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From Zero to Hero

Is your main character more grating than great? Here's how to tell if your hero is getting off track and how to turn him back into a character that readers will root for.

A true friend will tell you if your outfit makes you look heavy or if you have something between your teeth. A true friend will also dare to ask, "What did you see in him?" Most important, though, a true friend will tell you if your main character is annoying.

Such was the case when a friend of mine volunteered to proofread my second novel. The story's hero was a little unsure of himself, somewhat naïve and still recovering from an unhappy love affair. I meant for him to be unassuming. My friend, however, thought he needed a few sessions with Dr. Phil.

"Is this character supposed to be this pathetic?" she asked. "Because he's really pathetic."

I thought he was humble, but evidently he'd left humble behind several chapters ago. Why did I spend more time describing his love handles than his beautiful green eyes? Why hadn't I given him the good lines and witty remarks?

I didn't allow my hero these things because, truth be told, he was getting on my nerves.

If I found him annoying, how would the readers react? Would they put up with him through 60,000 words?

No one's saying your protagonist has to be a warm and fuzzy tree-hugger, but if you find the dialogue drags when he enters the scene and his chapters become a chore, your hero may have worn out his welcome.

Here are some tips to help you tame any annoying character traits.

Identify with the protagonist—and eliminate extremes

Few characters are 100 percent virtuous. A completely benevolent character may come across as more of a goody-two-shoes than a heroine (unless you're writing a farce). On the same note, even the most vicious antiheroes have some good qualities. Darth Vader had the deep, soothing voice of James Earl Jones, and the Artful Dodger was, well, charming.

In Charlotte Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff and Catherine are immortalized as passionate, tormented lovers of mythical proportions. Despite everything, many readers want them to live happily ever after.

But let's face it: As far as lovers go, Heathcliff leaves something to be desired. He destroys personal relationships with his bitterness and jealousy and is reduced to a gothic misanthrope lurking around his estate. A true friend would've told Catherine to get therapy and get over him.

So why do so many readers want to see Catherine and Heathcliff as lovers? For all his rough edges, Heathcliff does have a few good qualities. He's survived a tormented childhood and, despite humble beginnings, he eventually becomes a landlord (even if he uses his power for spite). Most important, he has an intense love for Catherine.

Who hasn't felt the pain of unrequited love? Who hasn't had some childhood memories direct us to the therapist's couch? Anyone who had trouble finding a prom date can relate to Heathcliff—even if only in a small way.

Assign your hero characteristics you can relate to or admire. He could, for example, generously tip an overworked waitress. Even malicious characters may love animals, and eventually, all heroes think about what to eat for dinner. You might want to explore ways in which such details can be used to move the story.

Perhaps your heroine is wishy-washy, but she loves cats. Suppose she saves the life of an injured kitten that belongs to a neighbor who'll become her love interest a few chapters later. While these characteristics don't have to necessitate major plot twists, they can be used to drive plot subtleties.


If you answer yes to the following questions, your hero is headed for shaky ground: Do you find yourself giving all the witty dialogue and one-liners to another character? Do you concentrate on his less-flattering characteristics? When you get to her scene, do you stop writing and vow to "continue tomorrow"? Do you find that the story flows well until the protago-nist enters the scene? Do you secretly want to hit him repeatedly with a baseball bat? If so, don't fret. Restoring a relationship with your character doesn't require a major overhaul, just a few tweaks here and there.

Don't associate negative experiences with your character

Whether you realize it or not, our characters have associations based on personal experience. Even a name can lead to character traits that weigh down your hero. When I was in fifth grade, a boy named Travis used to terrorize me on the trench ball court (it's like dodge ball, only more sadistic). I can't call a character Travis without picturing a large, red ball coming at my head. If I named a character Travis, I'm sure that, at least subconsciously, I might try to avoid writing about him.

Argue with your hero

Picture yourself talking with your main character about why he's so annoying and driving you nuts. It helps me if I imagine myself at a place my main character frequents.

For example, I envision sitting in my protagonist's office and asking, "Why don't you get a life? Why don't you just do something—build up your nerve; ask her out!? Why are you such a wimp?"

The strange thing is that at first, he just avoided my stare, shuffled papers and even twiddled his thumbs. But as I gave his character more edge and doubled his dose of confidence, he responded: "You made me this way, so maybe that's something you need to ask yourself. You're the one who sits at a computer all day."

Another exercise might be to picture yourself in a restaurant with your protagonist. Perhaps you're upset when she sends her steak back even though it's cooked to perfection. Or maybe your hero professes that meat is murder but wears a leather jacket. What does your hero say to you? How does she respond?

If you can picture the character in your imagination, take a close look at her body language. Even the slightest twitch and tap can reveal new aspects of your character that you might have overlooked.

Get feedback

Whether it's from a writing group, teacher or true friend, it helps to run your writing by others. Note that I said "true" friend. You don't want the type of person who thinks everything you do is fantastic.

If you're not sure, just stick a piece of lettuce between your teeth before you meet with him and see if he tells you.

You want that friend to be brutally honest. Granted, you don't have to agree with her on everything, but you do need to know she has your best interests at heart.

The bottom line is this: You have to develop a tough skin. This is a time to seek opinions, not to debate why your work doesn't need a rewrite (and by the way, if Lord Byron did rewrites, you need to do rewrites).

Finally, realize this is a fine-tuning exercise and not an extreme makeover. We're not trying to make your character likeable at the cost of doing something uncharacteristic. But a few human characteristics now and then will go a long way toward making your protagonist palatable.

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