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This post will go along with the likeability post from earlier this week. What I’ve found with a lot of people’s work is that their world is cool, their elements are cool, and the plot points are cool, but the main character is just not so cool.

This can be rather disappointing because the reader will continue to enjoy your work, until they truly get to know your character inside and out, at which point the reader may be turned away from the work after having invested several hours. This to me is worse than if a reader puts your book down on page one. Why?

Well think about it. If a reader doesn’t spend but a few minutes checking out your work, chances are that she merely reviewed a quick sample on Amazon and figured that she wasn’t interested. This cost her nothing, and you really didn’t make a lasting impression. However, if a reader likes your first page and the pages that follow, only to find out that she hates your main character (and not in a good way), then that reader may not give your work another chance in the future.

That said, we have to make sure that we do our best to get it right the first time.

So, let’s get to the point.

Let’s say you want to create a mage (a witch whose focus is element powers). Your mage may have awesome ice powers, doesn’t wear the conventional pointy hat with stars and moons embroidered into the side, and he may even toke a pipe from time to time – all the elements for the beginnings of someone the reader may find interesting.

Now let’s take these elements and make him all-powerful. He can conjure any form of magic with only a few words and incantations. The reader starts to raise an eyebrow. “Is there anything this guy can’t do?” she might ask. Now if she does ask this question, you don’t want her to be disappointed that he has no limitations.

Which brings me to the point. There have to be limitations to a character – a sense that he cannot achieve all that he wants to because there is something holding him back. This type of struggle brings a high level of interest, because the way in which our mage overcomes his limitations gives the reader something to pull for.

So perhaps our mage can only draw power from the ground, and only ground that is not covered in asphalt. Well, that would be one of the many limitations of the Druid from the Iron Druid Chronicles (awesome book by the way). Atticus can use magic, but his magic wanes if his bare feet aren’t touching the ground since he draws his power from the earth. Pretty neat.

This limitations puts him in tough situations, because some of his enemies do not have the same limits, so now as the reader, I’m intrigued.

What if you’re working on a romance? Well, that’s a no-brainer. So many people use the limitation that Harry Hunkuvaman runs marathons, feeds the homeless, eats healthy, but the only thing he can’t do is…(you guessed it)…love. Sooooo you have this entire plot wrapped around a woman who doesn’t want to be with Harry until she becomes the apple of his eye.

This is a great theme for a romance (albeit common and cliché, but still great).

What are your thoughts?


  1. mariathermann

    Hi William, sorry I’ve been absent so long…you’ve just done a couple of posts that describe exactly what I’m trying to tell a friend of mine, a science fiction writer who asked me to edit and review her book. She’s got a fantastic story …but her protagonist is neither likeable nor very interesting. Naturally, I shall direct my friend to your blog! You are providing a great service here!

    A point about readers investing time…if a reader has taken the time to read several chapters and finds the main character naff, the reader is likely to feel so let down that they will do a negative review on Amazon/Kindle/Barnes & Noble/Google etc. Reading just one page and finding a character wanting, well, we just move onto something else and forget about the couple of minutes wasted reading something we didn’t like, don’t we? But investing a whole afternoon…that rankles.

    So it’s not just about that one reader not liking the character – that one reader can destroy all chances of future sales…and naturally, that one reader won’t be recommending one’s book to his or her friends either, and word of mouth is still the best “marketing” there is.

    1. wstadler Post author


      That is so true, and honestly, I hadn’t considered the “naughty review,” which is the bane of all writers, since reviews are our currency. And you’re right, if we spend a lot of time reading about a character whom we don’t like, the investment almost becomes sickening. As I mentioned, if the character is meant to be unlikable (i.e. anti-hero), that’s different. But just writing about a character who doesn’t have anything going for him (or her), well that’s not enjoyable at.

      That said, I appreciate you sending your friend to my blog. I hope she finds at least a couple of posts that interest her.

      1. mariathermann

        I think reading your blog should be compulsory for all writers, established and otherwise, so I’m always recommending it to people! And as usual you are right about the anti-hero, a character that can be so thought-provoking and appealing despite his or her flaws, perhaps even more so than the bog-standard hero or heroine.


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