(Originally appeared in PW Select's BookLife.)
Many of you may not be aware that BookWorks founder and CEO, Betty Kelly Sargent, is a veteran editor with over 30 years experience in traditional publishing. Drawing on her considerable expertise, she answers questions submitted by readers, in this case, criticism received about his main character.
How do I build compassion and realistic insecurities into my main character without having her come across as whiny, weak, or irritating? I like to create characters who react as everyday people would, not like action heroes. But I’ve received negative comments about one character, who was described as weak and stupid.
Always trust your instincts. Do you think your character’s behavior is stupid and makes her appear weak? And what if she does appear weak? What if she is weak in some situations? Is that so terrible? A character’s vulnerability is usually what causes the reader to bond with that character. Even James Bond had his soft spots.
Building Your Character
Let’s say your story is about how a neglected child from Detroit learned to overcome her fear of water to became the first American woman to win a gold medal in the Olympics. Does that fear make her weak or just human? Does any fear make a person weak, or just human? Or maybe your story is about the reflections of a Nobel Prize winning professor from MIT, who keeps forgetting to turn off the flame under his coffee pot. Is that stupid, or a touching symptom of the failing memory of a brilliant man?
Who is this character? What do you want from her? What do you want the reader to feel about her? If indeed you feel your critic has made a valid point then do your best to respond to it, but if your gut tells you that the actions you describe simply add to your character’s complexity, making her and her struggle more sympathetic to the reader, then stick with it.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.”
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