What the Fiction Editor Looks For
The protagonist’s dilemma must be compelling enough to carry an entire book.
Protagonists must be active in the story, not passive.
Protagonists must have both internal and external motivation, stakes, and conflict.
Avoid cartoonish characters – those that are flat, stereotypical, melodramatic, or defined by one particular characteristic.
A strong protagonist doesn’t have to be likable, but they have to be relatable in some way—they have to make the reader root for them and even more importantly, the reader needs to like spending time with them.
Characters need complexity, they need to have inner contradictions, and they need flaws.
Characters also need consistency. One minute they sound like a hick, the next they’re spouting 5-dollar words… that’s not consistent.
Make sure characters live up to their roles, i.e. don’t seem inept or stupid, they have the ability to accomplish what we need them to.
Characters should be believable. For example, if a person has no friends… how is that possible? Make the reader believe it.
A person can be a bad guy without being stereotypical. It’s better for them to not seem so bad, but be truly evil, than for them to appear over-the-top evil.
Don’t leave the reader asking, “How did that character know that?” The reader needs to understand how the characters draw conclusions.
A protagonist needs to have something they’re good at, a special competency, something the reader can admire them for.
Avoid overstated emotion. For example, a single tear can be more effective than a dramatic breakdown. (Rachelle’s rule: a protagonist should never cry more than once in a book!)
Make sure relationships ring true. Is there a reason for characters to be with each other? Can we see and feel their connection?
Relationships between people need tension. A push and pull, back and forth. No relationship is always smooth-sailing.
Make sure the dialogue fits each character’s personality, background, and education.
Characters must grow and change. Are the characters – especially the protagonists – being affected and changed by the story? What are the residual effects of the change?
Make sure there are enough secondary characters, that they each play a role in the story, and that they’re intriguing in their own right.
Once you establish a point of view in a scene, be careful to avoid pulling the story out of the POV you’re writing from.
Push your protagonist to their limits and BEYOND. When they think things can’t get any worse for them—make it worse! Ask your characters to stretch beyond themselves, beyond what they thought they could do.
Important note! Editors do not read your book with checklists like this in front of them. Rather, when we read your manuscript and we sense that something’s not working, these are the kinds of things we often identify for WHY it’s not working.
Corollary: These are NOT “rules.” If your manuscript doesn’t meet the princples in this list (or any list) but it “works” – i.e. the story reads well and people enjoy it, then there’s no need to stress. But when there is a weakness in your manuscript and you can’t quite figure out what it is, lists like this are indispensable in identifying specific problems and figuring out how to fix them.
What other ideas do you have for creating great characters?
Is there anything on this list you find particularly challenging?
Anything on this list that you’d like me to devote an entire post to?
© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent
I would like to know what is the best perspective for character writing.Then when to change to say 1st and 3rd.
I really liked the point about readers wanting to spend time with a character. We spend enough time in the real world with unlikeable characters!
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>I love coming back here and finding an answer to my question! This is such a generous service you provide.
>Flower Patch Farmgirl, in the end, questions like this can never be answered definitely because it's subjective, and what some editors despise, other editors will be fine with.
There are LOTS of books that have dual protagonists, especially stories of women's friendships where there are multiple POVs. Many romances have dual protagonists – the hero and heroine.
Make sure you're not confusing a protagonist with a POV character. There might be one or two protagonists, but multiple POV characters.
>Also, I know I'm late to the party here, so you may have moved on, but what are your thoughts on dual protagonists? From what I've seen, it is frowned upon. I'm currently working on my first novel and what I planned as a secondary character is now emerging more as a co-protagonist. Can this ever work? They are currently working towards one another (though they don't necessarily know it). It makes perfect sense to me! But I would hate for editors or agents to pass on my book because I committed a mortal writing sin. 🙂
>How on earth did you know that I needed to read this today? Thank you for the insightful tips. I have more respect for a great fiction writer than ever before.
>This is so good. I've bookmarked it and am actually working my way through the comments which are also helpful. I like the ref. to Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman in Australia and totally get it. Although there was no point I didn't like Hugh, ha ha, the larrakin.
