Why Your Character Is Boring



Welcome to the first post of a five part series on simple (but maybe not so obvious) tips to make our stories better.  They’ll be applicable to most of us no matter what we’re writing, though some people will find that certain posts are more relevant than others.  I also promise that the subjects won’t be ‘building tension,’ ‘realistic dialogue,’ or ‘how to write the best book ever!’

Today I’m going to start with the shortest of the topics: Writing a proactive protagonist.

If your protagonist is too far out of his or her depth for too long, they’ll be boring. Readers love a hero who can say the things they won’t and do the things they can’t.  They love a character who makes things happen, outsmarts the bad guy, achieves the impossible.  Characters accomplish this by being active, by taking charge and doing things based on their internal motivations and not just as a response to external events.

This topic really hit home for me when I looked back at an old manuscript about a (hold your breath for originality) Detective.  I liked him a lot – he had a complicated and interesting past, strong skill set, and good attitude.  He was smart as hell.  

And for the first 2/3 of the book he didn’t do anything.  

He sort of just floated from place to place as everything happened around him – sure he did things like follow standard police procedure and worry about how to save a kidnapped girl / avenge a murder / insert inciting incident here.  But he didn’t take charge and do something of his own, change the course of the plot, or make the antagonist respond to him until nearly the end of the book.  The plot might have been fine, but by that point it was too late for him to be a strong character, even if he did save the day in the end.  He was a taker for the first chunk of the book and that was the impression he left on readers.  Think about some of the stronger investigative leads in books we know: Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, (dare I say? maybe not..) Alex Cross.  They definitely weren’t taking what was happening to them lying down.  They were active, they were geniuses, they were motivated.  To put it in the simplest terms: they did things.  Awesome things.

Look back at your manuscript.  Is your character simply getting swept along by the events around him/her?  Are they out of their depth for a little bit too long before doing something about it?  This doesn’t fully apply to every type of book – but I think it’s important to remember no matter what you’re writing.  Characters should act, not react.  The difference (which I mentioned earlier) is that one comes from internal resolve, while the other is a response to external events.  The latter is impossible to avoid, and most books actually need and benefit from it, but without the former your character and your story will never be the strongest they can be.


20 comments on “Why Your Character Is Boring”

  1. My characters is the one who directs a lot of the plot because she’s on a discovery journey. She doesn’t always make great choices, but I make sure she learns from her mistakes. As long as they show growth, readers can be forgiving ( I hope)

  2. Really useful advice, thanks! Currently debating whether or not my MFC is active enough in comparison to the MMC, so this gives me a lot to think about :).

  3. I’m shooting for character growth here as well, a major character arc for my book is one of the mcs learning how to take control of her life and the other mc has questionable amounts of free will.

  4. Good reminders. Now if you want models of books whose protagonists are pro-active from the start see The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon.

  5. This is a great post! Also, since you mentioned a detective, I just wanted to share my recent recovery of the show “Bored to Death”. It has some great writing and is really funny! Especially since it’s about a writer!

  6. Son of a biscuit…dude, you just totally pointed out the exact problem I’ve been having with my novel. Why didn’t I see this before? Thank you!

    1. What Mark said. My lead was proactive for chapter 1, then moped around for a bit, then reacted to everything that came next, before finally getting it together right near the end… Going to have to work on that. Cheers

  7. I think it’s awesome that you can be so honest with yourself. I certainly try to be honest too, but it’s easier to be honest with myself about old works of fiction, lol. I haven’t had many complaints about my characters. I certainly try to make them proactive and not reactive. I’ll keep it in mind though as I write. I hadn’t given much thought to it before. . .

  8. In a coming of age story, this is a particularly hazardous pitfall, and I think I may have fallen into it. I’ll be re-evaluating as I begin in my tenth draft this week. Thanks for the reminder.

  9. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with a character I’m writing and this is it. She isn’t doing anything! Thank you.

    I read the last blog in the your series and worked backwards. So glad I did.

  10. Just read two of our blogs on writing — and you’re concise and get to the point clearly. I appreciate it. Writing isn’t as easy as it seems. Being good writer (and I am) doesn’t cut it when you have to create character, plot, and story lines. I’m befuddled sometimes about how some good authors do it. You mentioned Alex Cross — there are always plots, subplots and action in his novels, and he takes them on without wincing! Thanks for stopping by my blog. I’ll be checking your out again!

  11. Perhaps one of, if not the most fundamental mistake writers can make with characters. Just recently I was reminded of it again, when reading Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King. Until about 2/3 of the way the protagonist just doesn’t do very much.

  12. This is something I’ve been thinking about in my current revision. I have naturally proactive characters pushed into reactive situations often enough that they get fed up with their own lack of control, but they do still make decisions and act according to their own motivations.

  13. Very true, this is definitely something I have learnt over time. I remember when I first started writing, how things happened to my main character. Whilst my character reacted to them, he never really took action. Needless to say that book has never seen the light of day. Great read 🙂 Followed.

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