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I’ve talked in the past about elements that make a character shine. But today I want to let you in on a couple of common traps that can turn an engaging protagonist an outright awful one. These mistakes are easy to make, even for a skilled author, so being aware of them is the key to avoiding disaster.

The Centre of the Universe

Followers of the blog will know that I’ve talked about ‘Mary Sue’ characters in the past. These are protagonists who are universally loved and admired, except by people that the author wants us to hate. Of course, that takes away from the believability and may even lead readers to resent the character – no one is really that perfect and we can’t identify properly with someone who is. But there is also a second danger with ‘Mary Sues’ that I haven’t talked about in too much detail yet and it has as much to do with your supporting characters as it does with the protagonist in question.

Have you ever written a supporting character who seems to exist purely so that your protagonist has someone to talk at? Whose only role is to ask relevant questions at the right time? If so, you may have accidentally given your protagonist, what I like to call, ‘centre of the universe syndrome’. In real life, everyone has their own story; their own problems, interests, worries and ambitions. And you probably take an interest in your friends’ lives often enough, but you expect them to engage with you on equal footing. This is why supporting characters like this are a bad idea. Their behaviour makes them seem two-dimensional while making the protagonist appear self-centred.

Image by Elliott Brown

Sometimes I wish my friends were cardboard cut-outs. It’d be much easier to get a moment of peace. Image by Elliott Brown

That’s not to say that you can’t use characters as plot devices, but make sure they have lives and personalities of their own, rather than just being a glorified cardboard cut-out that exists for the benefit of the protagonist.

Inconsistent Point of View

Although a book occasionally pops up that is written from an omniscient point of view (in other words, from the view of a narrator that knows and reveals everything), most stories will show the plot from the perspective of a character, usually the protagonist. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it is written in the first person or in their voice, but rather that the reader will only be allowed to know what the protagonist knows, at least for the bulk of the text. In such books, the point of view changes from time to time; we may spend most of the time in the protagonist’s perspective, but there may be sections where we move to the point of view of a secondary character or even a villain. This is all a very complicated subject that deserves a post of its own, but I want to highlight one big trap that almost always accompanies point of view – frequent changes.

It can be refreshing to change the narrators view point from time to time in the book, but be careful about when and how often you do it. We want to feel close to the protagonist and be rooting for them, and using their point of view is one of the best ways to develop this relationship for the reader. By seeing their perspective, we can better understand their motives, emotions and understanding of the situation, which will make the character more three-dimensional and well-rounded. So if you don’t give us enough time in their shoes, you will lose this advantage.

The second danger in frequent point of view changes is that it can simply be too complicated for the reader to remember which character has which viewpoint. Even if they can follow the changes and be aware of whose perspective they are viewing at any one time, they may find themselves thinking “was it Derek who saw the hamster murder Gregory, or was it Bob?”. The easiest ways to avoid this trap is to either limit the number of times you change viewpoint, or to make sure that the protagonist takes the bulk of the point of view, with only brief exceptions for other characters.

I’d love to say more on point of view as it is a very important topic, but I’ll cut it short for now or I might end up with an essay. If you enjoyed this article, please click like and follow, and join me next week when I will be discussing something a little unusual; why erotica is so difficult to write.

Feature image by Guy Sie