POV. That's what I struggle with, but am getting better. I often see published authors swinging between POVs and yes, it is annoying.
Looking forward to learning more.
>Great list. This is super helpful. I've included it in my Saturday blog roundup: http://www.smreine.com/2011/04/saturday-round-up.html
>This is very helpful. Thanks for all the great advice!
>As always, fantastic, HELPFUL! info here. Even if most isn't new to me, this (plus Part II) is a compliation worth printing / bookmarking.
But. After thinking on this all week, I am compelled to say something about the weepy = wimpy. I don't see it as a given. Some cultures (such as Mediterranean, Latino, and Middle East) particularly play to emphatic emotions. For them, strong conflict (a necessity for fiction) is going to mean strong, often tearful, emotions. To exclude the tears is inauthentic, something worth consideration.
While I appreciate that other cultures have contempt for tears as a sign of weakness (whether of character or in the moment), I hope the "limited tears" rule is like the others: understand the rule well enough that you understand when and how to break it.
>To develop my characters, I use them in paragraph role-playing games to learn their voices and quirks. I either do it first, during the progress, or before I go back to edit. It really helps a lot to know little things about the characters.
>For me, it would be the antagonists and not making them overly evil. My current WiP…well, that's just how the 2 antagonists seemed to act, but maybe I should re-evaluate that. 🙂
>Thank you for a list that makes sense and for your comments at the end. I appreciate blogs that truly help a writer develop skills. Blessings to you, Rachel…
>Rachel Giesel, Hi. I just re-read Charlotte Bronte's Villette. The heroine, Lucy Snowe, seems to fit your passive/active bill. Just a thought.
>Thanks for the great post Rachelle! It's extremely helpful!
One thing I'm currently having issues with is my MC. I need her to be passive, so that when she changes in the end she will be emotional, full of life, and active with the world. However, obviously the issue with this is that before the change she is so flat I don't even want to write her. I need to make her stronger, relatable and enticing without having her be an active go-getter. Does this even make sense, ha? Oh, my difficult novel drives me crazy sometimes.
Do you have any advice for having a passive main character that is still active somehow?
>Great advice. I actually have my character crying quite a bit and I feel like it was too much. Going back to change that and a few other things I got from this post. Thanks so much. This helps.
>Susan 11:14 am:If the protagonist in your memoir doesn't have an overall goal or trajectory, then you're not writing a memoir, you're writing a rambling self-indulgent diary. IMHO. 🙂 A memoir is not life. It's a slice of life, in which the character has an arc, ending up in a different place from where they started. That's the reason for the memoir in the first place – to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end, a story that means something.
About the sweatshirt: You can find "red pen" merchandise all over the web. CafePress.com and Zazzle.com both have a selection.
Sarah Thomas and Andrew: GREAT point – when I'm working with authors and we come up against a roadblock, the answer often lies in the author's own psychology. For example, I had a writer who had a terrible time portraying one character in a "real" enough way, in all her flawed humanity. Digging deep, I found out this character was modeled after the writer's mother! No wonder she couldn't be honest about the flaws.
About spiritual arcs: If you're having a problem with the story getting sappy as your character grows spiritually, or your character is becoming a Holy Joe, then you're still quite a ways from finding the right way to portray spiritual growth. Hint: "subtle" is the key word.
David Jarrett: Notice I never said you can't change POVs. Personally I love POV shifts. What I don't love is a scene written in a POV that is well established – except for a line or two that pulls me out. Read the advice I gave in the post… I said, once you establish a POV, be careful not to pull the reader out of it (unless it's an intentional POV shift, deftly handled).
>This is great and I will be printing it out and tacking it next to my writing space.
I need help catching tense shifts(and so do most of the writer in my critique group. What is your advice in catching them? Would that be a deal breaker for an agent?
>Wow! In a nutshell! A whole book in one page! (Sorry–too many exclamation points!)
