Now, that might be on me. The list below? Entirely personal. And, as always, in the hands of a master, none of this shit applies. A masterful storyteller can break all the rules and make the breaking of the rules seem like that should’ve been the rule all along. Your Mileage May Vary, but just the same I thought it an interesting exercise to list those things that make me want to punt your main character into a pterodactyl nest. Where he will be promptly ripped into ribbons and gobbets of man-meat.
1. No Agency: Reactive Over Active
The protagonist helps to shape the story through her actions. It’s just how she rolls. Only problem is when the reverse ends up being true: the story forever pushes the character. It’s like in a boxing match — some boxing matches are dreadfully one-sided, with one poor sod taking a limitless pummeling, his head looking like a Ziploc baggy full of ground bison. That’s not a good mode for your story. Your protagonist should not be constantly on the ropes. Sure, the inciting incident might demand reaction (“My daughter was kidnapped by angry polecats! To action!”), but the character must have or claim agency for herself. I despise characters who never grab the reins of the story, not even by the tale’s end.
2. Even Worse: Passive Over Active
Passive is worse than reactive. They’re not just ducking and guarding and feinting — these characters lay down on the ground and let the story defecate on their chest while the audience watches. The character is not a leaf in the stream that is your story. The character is not just a piece of fucking furniture.
I don’t demand a “likable” character. I think likability is overstated. As I say, we need to be willing to live with the character for two hours or 300 pages, not be his best buddy. Just the same, I can’t abide a character who has zero likable or redemptive qualities. He can be selfish and shallow and doomed to his own tragic flaws as long as I have something to grab hold of to pull me out of the swampy mire of those most wretched character traits. “Oh, he’s a dick, but he loves kittens! He kills people for a living but he saves orphans!” Something. Anything. Please.
4. Punches Kids, Kick Pets, And Other Vile Acts
You can give a character as many redemptive qualities as he likes, but for me there is a line where a character crosses over and performs truly execrable acts that cannot be forgiven. I think of this as the Anakin Skywalker problem — I’m supposed to believe that Darth Vader is deserving of redemption by his hillbilly moppet of a son. “There’s still good in him.” Except then Lucas made the prequels and has Anakin murdering Jedi children, Force-choking his wife in a case of domestic abuse and, I dunno, probably setting up a brutal dog fighting ring on Tatooine. I can’t get past that. Ruins the whole thing for me.
5. The Ben Stiller Effect
I don’t want to feel a sense of unending embarrassment for your main character. Watching him, I shouldn’t be constantly wincing, crossing my legs, furrowing my brow. Do not let conflict be driven by the character’s ceaseless stupidity. Endless humiliating self-driven failure ceases to be interesting.
6. The Forrest Gump Problem
Reverse problem: your character’s success is driven by his stupidity. Every time Forrest Gump steps in pile of horse-shit it’s another unqualified success, somehow — “Oh, ha ha ha, Forrest Gump accidentally threw a Frisbee and broke the president’s nose and now we won Viet Nam and chocolate cake for everybody!” I can’t get behind a character whose rampant dipshittery is a cause for celebration.
7. Muddy Motivation
I need to know what your character wants and why he wants it. That is the bare minimum psychic investment I must possess for your character — motivation is the engine behind a character’s actions, and if I have no idea why the character does what he does, then I’m floundering about on the beach of your fiction like a dying porpoise. You can obfuscate a lot about your main character. But not that.
8. “I’m So Good I’m Perfect!”
“I’m a noble fireman and an astronaut and I can do no wrong and I’m made of adorable river otters and I help create the dreams of young girls with ponies in their hearts.” I hate your Goody Two-Shoes Never-Does-Nothing-Wrong character. Hate ‘em. You’ve turned that character’s goodness into a shining dagger which you then plunged into my breast (tee hee, breast). Conflict dies in the hands of a perfect protagonist. We love characters for their imperfections. So allow them to be imperfect.
