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MILLLICENT G. DILLON, represented by Harold Ober Associates, is the world’s expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles. She has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb. Read more. . .


SASHA TROYAN is a Professor of English at Montclair University and author of the critically-acclaimed novels Angels in the Morning and The Forgotten Island, both Booksense Selections, beautiful stories based upon her childhood in France. I worked with Troyan to develop her new novels, Marriage A Trois and Semester. Read more. . .


LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth. Read more. . .


BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s best-selling debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers, published by Pan Macmillan. Read more. . .


SCOTT WILBANKS, represented by Barbara Poelle of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, is the author of the debut novel, The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster, published by Sourcebooks in August, 2015. I’m working with Wilbanks on his sophomore novel, Easy Pickens, the story of the world’s only medically-diagnosed case of chronic naiveté. Read more. . .


SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Warrender regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway. Read more. . .


M. TERRY GREEN enjoys a successful self-publishing career with multiple sci-fi/fantasy series set in the Multiverse, based upon her expertise in anthropology and technology. I worked with Green to develop a new speculative fiction series. Read more. . .


DARREN D. BEYER is an ex-NASA experiment engineer who has worked on every Space Shuttle orbiter but Challenger. In his sci-fi Anghazi Series, Beyer uses his scientific expertise to create a galaxy in which “space bridges” allow interstellar travel based upon the latest in real theoretical physics. Read more. . .


ANIA VESENNY, represented by Beverly Slopen Literary Agency, is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny’s debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights, and her second novel, Sandara. Read more. . .


STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited Wakefield’s second novel, Memory of Water, and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water. Read more. . .


GERALDINE EVANS is a best-selling British author. Her historical novel, Reluctant Queen, is a Category No 1 Best Seller on Amazon UK. I edited Death Dues, #11 in Evans’ fifteen popular Rafferty and Llewellyn cozy police procedurals, which received a glowing review from the Midwest Book Review. Read more. . .


JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with Dunn to develop and line edit her memoir of reconciling liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland. Read more. . .


LISA MERCADO-FERNANDEZ writes literary novels of love, loss, and friendship set in the small coastal towns of New England. I edited Mercado-Fernandez’ debut novel The Shoebox and second novel The Eighth Summer. Read more. . .


JEFF RUSSELL is the author of the debut novel, The Rules of Love and Law, based upon Jeff’s abiding passions for legal history and justice. Read more. . .


LEN JOY is the author of the debut novel, American Past Time. I worked with Len to develop his novel from its core: a short story about the self-destructive ambitions of a Minor League baseball star. Read more. . .


ALEX KENDZIORSKI is an American physician working in South Africa on community health education and wildlife conservation. I edited Kendziorski’s debut novel Wait a Season for Their Names about the endangered African painted wolf, for which he is donating the profits to wildlife conservation. Read more. . .


ALEXANDRA GODFREY blogs for the New England Journal of Medicine. I work with Godfrey on her short fiction and narrative nonfiction, including a profile of the doctor who helped save her son’s life, “Mending Broken Hearts.” Read more. . .


In addition, I work with scores of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this wonderful literary art and craft.

  • By Victoria Mixon

    This one, again, is thanks to @__Deb, who gave me my blog topics for the month of May. That girl’s just chock full of good ideas. (All wrapped up in hand-knitted sweaters.) I know you hear a lot of advice about making your protagonist heroic. Internally-conflicted. Easy for the reader to identify with. Bigger than life. At the same time, you’re always being exhorted to ‘write what you know!’

    And you’re sitting there scratching your head thinking, “Yeah, but I’m kind of a weenie.”

    So you wind up with a certain number of protagonists who all share the same dreadful qualities:

    1. Too positive

      “Perky, good-natured, well-loved Pollyanna Pritchard stepped off her porch steps in sunny Boringsdale on a lovely spring day. She turned her head appreciatively toward the sound of birds singing cheerfully among the flowers. Wasn’t she glad to be alive!”