Andrew, why not paint outside the lines? Sounds like you're feeling constrained. Preaching to the converted is good, but so is spreading the net. In "secular" fiction, as in fishing, the fibers of the net must be almost invisible, most of the time. That's all. And I think the "secular" pub. industry is more open to "spiritual" themes, treated with subtlety, than they used to be. Rachelle, do you think this is true? At least it seems as if steamy sex scenes are no longer generally required.
>I can see Ms. Gardner’s point. Generally, the less sniveling, the better. My tolerance for crying (of course, I’m only one reader) depends on the context. Is the character crying because she feels pain? Or because she feels the pain of others? I employed the old crying jag exactly once in my current novel. On the surface, my protagonist presents as an ice queen. Cold, hard. Letting her have a good cry over the misfortune of someone she dearly loves – she does this in private, of course – was a plot device to reveal her empathy rather than her wimpiness.
>Great checklist, I'm bookmarking it too, thanks Rachelle.
>This is an awesome checklist. I'm pleased to say that my editor loves my character so I must be doing most of this right.
>I'd love to see a post on secondary characters. I want mine to be memorable, but not so much they steal the show. Do you have some criteria for cutting a character? (When is a character deemed non-essential?) Anything else in this vein would be great.
>James Scott Bell: that made me cry.
>Anon 8:31 pm: It's a personal thing, I guess, but I know I'm not alone. I can't abide a weak and wimpy heroine. If she cries too early in the book I might just put the book down!
>Very good points but why can't the protagonist cry more than once? I found that a bit odd especially since I've read a lot of good books wherein the protagonist has cried a dozen times.
>One kind of related subject I've been studying lately is how to handle characters that are already known, especially as old stories are being retold and even modernized (Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Sherlock Holmes, anything related to King Arthur, etc.)
It seems to me that, if you're tackling a project somehow related to stories already "out there" you have to be careful with how you handle known characters. You have to prove to the reader that you know those "people" just as well if not better than they do.
>Thanks for this post. I love checklists!
My struggle is similar to some of the other posts above. I am at a point in my manuscript where my character is changing and growing but how do I find the right amount of change.
Especially when we apply the spiritually changes of our characters, they can sometimes take it too far. I would love to see you deal with this issue of characterization deeper.
Also, I am going back to revise my manuscripts – too many tears – big or small. Is it okay to have a character feeling like crying more than once?
>Rachelle, this is a great list. Very helpful. Thanks.
I especially like this one: Avoid overstated emotion. For example, a single tear can be more effective than a dramatic breakdown. (Rachelle’s rule: a protagonist should never cry more than once in a book!)
I read a novel within this past year in which not only the main character cried but so did all the minor characters. They cried if they were happy or scared or worried or in love or mad or sad. Yes, even the men cried in all circumstances. It was too much to bear!
I agree with you to a degree about likable vs. relatable characters. My reservation is that I don't see enough likable characters. In so much Christian fiction we have someone in need of change learning, growing, developing throughout the story. In the beginning, then he or she is not a very nice person.
The truth is, there are lots of likable non-Christians. Just because a character needs to change doesn't mean he has to come across as uncaring or a jerk or selfish or cynical or any number of other types I've read. Why not a likable sinner?
>These are always good posts to read. Something that I often struggle with (or think I do) is with distiquishing a person's character/personality with the words they use. I almost think it's impossible for me (unless I have a real life person in mind to base them on)to come up with a certain way of speaking for someone (say someone who is supposed to be way smarter than I am). This is a road block for me and one I would love to hear more about in a post.
>loving this post. my friend told me a trick to use for multiple characters. do the online personality quizzes through your character. "if he were a colour which one would he be?" this is perfect timing for editing my novella though and fleshing out the story characters.
>Thank you for these valuable guidelines. At the three-quarter mark in my work-in-progress novel, I find them particularly useful to help me assess what is already written and to map out what is to come.
>Love these points! As for anything I'd love for you to devote additional blog space to, I'd like to hear more about two things.
First, protagonists not having to be likable but relatable. I hear so often how a protag needs to be likable to propel a reader to read the whole book, but I agree with you on this distinction and would like to see it elaborated on.
