character editing

Dealing with a boring main character

When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.

Ernest Hemingway

The clouds overhead begin to part as the alien vessel’s hull emerges. Weeks of radio transmissions warned us that this day would come. The scientific community has been rallying behind an elite team of brilliant minds seeking salvation while nations around the world put their disagreements aside in the hope of saving the world. Armies are desperately attempting to finding ways to work together as charismatic leaders try to spread hope among their troubled populations.

Who would you choose for your protagonist here? A genius who’s struggled to find academic success but just might have the one key to saving humanity? What about the prime minister of a global superpower? Do you go with a soldier who has to choose between leading the charge against the invading forces or staying behind with her family?

Or did you accidentally start with Jimmy, the complacent guy who seemed interesting but now just wants to watch the whole thing on TV?

What do you do when your story is compelling but your main character feels like a boring spectator?

Knit Knots from the Imagination Movers, who loves nothing more than being boring.

Rewrite or restart?

Your first instinct might be to scrap it all and start from scratch. And hey, you might be right. Before you toss it all in the bin, consider what’s worth salvaging.

First, be happy that you’ve done a lot of world building! Whether you keep the story or not, you’ve started building something new, and that has to count for something. Pat yourself on the back for getting a bunch of words in.

Next, consider writing the story from a different point of view. If you’ve written the story from a first person perspective, try pulling the camera out to third-person, or vice-versa. Does your character seem inactive? Maybe they have some deep internal struggle that won’t come out until a later chapter, and that conflict can pull the plot forward. There’s nothing wrong with a weak character unless that character doesn’t feel like a real person.

If your character still feels like they’re bringing the whole story down, consider whether there’s another character in this world who can bring out the magic. Ask yourself which character makes the story more interesting, or who allows the world to reach its full potential. If you find someone who fits these criteria better, why not try writing from their perspective?

Rewriting from scratch can make sense. Perhaps your character feels boring because they don’t have anything in the world to work with. Maybe they’re the wrong person in the wrong world. Or maybe you’re just not feeling things. That’s fine! If you’re certain that the story isn’t worth rewriting, see what you can salvage from the plot, and move on.

Write people worth reading about

Ultimately, the main character should be interesting. Without an interesting character, what’s going to motivate the readers to soldier on through to the end?

A main character should have wants and needs. Your story should make it difficult for them to achieve those wants and needs. If your character desires something badly and spends a lot of effort trying to get what they want, they’ll be interesting to read about. If they just observe in apathy, nobody will care.

Your protagonist doesn’t need to be a superhuman. They don’t need to have magical powers, and they’re not required to have deep personality flaws. They should generally push themselves forward through action, and show how they’re able to interact with their world to exhibit growth.

Are you thinking of your character as a collection of adjectives? Why not try re-framing them in terms of verbs? Characters who act will be more fun to read about than characters who are just beautiful story ornaments.

Whether you rewrite your existing story or start from scratch with something new, remember how important it is to tell the story through the lens of somebody worth caring about.

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