      Don’t be a Pollyanna. Nobody wants to spend a whole novel being surreptitiously exhorted to Keep on the Sunny Side of Life. We all know how to be happy. We don’t need instructions.

    2. Too negative

      “Gus stared out the window, dragging slowly on his cigarette. He probably had lung cancer. No one would cry at his funeral, and he was glad. What losers everyone else was.”

      On the other hand, don’t mistake ‘powerful writing’ for ‘nobody likes me, everybody hates me, guess I’ll go eat worms.’ We all also know how to be depressed. That’s why we need fiction.

    3. Too smart

      “Mandy skipped into the gutter, narrowly missed by the Baby Grand that Ed dropped from the crane overhead, and back onto the sidewalk again. He’d have to try again when he got a brain or something.”

      It’s good to have a proactive protagonist, someone willing to pit their smarts and skills against pianos falling out of the sky. But if your protagonist is smarter than your plot, then you have no story. You’ve got to let them screw up, or you’ll be back in two-dimensional Boringsdale with Pollyanna.

    4. Too stupid

      “Ed peered down short-sightedly, his finger up his nose. He couldn’t believe Mandy hadn’t slipped on that banana peel like he’d planned. ”

      Then again, if they can’t tie their own shoelaces, how are they going to figure out who keeps dropping all those pianos? If your protagonist is stupider than your reader, you might have all kinds of story, but nobody’s going to care. They’ll be off reading some other novel that actually challenges them.

    5. Too powerful

      “When Pollyanna arrived at the office, Ed rushed to place the reports on her desk like she’d ordered. She snapped her fingers, and Mandy lunged across the office with a cup of steaming coffee, two tubs of creemer and one and a half sugarcubes, just how she liked it. ‘Ed! Reports! My office! Stat!’ Mandy scurried away again.”

      Sure, this might be a nice person to have handling your blog and kicking the butts of everyone who lifts your blog posts without permission, particularly your competitors. But they’re not all that interesting to follow through a story. Who can identify? When I snap my fingers, nobody lunges across the room with coffee for me.

    6. Too victimized

      “Gus stubbed out his twelfth cigarette in the graveyard of all the others glued to his windowsill. Far below on the mean city streets, he heard the wail of sirens and screams of abused children. Life was so hard on him.”

      So Gus is as big a loser as everyone else in his ugly little world. How sad.

      Nobody caaaaaaaares.

    7. Too self-Involved

      “‘I’m tired of being walked all over! You people don’t understand me!’ Mandy snatched back the plate of cookies she’d just removed from the oven. ‘Take, take, take. Why don’t you ever think about me for a change?'”

      I know—you love this protagonist, and it irritates all blue blazes out of you how they’re forced to suffer for the sake of your plot, which you had to design that way to intrigue that selfish, pesky reader. But your reader doesn’t feel that love. They look at the character you worship with all your heart and soul and still ask themself, “What’s it matter to me?”

      Any time you force your reader to choose between sympathizing with your protagonist and sympathizing with themself. . .guess what.

    8. Too oblivious

      “Gus frowned, annoyed. Where the hell had all the cookies gone? It didn’t matter. What a loser she was—making cookies.”

      And if your protagonist won’t interact with your other characters, well, your reader won’t interact with you. They’re reading to learn something, to experience something, to become a part of the grand adventure. Deny them that, and they will deny you their well-fleeced little eyeballs.

    Remember way up at the top, when I mentioned ‘internal conflict‘? Well, I’m going to mention something else here:

    Condensation.

    What would happen if you condensed all those protagonists down into one—just squashed their different characteristics together inside one head?

    Suddenly. . .you’ve got story!

    Andi’s added Too Ugly, Too Beautiful, and Undefeatable Superhero. I’ll also add Too Hip (just stood in line yesterday behind a Designer Rastafarian). Any more?