9. Though Maybe Cool It On The Imperfections
You can, of course, go too far with the imperfections, flaws and frailties though, can’t you? “He’s a heroin addict! And a compulsive liar! And gets off on autoerotic asphyxiation. He’s got one leg. And gambling debts! His kids hate him his wife left him he lost his job and his house and he’s allergic to bees and…” You hit a point where it’s equal parts pathetic and downright unbelievable. Hang your hat on a core set of weaknesses. Don’t hamstring the character with an egregious and endless menu of foibles.
10. Her Quirky Quirks Are So Heck-Darn Quirky!
Quirks can be cute. They can be fun. Michael Weston on Burn Notice always eats yogurt. Great. Fine. But don’t let them stand in for genuine character traits. You know the old saying: “Too many quirks poop in the soup.” I think that’s a saying? Whatever. Point is, it’s awfully easy to let a laundry list of quirks pretend to be the foundation of a good character. But quirks are hollow. Too many overwhelm with a disingenuous sense: quirks are a stand-in for authenticity. Doubly true when the quirks mount and become all too twee.
11. “Blah Blah Blah, Toshi Station!”
Whining is not an attractive quality in anybody. Including your characters.
12. Had It Too Good For Too Long
Characters can and should overcome conflict. It’s part of storytelling: characters encounter conflict and struggle to overcome said conflict. But it should never be easy. You remember that kid in school? Had lots of money, teachers loved him, always had everything handed to him on a silver plate by his robot butler? You hated that kid. You hate him in real life and you hate him in fiction. Characters should not slide through the story like a baby covered in bacon grease. Conflict shouldn’t just be speed-bumps or walls made of tissue paper. If a character has it too easy, then I find it equally too easy to quit reading your damn story.
13. The Shoddy Character Copy Machine
Oh! Look! It’s Superman! Buffy! James Bond! Bleargh. I don’t want to see a carbon copy of another character. If I want to read about that character, I’ll go read about that character.
14. “The Type”
I don’t want to read the story of any kind of “type.” I don’t want to read about an archetype or a stereotype or a… I dunno, a what’s a daguerreotype? That’s a thing, right? It’s a character who… is good with… daggers? WHAT AM I A WORDOLOGIST? (Okay, fine, before I get a fusillade of smug pedantic comments, I know what a daguerreotype is. It’s the French word for “penis.”) A “type” is just a piss-thin coat of paint to slather on a faceless mannequin to give the illusion of having a genuine character there somewhere. Create people who are real in the context of your world. Do not lean on the crutch of “type.”
I’m done with the Everyman. He’s just — ugh. He’s a cubicle wall. He’s a chewed up wad of cardboard. He’s a blank piece of notebook paper. Yes, yes, I get it — he’s meant to represent all of us and be the fictional representation of The Common Man but yeah, you know what? He mostly just comes across as boring. Few of us are truly as common as the phrase “Common Man” suggests, so, let’s divest ourselves of that dull-as-fucking-wallpaper notion and move on. Yes? Yes.
16. Those Angles Don’t Add Up
I don’t want a boring character, obviously, and yet I do demand some degree of internal consistency. The things she does need to add up. They need to come from a place inspired by her fears, her motivations, her past. If we know all along she’s got a lady-boner for revenge, then it’s a hard pill to swallow when she continues to perform actions against that revenge. But it falls to little things, too — she got shot in the leg but doesn’t limp, she’s from Philadelphia but doesn’t know what a cheesesteak is, she’s got black hair one minute and the next minute she’s a sentient recliner named “Dave.” You know. Little things.
Mystery is good. I like mystery. I like not having all the answers and feeling like I’m following a trail of your breadcrumbs and, hey, who knows, maybe there’s a pile of gold at the end or some kind of bear-shark-robot hybrid that wants my intestines to host its sharkbearbot progeny. What I don’t like is a character who’s basically just one big question mark: an unsolvable and unknowable puzzle. The character is our way through this thing. She is the lens that focuses our view of the story. If that lens is covered in bird foulings and other schmutz, then everything is muddied. Ciphers can end up as a cheap and lazy trick. Such artifice will earn you a Krav Maga crotch-kapow from yours truly.
