completely make one up here) named Bruce who is haunted by his parent’s death, his life trajectory may be altered as a result. But he’s not going to think about their death every waking moment. He might be driven to the greatness of a hero, or the depravity of a villain, but he is not thinking about his root issues daily.

I used to write loads of flashback and nightmare sequences to showcase my character’s difficult pasts, or to embellish on his/her flaws. I made backstory the story, and it ended up crippling my novel’s momentum.

Your character is dynamic, identified by many things, their past being one of them. Don’t use the past as a storytelling crutch.

Use it as a way to enrich the character. The flaws you choose should heighten drama and tension. Don’t add flaws just because you have to.

 

3. Meet Your Creations

There have been times I’ve changed virtually everything about my main character mid-novel. Change isn’t a bad thing. You have to be flexible with an evolving story, but when it really came down to it, I didn’t intimately know my character, and my indecision led to a confused identity.

Create a separate document outlining your Bruce. Bruce might have a crippling fear of, say… snakes… nah… too mainstream. How about bats? Yeah. Much better.

You might never unearth that fear unless you spend some time with him.

Drop him in a random location with someone, and see how Bruce reacts to this person in conversation.

Maybe Bruce is lactose intolerant. You didn’t know that until he ordered a soy latte. Major plot twist: he has digestive issues!

Sorry, I should have said spoiler alert.

Too late now.

Remember that you don’t have to incorporate all (or any) of what you discover in your novel. Their sole purpose is to help you get to know your character a little better.


 

If you follow any of these 3 tips, you’ll start off at a much better place than I did. Your characters will feel more real and you won’t have an abomination like Kim Kardashian inhabiting your pages.
Your readers will notice and (probably) won’t punch you in the trachea.

Which is a plus if you ask me.


Question of the day: What’s one time you ran into a fake character? Was it in fiction or real life?

8 Comments

  1. Thanks for the insight, Ben. Something you pointed out that I need to work on in my own novel is this: if you write characters honestly, they will be naturally flawed. I know a lot of characters (in life and story) are so poised that even their flaws seem contrived, so making characters as real as you can will flesh them out, I think. .
    Thanks again.

    • bdschmitt

      May 4, 2015 at 11:34 am

      That’s a great point, Bryce. Being an honest writer can be difficult. For some reason when writing fiction, it’s normal to recreate what it means to be human. Many characters I read are people minus their human nature.

  2. Thanks for this. I’m just getting to know a new main character, and thinking about how her flaws need to play a part in everything. I think it’s a huge issue with female characters especially; we tend to create perfect heroes to “set an example” for women everywhere. I’m trying to write about a mostly likable woman who screws up on a semi-regular basis. In other words, a human being. Please keep your kanga away from me and from her, as I’ve just discovered she has a terrible fear of marsupials.

  3. bdschmitt

    May 5, 2015 at 1:51 pm

    That’s a really great point! I haven’t written a lead female in a year or two, so I haven’t thought about that in a while. But, it’s so true. In our society, there’s a movement of woman power, which is good to an extent, but creating a powerhouse GI Jane has become so cliche over the last decade, it’s losing it’s potency. More of a Lisbeth from Larsson’s trilogy is a better representation in my opinion of a strong female lead: highly passionate and very human. Love the direction you’re taking it! And, just subscribed to your blog – looking forward to reading your stuff. =)

  4. Drop them into a random location…love this! I interview my characters on the page to get to know them. And I always ask: “what one secret have you never told anyone?” Do they tell? Well, if they didn’t, that would certainly say something about their character, eh?

  5. bdschmitt

    May 5, 2015 at 11:57 pm

    I really like that suggestion, Diane! I’ll start doing that with my characters as well.

  6. You are absolutely right! Think of Michael Crichton and his bunch of wonder women who are all perfectly blonde, perfectly beautiful, sportive, smart and versatile and never suffering from PMS. I noticed in turn that our own first novel protagonist was too little flawed, or flawed the wrong way: good and nice and gentle and way too passive and whiny. When the series was translated into English, we made her cheekier and slightly more devious so that even her allies may be pissed off by her little contrivances at times. And she gained a lot in complexity and realism from that. I feel, however, that we had finally achieved masterhood when we had created a villainess who was reinterpreted by a disciple among the readers as the actual heroine of the plot.

    • bdschmitt

      June 9, 2015 at 8:48 am

      That’s a great comparison. And a good point when you say “flawed in the wrong way” — no one likes a whiny protagonist!

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