    Stacy’s added Too Beautiful/Too Perfect.

    Simon’s added Too Drunk. And I’m going to suggest a protagonist can also be Too Sober.

    Subscribe:

    38 Comments

    “The freshest and most relevant
    advice you’ll find.”

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories


    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

    38 Comments

38 Responses to “8 Ways NOT to Describe Your Main Character”

  1. Jeffrey Russell said on

    “Rocky! I’m glad you’re feelin’ good about this fight. But you ain’t gonna beat Clubber Lang this way. You’re TOO POSITIVE.”

    “Aww, c’mon Mick. I know what I’m doin.’ Relax for once, will ya? You’re actin’ TOO NEGATIVE. I beat Apollo Creed, didn’t I?”

    “Ya beat Creed ‘cause he was TOO SMART for his own good, Rocky!”

    “They all said I was TOO STUPID to beat a champ like him, but I did, didn’t I? And I’ll beat this guy, too.”

    “I’m tellin’ ya Rocky. Clubber is TOO POWERFUL to beat unless ya train like a real fighter.”

    “Mick, stop actin’ like Adrian’s brother, Paulie, before ya turn into him – he always thinks he’s TOO VICTIMIZED.”

    “Ya ain’t gonna beat this guy by skipping sparring sessions to sign autographs, kid. You’re TOO SELF-INVOLVED. Ya gotta listen to me, Rocky. This guy’s a wreckin’ machine. Don’t be TOO OBLIVIOUS to that – or he’ll knock ya to tomorrow.”

  2. Victoria said on

    Stop watching old movies and get back to work on your novel, Jeffrey.

    🙂

  3. I want to keep this post forever! Your examples are utterly priceless. Sharing… now.

  4. Well, it’s not just that it’s funny – I love it because it’s useful too. I am absolutely guilty of some of these description indiscretions. (Hm, come to think of it, I think I’m guilty of some of these character traits… but I’ll save that conversation for my therapist.)

  5. Victoria said on

    Oh, everyone’s guilty of it. It’s like asking a room full of Catholic alcoholics if they’ve ever been tempted to take a quick slug of the ole sacramental wine. We all have our dirty little secrets that turn out to not be so secret.

    The trick is to recognize how you’re compartmentalizing your characters and merge them so they wind up all tied up in knots inside. Instant plot fuel!

  6. I like. “tied up in knots.” aren’t we all!?

  7. I love this!

    I especially love Mandy the Too Smart and Ed the Too Stupid – comical in a parody kind of way. My favorites are Too Beautiful, Too Ugly and the Super Hero who cannot be defeated.

    Thanks for another great post Victoria 🙂

  8. Great tips on what to avoid. I like to think of my protagonists as interesting, human, believable, and flawed–like Lisbeth Salander, only not as edgy.

  9. Victoria said on

    That’s why she sells, you know. Not because Larsson invented a new genre or even did the best job ever on the one he chose. But because his protagonist is complex and real.

  10. Moritz said on

    So essentially no one described here:

    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=mary+sue

    🙂

  11. Victoria said on

  12. Great blog. I would like to add “Too much like the opposite sex.”

    You know, the one where the heroine has a man’s name, a traditionally male career, she’s physically a better fighter than any man present, and she can out-curse them all too. Put her with the hero who’s more sensitive and emotional than your best girlfriend and that’s a book I want to throw across the room.

  13. Well actually, I think it depends on how naturally it is written into her personality. If she is written in a way where it is clear that the author is trying to push in the opposite of stereotypes, then I think her character will come off fake and bland, but if it is just a part of her personality, then I see nothing wrong with strong female leads.

    Then again I have never been interested in girly things or wimpy “save me” characters, so I might be a tad bias…

    My personal pet-peeve is the women who are supposed to be spies or in the military, and yet they wear heals and stop to put on make-up. Like seriously, how practical is that? It just does not seem logical to me, and military training is all about logical. Sure they can dress up make-up and all when they are on leave or on base, but on a mission? Seems unrealistic. Even just in aircadets they say that make-up with uniform or on an exercise is the first sign of a newbie.