18. Atlas Pooped
A character is more than just his philosophies. We are not the sum total of our beliefs. We have friends and family. Hopes and dreams. Secret plans and bizarre sexual peccadilloes requiring an oil drum full of egg whites and Abe Vigoda in a too-tight wetsuit. If your character fails to possess those things and is just a mouthpiece for his (or worse, your) belief systems, then I will come to your house and beat you about the head, neck and butthole with a copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
19. He Tells Me About Stupid Shit
The novel form is great in that it gives story and character room to breathe — but the novel form also offers authors enough rope with which to hang themselves and the whole audience. Just because a novel gives you room to talk doesn’t mean the character should sit there for page after page talking about completely inconsequential piffle. It has to relate back to the story in some way — if your character goes on for three pages about breakfast or toilet habits or animal husbandry and none of it reflects or relates to the story at hand, I am going to want to throttle that character for wasting my time. First draft is a great place to let characters off their leashes. Subsequent drafts should cage those unruly assholes.
20. Truly Fearless
Fearless characters don’t hold my interest. Oh, I like a character that seems fearless, that acts like she doesn’t have one scaredy-widdle-bone in her whole body. But just the same, real fears need to manifest — she must have things to lose, must have things she cannot abide, must have things that haunt her.
21. Not Actually The Main Character
I want the main character to be the protagonist. This doesn’t need to be true, technically, but fuck it, I like it and this list is all about me, nyah nyah boo boo. Sure, you can have a main character who is a witness to the protagonist’s journey and is an observer to the changing world and the unfolding tale, but you need to be really powerful talented to pull that off and get away with it. Let your main characters drive the story as protagonists. Don’t give us a main character who somehow remains secondary to the tale being told.
Pet peeve time: kill off your main character and I get squirrely. Twitchy. Stabby. There’s an, erm, quite popular “vampire apocalypse” novel a few years back that did this and I had to put the book down. And stomp on it. And punch trees as I held them responsible for creating the paper on which the book was printed. You can maybe get away with this if your cast features an unholy host of “main” characters (I’m looking at you, GRRM), but it’ll still earn you the stinkeye.
23. Wait, Fellas, Come Back, Come Back!
I wanna spend time with your main character but then you run off, leaving me behind like a fat kid who just dropped his ice cream in the sand. I want to hang with great characters, I don’t want you to keep ditching me and having the action happen off-screen or off-page. Root me to the character. I want to be duct-taped to that sonofabitch. Don’t give me a kickass character and then abandon his perspective for half the story.
24. Stagnant As Swamp Water
The heroic mode allows main characters to not change but instead change the world. That’s totally viable. What burns me is when neither is true — the character doesn’t change, the world doesn’t change, nothing changes, it’s all one big status quo circle jerk. Something or someone must change.
25. There’s No There There
Worst case scenario: your character just has no substance. He has no soul. This isn’t a technical writing thing, and it isn’t even a thing you can stick with a push-pin and say, “Here, just give him dark hair, some Mommy issues, and a loyal sharkbearbot companion.” But for some reason the character fails to feel real, fails to allow the audience to transcend the page or the screen and see the character as a Real Boy rather than a Wooden Doll. It’s a sign, perhaps, that you just don’t understand the character you’ve written, that he is held at an arm’s length and you have not yet found that empathetic psychic bridge between the two of you. There’s no easy way to solve this conundrum, sadly — my only advice is to hunker down and figure out what it is you haven’t figured out about your main character.
Chuck Wendig is equal parts novelist, screenwriter, and game designer. He is the author of the novels DOUBLE DEAD, BLACKBIRDS, and MOCKINGBIRD. In addition, he's got a metric boatload of writing-related e-books available, including the popular 500 WAYS TO BE A BETTER WRITER. He currently lives in the wilds of Pennsyltucky with wife, dog, and newborn progeny.