But She’s Not a Spoiled Brat!

(aka Character Development)

The most painful critique I’ve ever received from a fellow writer was—in exactly these words—“Your protagonist is a spoiled brat!” It sent me into a tailspin and provoked a lot of soul searching.

I knew my heroine wasn’t a spoiled brat.

But I could see why my friend thought so. I spent months striving to understand my heroine better and to portray her in a sympathetic light.

This experience served me in good stead this past weekend. I was reviewing a client’s story and immediately saw a similar issue for his heroine. In the third paragraph she plants a “local LEO” face down in the snow and walks away. While this action might be sympathetic for some readers, the vast majority would not be pleased that she apparently left a cop there to die.

Even though the author immediately addressed this problem in the next sentence—she looks over her shoulder and sees several good Samaritans picking the man up—that’s not a solution for the reader.

Bottom line: It doesn’t matter if you know that your hero is not a spoiled brat.

Behavior that your readers find off-putting needs either to be changed or to have a strong, positive motivation. In my client’s case, I recommended that he expand his scene so that we understand and agree with his heroine’s reasons for acting as she did.

Creating a sympathetic main character is one of the pillars of writing a bestseller. So, persuade your readers to like and root for your hero.

How DO you portray your hero(ine) in a sympathetic light?

In my case, I dug deeper to discover the true root of her motivation—and discovered something so “obvious” it had slipped under my radar. It turns out she wants the same thing I want: an interesting life. And I’m confident that 98% of my readers do too.

This process is vital for forging the connection between your hero and your readers: Find the sweet spot where the character’s motivation overlaps both your own and your readers.

How does one delve into the heart of one’s protagonist to find that sweet spot?

I’ve used several methods over the years. Writing “I am…” monologues from that character’s point of view. Imagining myself inside the character’s skin and facing those same circumstances—What would I think, feel and do? Writing paragraphs about the character’s childhood. Choosing horoscope and Enneagram characterizations. Taking one specific adjective—such as “confident” or “powerful” or “imaginative” to color everything that character does.

While these methods are helpful in creating backstory, personality and consistency, they didn’t really nail my heroine’s motivation. Recently, I found a different approach that, for me, has knocked the socks off everything else I’ve tried. (See Randy Ingermanson’s blog (May 2012).) It’s a finish-the-phrase:

Nothing is more important than . . .

Start out with “Nothing is more important than survival.” Because that’s both true and the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Then ask yourself: “HOW does my character survive?” Ie, what does he or she DO in order to survive?

However, there’s more to life than food and shelter. What comes next?

What would make your character say, “I’d rather die than do that!”

In other words, another “Nothing is more important than ______.” In my heroine’s case, “Nothing is more important than having an interesting life.” She would rather die than have decades of endless humdrum boring duties imposed on her. Since she’s a slave, that’s a very real danger!

Notice that this motivation immediately leads to actions. (In her case, escaping from her owner.) Again, ask yourself what your character will DO to achieve this particular goal. While you are writing a scene, it immediately becomes obvious if your character is acting in accordance with this motivation or has gone off on a tangent.

If your protagonist HAS gone off on a tangent, ask yourself why.

Is he or she pursuing yet another goal of: “Nothing is more important than _____”? This may be a case of internal conflict, where the new goal is incompatible with survival or some other incentive.

Whatever this motivation is, it forms the backbone of the story and establishes a link with the reader, who will root for your hero to accomplish this goal! Most action-adventure thriller heroes would answer with some form of, “I’d rather die than allow this BoogeyMan to prevail in his/her evil plot!” And since we, as the audience, agree that the villain’s purpose is diabolical and must be stopped, we sit on the edge of our seats as the hero struggles to overcome the BadGuy.

But knowing your character’s heart-felt motivation is just the start. You must then portray that aspiration. Never assume that a character’s goal is obvious to your readers just because you have displayed their circumstances. Most likely, it’s not at all clear.

How do you make sure your heroine’s motivation gets onto the page?

You can state it directly, preferably as early in the manuscript as you can.

Better still, find a way to show the motivation in reaction to others. When we meet Hamlet, his mother urges him to cast aside his gloom and grief over his father’s death, saying, “Do not forever with thy vailed lids seek for thy noble father in the dust: Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die.” And his uncle, “to persevere in obstinate condolement is a course of impious stubbornness; ’tis unmanly grief.” But for Hamlet, “That it should come to this! But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two.” And “Break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.” This first monologue makes it clear: Hamlet would rather die than cease to mourn his father.

Or, use the hero’s actions. At the start of The Bourne Identity, the unnamed protagonist has lost his memory. While most people would, yes, want to regain their memories, others might settle for establishing a new life. However, the hero’s deeds clearly display that “Nothing is more important than discovering who I am.” While Jason Bourne will do almost anything in his quest to learn his true identity,  he does have other values. These might be expressed down the lines of, “Nothing is more important than my personal integrity.” In other words, he will not go as far as murder to achieve his goal—which has a beautiful irony as he discovers that he has been a cold-blooded killer.

In summary

Creating a sympathetic main character is vital to writing any story—but especially for a bestseller. One part of accomplishing this is to dig deep into your protagonist’s heart and find his core values. These can be expressed as “Nothing is more important than _________.”

Unless your hero is weirdly unique, these core values will be shared by many of your readers. This helps your audience care about, identify with, and root for your hero.

Also, these primordial motivations lead directly to actions that expand into scenes as your heroine encounters challenges in reaching her goals. Knowing your protagonist’s key values also makes it easy to see if her actions are consistent with those ideals.

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