  14. Victoria said on

    It’s true, Chey. Nobody will follow a ‘save me’ victim through a whole novel. Even Jane Eyre gave Rochester his walking papers when it turned out he was bs’ing her.

    Your point about the military is an excellent one—this is why mentors always advise aspiring writers to write what they know. If you don’t know anything about women in the military, for heaven’s sake, don’t show it and recklessly alienate any potential readers who do. That’s your target audience! Get out there and learn about your subject matter, or else write about something else.

  15. Lisa M Fernandez said on

    I love your comment on Gus “we all know how to be depressed, that’s why we all need fiction.” You’re too funny. I love it. Priceless!

  16. Victoria said on

    Just like pez, eh?

    But you’re not depressed, Lisa! Because you just finished writing a fabulous novel. 🙂

  17. I love the Pollyanna one, lol. I’d also like to add Too Beautiful/Too Perfect. Why is it that so many people want their main characters to look like runway models? It’s not like the vast majority of the population could relate to that.

    As a woman, i want to see a main character grounded in reality that’s interesting. Doesn’t matter if he/she shares my views – they’ve just got to have enough depth to them to make me care about whatever they’re going through.

  18. Victoria said on

    Oh, yeah, that’s a good one. I do spend a certain amount of time taking ‘perfect’ descriptions out of client manuscripts. “Give them a mole,” I’m saying. “Give them an arched nose or a lopsided smile or a charming overbite. Make them real.”

    And of course the inside of the character must be amped to the nu-nu’s on internal conflict, the ways in which we fight ourselves and become our own worst enemies when the chips are down. That’s how you create a cloud of glory when the character finally pulls themself together!

  19. Exactly! Perfection does not exist, and absolutely on the internal conflict. And what’s interesting about real life is that most often the so-called “beautiful people” are the most afflicted!

  20. Victoria said on

    This is why celebrity bios sell, Stacy. Because one half of the internal conflict is already firmly set in the reader’s mind, so all they need is the other half to be really extreme the other way to make for a gripping story.

  21. Thank you for such a helpful post Ms. Mixon.
    I loved it an especially your Pollyanna 😀
    It’s pretty tough on us young writers just out of school and trying to get the novel written, after all, not everyone can be Christopher Paolini!
    The advice and suggestions available on the internet can drive a girl crazy! But your post made the character developement part sorted out. It’s the first time I’m here and I will be returning for more! Keep doing what you do and classic writing corner btw, a picture from my dreams 🙂
    Thanks again!

  22. Victoria said on

    Oh, I know, Dash. There is way too much advice out there conflicting with all the other advice. And how is a new writer supposed to know which is right and which is wrong?

    That’s why I’m here. I’ll tell you. 🙂

    Thank you for the compliment on my office—my husband built that desk for me, and I do love it.

  23. Ha ha! Characters are like the Three Bears. You want Baby Bear, who’s just right. 🙂

  24. Victoria said on

    Exactly! That’s why that story resonates so deeply. From the very beginning of life, we’re all looking for a balance between conflicting pressures.

  25. Did anyone mention Too Drunk yet? Would now be a good time for me to?

    And another lovely, snark-filled post, good lady. I shall never write another overly-perky character again.

    Or can they be overly perky to compensate for the crippling depression that lurks just beneath the brittle veneer of normalcy, which they’re smart enough to know is something they should really get help for, but are too weak to reach out and ask for assistance…?

    And now I’m cringing at that last sentence….

  26. Victoria said on

    If you can write overly-perky mixed with crippling depression, Simon, then I say have at it. That sounds like deadly internal conflict, which is the very best kind.

    Fiction writers are such tyrants.

