Lessons Learned...The Rejection Way - #3

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Perfect Main Character

In January, I decided to start a series of posts called “Lessons Learned the Rejection Way,” hoping I might be able to help other writers by tossing out a few of the reason I’ve received rejections in the past...and, okay, maybe in the not-so-past as well.

Today, I’m focusing on characters, the main character to be precise.

You have to a find a happy medium for your character when you create them. They have to be perfect…but not too perfect, strong…but not too strong, soft…but not too soft. In other words, they have to be likable enough a reader will cheer for them to succeed.

One heroine I created was a woman who’d been stuck raising her four younger sisters when she was nineteen. I was so careful to make her dominant and willful, someone who took care of business. Well, I guess I overdid it a little, because the rejection that came back said something like, “The heroine isn’t very likable. She’s bossy and treats her sisters like children, though they are grown women now.”

The next heroine I turned in to that same publisher was struggling between still wanting to be a good daughter to the father she adored, yet falling for a man she knew her dad despised. But that rejection went more like, “The heroine isn’t very likable. She’s too weak and lacks interior motive.”

Ironic, huh? I wrote overboard on one woman and, uh, under board (for lack of a better term) on another. Sigh. I’m not sure when I passed that happy medium. But, both responses definitely opened my eyes. Readers—and publishers too—want a likable protagonist, someone strong that can stand up to the forces raging against them, but someone likable that the reader will cheer for, but also someone fallible they can actually relate to.

So, how is your main character coming along? Does he/she have plenty of struggles to face, and is she/he facing them in a way that a majority of readers will approve of? Would you like this character if you knew them personally, or would you think her/him too shallow, too stupid to live, too mean, too silly, too perfect?

Yet one more thing to consider when submitting your manuscript to an editor or agent. Good Luck!


  1. That's interesting you went with one extreme to the other. :)
    One time I tried to a an alpha hero. Big mistake. He was downright mean. LOL

  2. I just love those Alpha heros, but you're right, it's difficult to make them likable and not downright mean.

  3. Great post Mama ;). I always have to keep telling myself to give my MC's faults. But not too many and to keep them real. And etc.,etc.,etc.. ARGH.

    I love what you say about, would you like this character if you knew them personally? Great question, that we need to keep asking ourselves while we are spinning our tales. I have written some pretty silly characters. They're under the bed where they shall stay. YIKES!

  4. Great post, I love that your advice is spurred from rejections. Though they are painful they teach us necessary lessons.

    My MC is plagued with tragedy. Her outer shell is abrasive and willing take whatever life throws at her. I'm working letting the inner turmoil spill out.

  5. I appreciate your examples. There is such a fine line I guess to making the MC just the right amount of human for the story.

    Hope you'll join me for how "Cupid Shot Me" day at my bog www.dianeestrella.com :O)

  6. That's helpful feedback you got on your rejections. You're right, MC's are important.

    I'm a bit challenged on this with my current WIP because it's a different genre than I normally write. She IS kind of weak--she doesn't really know herself and has very little confidence. And she definitely has struggles to face. But I feel she's likable in the biggest way--she's relatable.

  7. It's tricky to find that perfect balance! I made my hero "unlikeable" but fortunately everything else worked well enough that my publisher was willing to let me make him more likeable during the rewrite phase.

  8. Robyn - LOL! I have a couple unlikable characters locked away under my bed (well, technically, they're in a closet. But same diff, right?)

    Tamika - inner turmoil always makes me more sympathetic when reading a character, so I like your idea.

    Diane - I think I'll be off blogosphere when your Cupid Shot Me airs, but maybe we'll see! Thanks for the invite.

    Cindy - Relatable is definitley good. As long as a reader has a reason to forgive them their imperfections, I'd say you're fine.

    Jody - That was wonderful of your editors! Sounds like you found the perfect place to sell.

  9. Too funny! I'm pretty sure my characters have gone to extremes too. I love learning from rejections and am so glad when it's a personal one. Good luck with your characters!
    Oh, and one agent said my heroine was unbelievable, too trusting, etc. Another agent said she the heroine was strong and likable. LOL So bear in mind the subjectivity of it all. :-)
    Looking forward to more posts.

  10. Linda, I love this idea of showing us what you learned from rejection! I'm going to have to go back and read the other posts. Thanks for sharing!

  11. I got my first informative rejection last weekend, with a suggestion that I might resubmit. Celebrating with chocolate and enjoying learning from you.

  12. One of my male characters has just been released from prison. He's angry, and though he calms down somewhere around the end of chapter 2, I've had editors tell me there's no way he would ever be accepted by readers as a love interest. But I only wrote what he told me to write; I'm trying to find that happy medium so he doesn't yell at me, yet stay true to his character!

  13. Great post- and yes, do remember it is all subjective. You were looking to hit the right note for this publisher. What you had didn't work for them, but might have worked for another. Still, it's always good to listen to why they reject a book and revisit it if you get more than one rejection for the same thing.

    Cheers! N