And I'd also like to see a post on secondary characters. You say to have enough, but do you tend to have a rule as to how many is too many? While I didn't have any agents point out too many characters in my manuscript, it came up several times by critique partners.
Thank you!! Can't wait to read the rest of the posts this week 🙂
>Thanks for this post. I learned about the crying rule the hard way. Last summer, my son who is in college did an edit/read through on my first novel. There were about five places I found in bright red pen that said, “AGAIN???? She’s crying AGAIN????” Or I got the “NO BIG SURPRISE HERE!!!” followed by an arrow pointing to the paragraph where she is weeping. I even got a “WHY??? PLEASE TELL ME WHY??”
It’s funny, I didn’t even realize my MC was crying so much, but my son saw it. Thanks again for this informative post.
>Yikes! A protagonist should only cry once in a book? Oo-boy. Part of me wants to rush right out and change this in my MS. Yet, part of me thinks that maybe there's a good reason why you would say this. I suppose tears, at least to some people, are the climax of emotion. I, however, cry during a homeschool lesson on phonics. I need to decide if my character's crying, which isn't excessive, is an accurate gauge of their emotion and if it could turn readers off. I'm going to talk this over with my critique partner — maybe I need to tone it down. Thanks!
>"A protagonist needs a goal or desire; something keeping them from reaching it; and something serious at stake if they don’t reach it."
One of the biggest hurdles I have had to overcome in my writing came from similar statements as this in all the "how-to" books I read on writing. For the longest time I thought that initial goal revealed had to stick throughout the entire story.
As I started studying the books I loved I realized that rarely happens. As the story unfolds, goals shift, often taking a dramatic turn. And it's in the shifting goals with their obstacles and consequences that growth is often revealed in the characters as well.
This is a great list to keep close when editing. Thanks!
>Q4U, Rachelle: Where can I get that sweatshirt?!
>OOh! I'm going to print out this check list!
>This is outstanding. Thanks for such a thorough list.
>Excellent list–and reassuring, too. Thanks for posting 🙂
>I'm going to print out that checklist and use it to make sure that my characters are working because it's so true!
I once had an editor say that my characters weren't sympathetic, so now I follow a simple rule–if I don't like my own characters, if they bore me or depress me or annoy me, then I know something's not working. That may sound like common sense, but sometimes it's tempting to let the characters serve the plot instead of letting the characters drive the plot.
In future blog posts, I would like to know more about villains because they're fun!
>Thanks for the great input of ideas.
>great list….and so true about crying…an actor friend told me it's much more powerful NOT to cry in a scene, but to show unhappiness in other ways.
I agree with comment above about self-insertions. That annoys me, too, when I read a novel. I'm afraid, however, that someone might read my novel and think a lot of the stuff is self-insertion when it's not.
My other problem is turning readers off too early to my character before she grows and becomes more sympathetic.
>I find it important to let characters be themselves. I can't let them shy away from something just because I would, or step into something I would avoid. That's one of the appeals for me as a reader—caring about a character but watching the character make different choices than I tend to make and see what happens. My characters always surprise me by ignoring my outline and I love following where they go.
>Thank you. That post blew me away. The list is extremely helpful. I write fantasy, and keeping characters real can pose a challenge. This also helps with pointers on how to compose a query letter. I'll be sure to print it and save it in my files.
What I would like to read about more in depth is alteranting POV. I've encountered plently of books lately written in that manner. It seems to work.
>Thanks so much! Question: I'm writing a memoir, and wonder if I need my protagonist (me) to have an overarching goal throughout my (admittedly nonfiction) book?? I can see the need for conflict of some kind, but I'm wondering if I should make up some larger type of goal for myself to reach in the memoir, even if that might make the story veer off a bit from reality.
>This now became my checklist! I can't wait to see what Part 2 is. I love your blog and am so happy I discovered it.
>This is so helpful! The whole crying thing has been an issue for me. When you’re writing dramatic fiction, that’s always the temptation. Make them cry. (Which is funny because I am not a crier.) But in reality, sadness and grief manifests itself in so many different ways—anger, emotional withdrawal, flat-out denial, fear. Quite a challenge to keep your rule—that a protagonist should only cry once in a book, but I always like a challenge.