    Be aware, though, that “too weak” doesn’t work for interesting protagonists. Give them some other reason why they won’t or can’t reach out for help—something they can spend the entire novel fighting against and repeatedly failing—so the reader is always dangling along thinking they’re just about to succeed even as they screw up time and time and time again.

  27. […] Victoria Mixon also discusses character in 8 Ways NOT to Describe Your Main Character. They’re all […]

  28. Fantastic article. Made me laugh, made me think. Thanks!

  29. What has helped me more than anything in improving my character development and dialogue is taking improv classes. Improv trains you to build upon your conversation and live in the moment. It also teaches you to focus on only the essential information a character can give.

  30. Victoria said on

    Improv is a brilliant idea, Kmuzu. Theater is all about holding your audience’s attention, and for improv, especially, an audience will not sit still unless it’s both entertaining and to-the-point.

  31. GregLucM said on

    While you certainly don’t want to be produce a one-dimensional (or two, even) character, am I safe in assuming that, takign a holistic approach, you’re generally good in introducing a protagonist one way and slowly peeling back to surface to reveal the layers as the story progresses?

    Maybe Pollyanna’s overly cheerful to cover-up some deeply held anxiety.

    …I’m probably over-thinking your advice and re-iterating your point. Sorry about that! D:

    Thanks for the post!

  32. Victoria said on

    Ah, yes, Greg. This is where condensing, contrast, internal conflict, and resonance all come into play.

    Readers want a protagonist with internal conflict. And they want to go through the process of the illumination of that internal conflict.

    BUT. In today’s publishing climate, you really don’t have time to peel the upper layers slowly. Which is fine. You know, vintage genre fiction never did take its time. All those books start with a good, gripping disaster right there on page one.

    So what you have to do is design a Hook that implies the internal conflict—Pollyanna comes breezily down the steps, sniffs the air, is terribly pleased to be alive on this fine spring day. Then she kicks a cat. Or a car backfires, and she leaps uncontrollably and breaks out in a cold sweat. Or her neighbor says hello, and she’s too tongue-tied to respond. Something—almost anything—to create contrast between her conflicting internal needs and plant a clue that something’s going seriously wrong inside this character. So the reader keeps reading to find out what.

    That’s how you use your Hook to create intense reader curiosity and keep them turning those pages.

    Then you go on your merry way slowly peeling back the layers, revealing bit-by-bit what’s wrong inside this character, giving her bigger and more powerful problems as her need to be a Pollyanna and her conflicting need to be anxious (or tongue-tied or frightened of loud noises or a cat-kicker) make life more and more impossible for her. Until you get to the Climax, and all hell breaks loose.

    If you don’t plant that first clue, though, (which, in the best stories, is going to be pivotal to the Climax, creating fabulous resonance once the reader arrives), the reader sees no internal conflict and therefore loses interest.

    Right away.

  33. Retweeting. Love your posts forever:)

  34. […] 8 Ways NOT to Describe Your main Character @ Victoria Mixon Is your protagonist a  character or a caricature? Editor and writer Victoria Mason showcases 8 mistakes when describing your main character […]

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  36. […] Dans un article publié sur son blog, l’éditrice A. Victoria Mixon nous explique comment certains auteurs (ça s’applique tout aussi bien aux scénaristes) passent totalement à côté de la caractérisation de leurs personnages à force de vouloir les rendre « bigger than life ». […]

  37. Oddly enough, a lot of very popular writers have devised characters that fall into these categories. The excessiveness of a trait can make a character interesting and be the start of the story. I think it depends on how well it is done.

  38. Ah, you’ve got to look more closely. Although a lot of the biggest names use fairly cartoon characters, they know exactly what they’re doing with them. It’s all about the internal contrast of giving them subtly contradictory traits.

    James Bond isn’t just a smoothie who knows everything, charms everyone, owns every brilliant gadget. He also gets himself into trouble uncontrollably and all the time.

    That’s why they call him Bond—James Bond.



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