I finally got a rejection that wasn’t a form letter, but it says the editor didn’t connect with my characters. How am I supposed to revise my manuscript with this comment in mind?
How do I make an editor like my characters more? My crit partners think my characters are good.
This is a great question for two reasons. First, we get to talk about likability. This is a key factor for creating good characters in many genres. There are other factors, too, such as shock value and power plays, that can let you get around likability, but they’re much harder to pull off. Master likability first, and then tackle other methods for creating character-reader bonds.
What makes a character likable? The same things that make real people admirable. I find that this concept makes more sense if we phrase it in terms of admirability rather than likability. Make sure your characters are warm-hearted, fair, selfless, courageous, goal-oriented, solution-oriented, and so on. Make them avoid negative traits like whining, fatalism, dependence, helplessness, and inactivity. It’s not enough to put a hero in a blue shirt because women “like” men in blue. But if the collar is scratchy, and the hero wears it anyway because his niece picked it out for him, now we have the beginnings of a character that readers can admire and bond with.
This doesn’t mean you must turn your heroes into boy scouts. Even the most fierce, leather-clad, lone-wolf killing machine of a hero can be made likable if he is imbued with a strong sense of fair play and justice. Even the shy librarian orphan heroine can be likable if she comes out of her shell long enough to stop the neighborhood bullies from kicking the stray dog. It’s not just about type and traits, but about behavior.
Second, this is a great question because it’s a very common problem. Sad to say, but I routinely reject manuscripts because the characters are not strong enough. So what makes a character strong? They must have solid, powerful personalities that don’t disappear into the background. They must have a strong sense of self. They must be vibrantly presented, actively engaged in their own lives, and clear and consistent enough that we can predict how they would behave in a variety of settings.
When evaluating characters, I sometimes try to imagine how they would behave in an amusement park. Would they rush straight to the line for the scariest ride, or would they stand in the walkways and laugh as other people scream? Would they study the map and come up with a plan to see the most in their allotted time? Would they memorize showtimes? Would they take time to eat a meal in the restaurant, or would they suck down a burger while standing in line?
The reason an amusement park works for this kind of analysis is that amusement parks must cater to a wide variety of personality types in order to be successful. They need to appeal to thrill-seekers and fraidy-cats, those who collect experiences and those who collect objects, the methodical and the spontaneous, and every other personality dichotomy you can imagine. It’s a marvelous environment for understanding personality types.
It sometimes happens that I like a manuscript but I’m hesitating about it, and as soon as I put the characters in the amusement park, I know why. I can’t figure out how they would behave in that environment. This means that the author has not presented the characters clearly enough and strongly enough to allow me to understand their personalities. I may understand why, in chapter four, they decided to drive across country. But take them out of the context of the book, and the characters fall apart.
Strong characters don’t do this. Your critiquing partners might like your characters, and your characters might behave in a way that’s consistent with the plot needs of your story. But try this test. Find a new beta reader, someone who is not familiar with this book. Ask them to read it, and then ask them how your characters would behave in an amusement park. Their answers might surprise you, particularly if they can’t answer at all.
Writing strong characters is a tricky business, and there are many, many resources available to help you with that, including Romance University with their fantastic ongoing series on the male mind. Also, browse your bookstore shelves in the writing and psychology and a self-help sections, and you’ll find books on everything from archetypes to personality tests to — well, really, the list is a long one. Writers never stop studying character because character is the basis for good fiction and because, as we age and mature, our understanding of the human condition evolves. Embrace this as part of the writing process, and your characters — and your readers — will love your books for it.
To our RU readers, what do you think makes a character likable? We’d love to hear from you.
If you have a question for Theresa you can submit it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t miss this great opportunity to have your concerns addressed by a top-notch editor!
After earning degrees in creative writing and law, Theresa Stevens worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm based in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. The lure of the courtroom led to a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry, but now Theresa is back as Managing Editor for Red Sage Publishing, a highly acclaimed small press. Her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/ where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.
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