I met with an author yesterday to review her developmental edit. Like many first-time authors, she was struggling to make enough bad things happen to her protagonist, especially things that might be perceived as the character’s fault. Understandably, she wants her main character to be a good person that the reader will root for.
This is super common. One of the biggest mistakes I encounter when editing manuscripts is a failure to make the protagonist’s life bad enough. Readers want stories where bad things happen. Your readers already have one mundane life to think about (their own).
Some of the bad things in our lives, as it turns out, are often our own fault. This is part of the human experience. Sometimes our trouble is the result of our own bad decisions but sometimes it’s our natural talents and abilities (or lack thereof) that get us in trouble.
Most first time authors introduce a main character whose life gets successively better, overcoming an oscillating set of obstacles along the way. To write a compelling story, it’s critical that your protagonist is first plunged to despair and forced to act.
Usually this is accomplished by complicating your protagonist’s life through his or her own mistakes and failures. Yet many authors are reticent to cast their hero with any deficiencies, especially moral complexity. Like the author I met with yesterday, they want their hero to be a good person.
Don’t be afraid to give your protagonist some moral failings. This is realistic and relatable. Ironically, your audience will actually like a realistically flawed character more. Unless your protagonist is Jesus Christ (not recommended), we all have moral failings.
Nonetheless, here is a list of character shortcomings that will get your protagonist in trouble while still maintaining him or her as a well-intentioned, morally upright characters (i.e. “a good person”). You don’t need to be a crook in order to make mistakes.
Your protagonist can be:
- Independent (refuses to accept qualified help)
- Impotent or ineffective (things just habitually don’t work out for them)
- A poor communicator
- A practical joker
- Lacking discretion (or bad manners)
- Lacking self-awareness
- Irreverent or sarcastic
All of these traits will get your character into trouble without compromising their moral character. Of course there are many other adjectives we could list, but most would fall into these major categories.
Try It Out
Pick one right now, and apply it to your character in your imagination. How could they get in trouble? The more desperate the better.
Some of these are character deficiencies. For instance, most readers would consider negligence or impatience to be the responsibility of the character, even if it’s accidental. Other traits can be found through no fault of the character, like being underfunded or stupid. You can’t really blame someone for being unintelligent, can you? Keep in mind that many people are stupid in certain ways (book smarts vs. street smarts, good with people but bad with money, good memory but poor discernment, etc.).
Bonus: Sometimes the best things about us are what get us in trouble. In the wrong context, our greatest talents become our worst liabilities. What is your character really good at it and how can it get them in trouble?
Regardless of your genre, your reader needs to watch while everything gets all screwed up in your protagonist’s life. Now the reader can root for redemption and reconciliation, and relate to your character while they overcome the big problem.
A moral failing, or at least a moral complexity, won’t ruin the hero for your readers. But in any case, your protagonist must make mistakes. These 21 attributes will help get you there.
Learn more about writing a compelling novel in my Arche Year course, available on-demand beginning this week through KingdomWritersGuild.org. Click the link to become a member today and get access to the full course catalog for just $10/month.
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