Love getting practical advice on the craft of writing from an editor’s perspective.
>This is a terrific post–a great checklist for writers to use during the final editing process before submitting their manuscripts to editors or agents.
I love your blog today!!!
However, where can I get that sweatshirt that you have a picture of? With all the technical documents I am working on, I would like to wear it to work. The engineers I work with will get a kick out of it.
>Hi Rachelle —
I'm also bookmarking this post for future reference. It's a great checklist. I must say, however, that I believe POV shifts may be implemented within a scene such that they enhance the scene rather than detracting from it. A scene can get awfully boring (for me anyway) when viewed from only one character's POV.
>Excellent post. The bottom line: Story and Conflict.
>A concise, master list! Love it! 🙂 Thank you for posting!
>Love this list, Rachelle! I'm definitely bookmarking it. One aspect of character development I always struggle with is going even deeper with the character's emotions without "telling." I would love to see a post on this or hear your thoughts.
Thank you for this post!
>What wonderful information!
Since I write about small town life with "home grown" characters, I try to write as authentically as possible using the same jargon they might use in a particular gepgraphic location. The trick is to not make my characters boring or predictable while keeping them "real." Sometimes it's a real balancing act.
>Excellent. Just bookmarked for later use.
I'm with Andrew. I worry that as my protagonist grows spiritually, the book gets sappy. I get the feeling that less is more, but I struggle to find the perfect formula.
>RE what Sarah Thomas wrote, above –
Not wanting to push characters because we may not want to face something parallel that's happening to us, for real –
Wow. That's huge. I know it's happened to me.
And today – I have to kill off two beloved secondary characters, and I don't want to!
Rachelle, from an agent's perspective – how much does an author's identification with characters impede either characterization or plot?
>In the first draft I had a hard time pushing my protaganist beyond her limits. I mean, I like her and I don't want things to be TOO hard. But the more feedback I get, books I study and blogs I read the more I realize if I don't "break" her she won't come back together the way I need her to. I guess this is where I learn to embrace the chaos I try to avoid in my own life!
>I had a main character in my novel who was very "closed-off," and a beta reader suggested giving a strong hint on the first page why she's that way. It was amazing how much more "likeable" she was once I gave the reader an early-in-the-novel reason to feel compassion for her.
>Insanely good! So much of the heart of writing for me is my characters so this list is invaluable.
My post today is about asking questions to get to know your characters better. I'm convinced all writers are psychologists at heart. The more we know how our characters will behave in one setting, the more we can nail it in the settings we are actually using in our work.
Love this post!
>The whole "a protagonist doesn't have to be likable" seems to trip people up. Especially in the beginning of a book, your protag may be in a bad place, making poor choices. But, as the book goes on there's going to be a character arc (I hope!) and your character will change and make better choices. But sometimes it seems like readers want perfect protagonists who never make mistakes. I'm OK with characters making mistakes–that's real life! It's less believable to me to read about these always-perfect characters who never make a mistake.
>Thank you, Rachelle. I need to read this every morning before I start writing. Would you consider writing a post about making relationships ring true?
>This is a complete class in fiction writing. Thanks for the wonderful inputs.
>Thanks for this post. I'm finishing up revisions for my editor this week, deadline Friday, and this list definitely helps me tweak. It adds many layers to any story.
>Thanks, Rachelle, for the rules and the corollary. I write realist fiction and am unsure about how to 'Push your protagonist to their limits and BEYOND' whilst keeping the plot credible. Further tips most welcome!
>Protagonists may not have to be likeable, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. I won’t name names, but I have a long list of books that I struggled to get through because the protagonist was “relatable” but I couldn’t find anything to like about the character. We got to have a reason to cheer for the protagonist. The other characters may not see him the way we see him. The other characters may despise him. That’s okay, but the reader has to see him as he sees himself. The reader has to have a reason to want him to learn from his mistakes and overcome the problems he has that keeps the other character from liking him. No, he doesn’t have to be “sweet little Betty Crocker”, as Camille said, but it sure helps if the reader has a good reason to like him.
