QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Creating Your Main Character

Katniss from Hunger Games
The main character in your novel is arguably the most important part of your story. If the plot is the brains, the main character is the heart. Of course, a page-turning plot is essential, but, even with a gripping story, your readers will only be interested in what happens next if they care about your hero or heroine at the heart of the story. That is what creating your main character is all about: MAKING THE READER CARE. Create a main character that the reader has no strong feelings about, and the page turning will stop. Write a protagonist that readers know and love, and they won't be able to put your book down, and that’s your goal.

In Daphne Du Maurier’s gothic mystery, Rebecca, “The Girl,” the unnamed narrator, is one of the most beloved main characters in fiction. Why? Her feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, helplessness, awkwardness, and timidity are feelings everyone has experienced at some time. But it is also her ultimate bravery, unconditional love, and loyalty to her husband that makes her memorable. We care about her, because we can relate to her.

Readers don't necessarily have to like all of your characters, but they have to care about what happens to your main character. Some questions you may want to ask yourself are:

  • Have I created a clear visual image of my main character? Just remember, you don’t want a police report; delicately weave physical details into the story where they legitimately belong. Too many details are as fatal as too few.
  • Did I give my main character senses to help the reader see the world from his point of view? Does my main character smell, hear, feel, taste, and see the environment around him?
  • Does my main character have universal, human qualities? Does she laugh or cry? Does my main character experience frustration, disappointment, joy, anger, shame, guilt, ambivalence? Will readers be able to relate to these reactions?
  • Conversely, is my main character an individual? Does he have quirks, idiosyncrasies; funny, little habits that we all possess?
  • Is my heroine admirable, spirited? Does she have strong convictions, ethics and beliefs? Will she take a stand in conflict?
  • Does my main character behave logically, i.e., does he have common sense, worthy goals readers can relate to?
  • Is my protagonist a stereotype? Avoid clich├ęs. Not all heroines have perfect hair, alabaster complexions, perky breasts, and happy dispositions. Not all heroes have perfect pecs, dazzling eyes, and Robert Pattinson’s hair!
  • Is my main character dynamic? Does she change in some way from who she was at the beginning of the novel? A main character should not be static, and watching her change is part of the fun!
  • Is my main character flawed? Remember, nobody’s perfect. A perfect main character is boring, not to mention unrealistic; in other words, a turn-off. Readers can quickly grow uninterested, not to mention resentful, toward a flawless main character.

In The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins, Katniss Everdeen is a complex main character. She is brave, loyal and likeable, but at the same time, displays a fierce competiveness, and can be cold, and calculating. Physically, Katniss is described as having straight black hair, olive skin and grey eyes, but Ms. Collins does this cleverly, by having Katniss, the narrator, describe her friend, Gale, with these characteristics, but adding that he could be her brother, thereby describing herself as well.

Writing a strong main character is challenging, but rewarding and fun! Keep him focused, dynamic, and realistic. If you care about your main character, others will too!

What is your main character like?

Cynthia Watson is in the query process for her first novel, WIND, a Young Adult Paranormal Romance, while writing the second book in the saga, SAND. Cynthia lives just north of Toronto, Canada, with her Cocker Spaniel, Symon, and five rescued cats.

Cynthia blogs at: http://cynthiawatson.blogspot.com/
Follow Cynthia on Twitter: http://twitter.com/CynWatson


Anonymous said...

My main character is the only one I have gone to great lengths to describe. Though not all at once. It's not like a police report lol. However, he is very good looking, that is part of his appeal and the reason the ladies fancy him. He is also a rockstar so appearances in this case mattered to me and I could not leave his appearance "vague" Great post. Good luck with your novel. I will be querying mine, hopefully in October.

Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

Great post, Cynthia! I'm doing a character development exercise for one of my secondary characters right now. Your post is timely for me. Thanks!

Abby Minard said...

This is a great list! One of my favorite authors, Sharon Shinn creates characters that I want to be best friend's with. I think that is what makes her books so good for me, is the beautiful charactarization.

Hopefully my main character can come across the way I want her too. She's terribly shy, with looks that are different from the norm, but she's a great fighter and grows in confindence in herself as the book goes on.

Thanks for the post- that was very helpful!

Abby Minard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Janet Johnson said...

So much to think about. Thanks for the post!

Danyelle L. said...

Great post! I really like the point that for the character and the story to work, the reader has to care. Not like, but care. So very true! And great pointers on how to achieve that!

Tere Kirkland said...

This is a wonderful way to explain the importance of a believable, sympathetic MC!

Great post, Cynthia!

Shannon said...

'If the plot is the brains, the main character is the heart.'

I think that is the best quote on novels that I've read this month and I've been reading a lot of blogs!

Unknown said...

Thanks everyone for your kind and insightful comments!

Stina said...

Sigh, I wish I looked like a hot sterotype character. :)

Love the picture of Katniss!

Elana Johnson said...

Excellent points in your list, Cynthia! Good luck in the query trenches. :)

Char. said...

This is a superb post. I am having trouble with my main character - he doesn't seem to do much...and although he changes quite drastically he's very unattractive in the beginning.

And I agree. Katniss Everdeen is one of my most favourite characters of all time and it is SO TRUE when the goal of making a good character is to make others CARE for them. I really cared about Katniss and her survival and her relationship with Prim.

Once again, excellent post!

Melanie said...

Wonderful post, Cynthia. Thank you. I have worked really hard to make sure my character has been portrayed with all the things you have mentioned. Writing in first person is especially tricky in terms of getting descriptions of what a character looks like without being cliche (seeing oneself in the mirror or window reflection and describing it). I think I have managed to describe her in very subtle, seamless way. It was tricky, but I was able to find places here and there throughout the story to sneak it in. The challenge was actually quite enjoyable.

Silke said...

As long as you don't forget to do the same things with the VILLAIN, it's all good.
There is nothing worse than a book where you have wonderful main characters - and a cardboard cutout as a villain, because the author didn't bother developing him/her.
All the qualities and flaws you put into your hero/heroine, need to be there in the villain. He also has to make sense and be identifiable, not just the goody goody people.
You need to know what makes your villain tick, probably more than you need to know the same about your main characters!

Unknown said...


You are so right; a villian must be developed carefully. He/she, too, must be a believeable human being.

However, sometimes I think writers can get "villian-happy" - that is to say, more evil than is necessary. You don't want them to ring untrue, or to take over the plot.

Another point is that the villian must have a reason for "being", other than simple shock value.

Thanks for pointing that out!

Author Guy said...

I disagree only with the necessity of a physical description. I almost never provide an explicit description of my characters, unless they are unusual in some way that matters. I talked about this in my blog post http://authorguy.wordpress.com/2010/08/18/does-size-matter/