8 Ways NOT to Describe Your Main Character

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:


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.

38 thoughts on “8 Ways NOT to Describe Your Main Character

  1. Jeffrey Russell says:

    “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.”

    1. Victoria says:

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


  2. RG Pyper says:

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

  3. RG Pyper says:

    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.)

    1. Victoria says:

      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!

      1. RG Pyper says:

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

  4. Andi says:

    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 🙂

  5. 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.

    1. Victoria says:

      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.

  6. Moritz says:

    So essentially no one described here:



  7. 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.

    1. Chey says:

      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.

      1. Victoria says:

        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.

  8. Lisa M Fernandez says:

    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!

    1. Victoria says:

      Just like pez, eh?

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

  9. Stacy says:

    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.

    1. Victoria says:

      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!

  10. Stacy says:

    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!

    1. Victoria says:

      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.

  11. Dash Cooray says:

    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!

    1. Victoria says:

      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.

  12. Timothy says:

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

    1. Victoria says:

      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.

  13. Simon says:

    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….

    1. Victoria says:

      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.

  14. E. Hunter says:

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

  15. Kmuzu says:

    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.

    1. Victoria says:

      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.

  16. GregLucM says:

    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!

    1. Victoria says:

      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.

  17. Howdis says:

    Retweeting. Love your posts forever:)

  18. IdeaSmith says:

    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.

    1. Victoria says:

      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.

Comments are closed.