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Make Your Main Character Imperfect

As I explained on Tuesday, a protagonist isn’t necessarily a good guy. He or she can be a bad guy or a complicated guy too.

But what if you want to go the traditional route and make your main character someone who tries to do the right thing?

In that case, I fully support your decision! Just one word of caution: Whatever you do, don’t make your main character perfect.

Even white knight types should have some kind of personality flaw, if for no other reason than to make them believable.

After all, how many people do you know who consistently follow the 10 Commandments, or even just the golden rule?

That whole “treat others how you’d like to be treated” mantra might sound like a very simple guideline to live by. And really, it is. In theory. But how often do we gossip about our neighbors, let our own feelings dictate how we treat random people, or want to push someone down the stairs?

Or is that last one just me?

One way or the other, I’m genuinely not trying to be preachy here. I’m simply saying that it’s not realistic to make a protagonist perfect.

I recently got into a conversation with a friend of mine who just read Maiden America. Now, she loved it! Like absolutely loved it! Which is always great to hear. As the author, let me tell you, my smile was pretty big during that discussion.

It was a long discussion too. We talked about the novel’s Revolutionary War setting and spy-centered storyline and secondary characters and, of course, the protagonist.

When we got around to that last topic, I mentioned how main character Abigail Carpenter starts out as a bigot against the British. To which my friend’s immediate response was “Well, yeah!” in a tone that radiated "No, duh."

Believe it or not, that made me feel pretty great too.

I always meant Abigail, a die-hard American patriot, to come across as rather snotty about the subject of her former countrymen. Like so many actual Americans at the time, she’s supposed to be riled up about arrogant British opinions of the “colonists” and eager to show them what-for.

In addition, she has four family members fighting in the Continental Army, any of whom could be shot to death at any moment or suffer some other miserable ending like hypothermia or starvation because of their stated stance.

Plus, her beloved New Jersey – and her very home – has been taken over by British troops who don’t have the greatest reputation for respectful treatment of American women. Some of the real recorded accounts I read while doing my research for Maiden America were really pretty horrible.

So basically, Abigail’s attitude is historically accurate. It’s just a fact that most Americans in 1776 were either very pro-British or very anti-British. There were a lot of strong feelings to go around.

But creating a main character who isn’t perfect is also just good writing. In addition to making her more believable, my decision to give Abigail a negative personality trait or two also:

  1. Gave her room to grow – which, sure enough, she did

  2. Opened up new plot possibilities – in ways I never foresaw

  3. Made her more relatable – don’t we all struggle with stereotyping to some degree? I’m not even talking about race or nationality necessarily, but how about professions or disabilities or hobbies? I know I’m automatically going to wonder about someone who dabbles in, say, taxidermy.

None of this means you should make your protagonist completely unlikable. You’d lose most if not all of your readers if you did. In Abigail’s specific case, I still want readers to care about her safety when she ventures down dangerous roads, or smile with her when she ends up teasing one of her unexpected houseguests.

A main character should always be a sympathetic character. Readers should be rooting for him or her to succeed.

Nonetheless, it’s perfectly appropriate and even necessary to round out a main character with some curved lines. Maybe even a few bent ones.

That way, your creation will resemble reality better since, when push comes to shove, let's face it: We’re all a little bit broken.

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