Anyone can crank out a book filled with dull and lifeless characters, and in fact – many people do. Whether you’re published professionally, or self-publishing, a flat and boring main character will destroy any chances you have for success.
Fortunately, there’s some simple fixes you can add to your writing that will always ensure your Main Character (MC) is engaging and readable. It’s not strictly necessary for them to have every single one of these, but it helps.
#1 – Your main character must have a flaw
This is the easiest thing to add, but so many writers seem to struggle with it. Your main character can’t be perfect, because it’s boring. For sure, you’re always going to find exceptions, like the main character in Andy Weir’s “The Martian”, but perfect main characters are boring.
Give them a fatal flaw. It doesn’t even need to be that complicated. Maybe they have a temper. Maybe they drink. They’re impulsive. They have trust issues. Something.
For bonus points, your main character should overcome this flaw by the end of the book.
#2 – Your main character must have an arc
This is closely related to point #1. Your whole book is about your main character going on a journey, otherwise, why are you even writing the book?
During the journey, your MC needs to grow and evolve. They need to learn lessons, overcome struggles and come out the other side changed. This is called an “Arc”.
For example, in Star Wars, Han Solo starts out as a selfish smuggler, only in it for himself. By the end of the movie, he’s willing to sacrifice everything for the greater good.
Another example – In the Harry Potter books, Ron Weasley is a garbage fire of a human, forever ruined by his ugly, redheaded idiocy. By the end of the book, he decides to hide away in a cave forever, finally understanding that his very presence is an anathema to goodness. Note – I have not read the Harry Potter books.
I know! Maybe give your character a flaw (point 1) and then have them overcome it! Holy, this writing stuff is simple.
#3 – Your main has to want something
I think this is the easiest one to screw up. Let’s say you’re writing a book about Aliens who come to Earth and are defeated by Ice Cream.
During the book, your main character realizes she needs to go on a journey to find the ultimate ice cream. Fine.
Why her? Why does she take up this burden? Why not someone else? Your Main Character must have a reason to go on the journey. It can’t be because the plot demands it. They have to want something and they need to feel like they are the only ones who can do it.
#4 – Your main character needs to have agency
I have written about this before. Your Main Character needs to influence the events of the story, not the other way around. They shape the plot of novel. Your only job as a writer is to throw stuff at the them and see how they overcome it.
There is nothing worse than reading a book where the Main Character is only along for the ride, barely participating in events, watching them unfold around them with no real idea how to change anything.
This is your Main Character. You chose to write about them. Make them do something.
You know you’re on the right (write? HA!) track when your MC surprises you. You’ll be in mid-sentence and your MC will do something completely unexpected.
#5 – Your main character needs to be brought out of their comfort zone
Theoretically, your book opens sometime right before your big “inciting event” (the thing that happens that starts your MC’s journey). The inciting event cannot be part of the MC’s everyday world.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re writing about a detective that solves crimes. That is your MC’s everyday life. Solving those crimes, detecting it up. You decide to write a book about a crime. A crime that needs a detective.
How is this different than what your MC does every day? How are they going to change, when all you’ve done is essentially write an entire book about a “day in the life”? You need to give them something different. Maybe this is the worst crime they’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s a family member that was killed and this is too personal. Maybe the crime has a supernatural element, making it bizarre and unique. Maybe they need to investigate the mystery of the red-headed monster who lives in the cave, eating children.
The point is, you need to make your MC uncomfortable. Bring them to places they’ve never been and put them in situations they’ve never encountered.
The whole summary of this is that your MC needs to struggle, and struggle mightily. The whole book is ultimately about the struggle. No one wants to read about a MC who easily overcomes every challenge. Your MC needs obstacles. They need to screw up. They need to make mistakes and learn and grow.
You can do it!