>This is brilliant. I'm bookmarking it.
>This is one of the best blogs I’ve written about character development – thank you, Ms. Gardner! I know where I fall down on the job, and that’s not maintaining the character’s POV — even though I know what it is. It’s just laziness, really, and it’s something that I’m working on as I do revisions.
As a former literary journal editor, I saw too much self-insertion very frequently, especially in the work of novice writers. I see it a lot in my critique groups, too. To my mind, it’s obvious that their characters’ passions are their own passions. Their characters’ lives mimic their own lives. I could express very clearly how these things pour out in the text and what alerts me to “Ah! This is the writer, verbatim!” but I’m sure you can explain it much better. Can you give writers pointers on how to avoid using too much self-insertion?
>Great summary, especially for wannabes.
>An excellent list of things we can refer to when stuck or going through rewrites! Thank you for going through fiction writing like this.
I particularly like your reminder: How does the character know that? Sometimes, I'm so busy working out the story in my head that I forget to show how the character knows certain things. And I do like the ends all tied up when reading fiction!
>Outstanding! Thank you! From your question over the weekend – What Do You Want To See? – this is it.
My toughest job is making a character grow spiritually without him (or her) becoming a Holy Joe. Expressing a character's growth into dynamic, resilient faith that doesn't not necessarily 'reward' that faith with immediate corporeal benefits…makes me wish I were writing secular fiction.
(Nice orangutan over the weekend, by the way.)
>I had a tough heroine that crit partners (just the male ones, actually) kept saying wasn't likeable. And while I wanted her likeable or at least sympathetic, I didn't want to make her a sweet little Betty Crocker and lose her edge. I used some of your suggestions, similar to some suggested by Michael Hauge, for making the character relatable if not Betty Crocker's bff: put them in a situation that draws sympathy, make them really good at something, have them doing something heroic.
I think of Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman's characters in Australia. Both of them exhibit some unlikeable qualities at first, but they each do something that either makes them grow on you or at least fascinates you with their gall long enough to pull you into their story.
Sometimes we just like a character who ruffles our feathers, but if we look hard enough, usually they have a quality or they've done something to make us root for them.
>Re: characters, Nicholas has a point. Sure, we all have "friends" (or rather acquaintances) but how many of them are really "true" friends, who help in times of need or stress? Not so much. But they make interesting characters: two-faced types, back-stabbers, saboteurs, et al.
>Complexity isn't easy to convey. A course I once took in psychology pointed out that so many subtle traits contribute to personality but are difficult to demonstrate in a credible way. I'd love to hear a few examples of how you would add complexity.
>Excellent tips and for me, couldn't come at a better time. Into my second rewrite. A great checklist on my way to the final polish!
>Lots of good things to remember when working on your characters. Those that are sympathetic, active, and unique will be liked as long as they're written well.
I will point out though that it is definitely possible for someone to have no friends. Especially in places where people are easily overlooked.
>Love that first tip. You often hear about how a character needs a goal and a problem that will prevent them from reaching their goal; however, you rarely hear the last bit about something needing to be at stake if the character does not reach their goal. Very helpful advice.
>I just received a note from an editor that said my characters tended to be predictable.
After going back through my novel, I discovered he was right. So I took those same scenes, and flipped them on their head.
For example, I had a recovering alcoholic fall off the wagon. Predictable.
Have alcoholic hold bottle in hand, pour it out and when heroine smells it on him, assumes he drank again. Not so predictable. Or so I hope. 🙂
>Interesting points. I'd like to see a post on making relationships ring true. I think it's something I continue to struggle with.
One idea I use for character creation is to cast an actor I'm familiar with as the character. Imagining that actor as my character has helped me identify problem scenes, bits of dialogue that went off-character, etc. I'm not necessarily casting them for a movie version. That's pie in the sky and really not the point. I'm just casting inspiration. And I've found it very helpful.