10 Tips for Writing Believable Main Characters

Writing a book is sort of like baking a cake. Each ingredient is equally as important as the next in order to create a tasty masterpiece. And just like in baking, you can create your own version of a story a hundred different ways. However, there are some elements to writing that are like your staple ingredients – you have to nail them if you want your cake to rise. Think of your plot, setting, and characterization as the eggs, milk, and flour of your story. You need to get these right so that the rest of your story to fall into place. But for now, I’m just focusing on characterization.

And here are 10 tips to writing a solid main character:

We all know the main character is supposed to be the most developed, well-described character in the book. But at the same time, there is such a thing as overdoing it. There’s no use wasting words on character descriptions/information that will serve no purpose to the overall story. Trim the fat and keep it all plot relevant.

Think of your readers like little ducklings looking to imprint on a mother figure to guide them through the story. Your main character is that “maternal figure” they’ll be following throughout the story. That’s why you need to introduce your main character as soon as possible so they can spend the crucial beginning chapters forming a “bond” with the MC. To avoid confusion, the first character you introduce should be the main character.

We all love a good character twist, but if you’re going to reveal something big about your character, make sure that it’s done well. Build up to it in tiny little breadcrumbs rather than just dropping the hammer. If your character is hiding a secret, hint to your audience that they’re hiding a secret. You’re not giving the game away, you’re just preparing your audience for a big reveal. That way, when you do finally reveal something big, your audience isn’t left confused.

Sure, letting us know that a character’s hair is brown and their eyes are blue gives as an idea of what they look like, but it tells us nothing about their personality or motives. A character that is always fidgeting, nervously tapping their fingers, or shifty-eyed tells the reader a whole lot more about their personality or role in the story than just being a brunette. Don’t skimp on describing their behaviors, as that can sometimes be more telling and insightful than basic descriptions of their appearance.

Sure, we love a kickass character that can take on any bad guy in a fight, or a cinnamon roll of a character that is so kind and loving, but we can’t make our characters just one thing. They need to be complex, with their own set of strengths and weaknesses that they grapple with. Just like in life no one is perfect, and neither should your characters be either. And just like your heroes shouldn’t be all good, neither should your villains be all bad. The more “human” your characters are, the more authentic they’ll read on the page.  

It can be hard to create a fresh character. Sometimes, we might feel like we’re writing a trope rather than a person. And when it feels like that, you need to take a step back from the story and really sit with your character. Dig deep and get to know them inside and out. Best way to do this is to write a whole biography for them. It might not make it all into the story (and it shouldn’t) but it’ll give you a better understanding of your character and therefore make it easier for you to translate their essence onto the page so they feel both original and relatable.

If your character feels too much like a “cookie cutter” version of a character, or they’re hard to distinguish from other characters in your story, try switching things up a bit with something that sets them apart. It might a distinctive manner of speaking, or a physical attribute, or even just a unique job – anything that might pique your reader’s interest and make them memorable.

Yes, the whole point of a character’s arc is for them to grow and get outside their comfort zone, but you still need to stay true to your character’s personality. If your character is an introverted homebody, would they really all of a sudden be riding a motorcycle through Burning Man? Probably not. And while a character is allowed to change and grow, these changes should feel organic to the story rather than a “whiplash” change. Otherwise, you risk confusing your reader and pulling them out of the story.   

Your main character should always be an active participant in the story. Many times, new writers make the mistake of allowing the plot to just “happen” to the characters. No. Don’t do that. Your characters, especially your MC, should always have an active role and it should be their actions and reactions that drive the story forward.

Our characters are like our babies. We came up with them, nurtured them, and are trying to tell their story. But sometimes, we also have to make the difficult decision to push them towards the background. Not every character we come up with will be MC material. If you’ve finished your story and you’re reading through it and it just seems like the main character is lackluster, it could be because they’re actually a side character. I once wrote a whole book before I realized my real main character was a side character I had introduced back in chapter three. So, don’t be afraid to switch protagonists, it will only make your story stronger.

First Five Pages Checklist

The first five pages of your book are so important. As aspiring authors, we are well aware of their significance. And we place so much time and emphasis on getting them right. While we probably have a fair idea of what to do and not do in our first five pages, here is a quick recap of things to keep in mind when looking at the start of your novel.

Important questions to ask yourself:

Does the first line engage your reader?

Is your main character properly introduced?

Has the POV and narration style been made clear to the reader?

Does your reader get a good feel for the world – i.e. have you set the status quo?

Have you established your main character’s deepest desire?

Is there an inciting incident?

The most important thing to avoid at the beginning of your novel:

The information dump. 

Your reader is only starting to get to know your main character and within these pages, so you don’t want to overwhelm them with backstory or world building information so early on. Remember, you’ve got a minimum of 80,000 words to work with, you can take your time introducing the important background information. 

Writing Multiple POVs

Writing a story means deciding what point of view to take. Personally, I prefer singular points of view. It’s easy to keep track of everything that is going on. But at the same time, it can be a little limiting if you want to bring in certain reveals or plot twists, etc. Because of this, there sometimes can be benefits to having two or more points of view for the narration of your story. But keep in mind, you shouldn’t bring in different points of view just for the sake of having multiple voices. There should always be a reason. 

And below, are several tips for writing multiple POVs:

Each POV should add to the story: Your readers should care about the characters that they’re reading. Therefore, if you’re going to use different POVs, each character should serve a purpose. Not only should they help propel the story forward, but they should all be strong, interesting voices that your reader wants to root for.

Understand the story before you write different POVs: Whether you have one POV or more, understanding the story you’re trying to tell is the key to success. While you can kind of get away with figuring it out as you go along while writing from only one perspective, you can’t do this with multiple POVs. It will be entirely evident that you have no idea what is going on in the story. That is why you should know the plot inside and out before attempting to write different POVs. 

Separate your chapters: Don’t put multiple voices into one chapter – you will only confuse your reader. But more importantly, giving each of your character’s their own gives your reader a chance to properly bond with them and get to know them. Plus, it’s another way to add tension to your story because you can do things like leave one of your characters in a cliff-hanger of a situation, while moving on to another chapter – a great way to keep your reader guessing and wanting to continue reading.

Each POV should have a distinct voice: There is nothing worse than reading a book that is supposed to be multiple POVs and it reads all the same. Not only is that confusing for the reader, but it’s boring as well! Developing distinct character voices isn’t just about their dialogue or actions, it’s also about coming up with their internal thoughts and motivations. In fact, their internal thoughts and motivations can be quite powerful in creating a deep sense of who the character is. And once you’ve created your character’s voice, stay true to it. 

Be selective of which character is the narrator: Don’t just throw in several narrators just for the sake of having two or more voices. Much like my first point, each narrator should add to the progression of the story. What I like doing is look at the chapter or scene that I’m writing and then decide which character has the most at stake, what am I trying to convey story-wise, and which character’s perspective would make the most impact. Based off these questions, you can come up with the appropriate narrator. 

How do you handle multiple POVs? Do you like writing multiple POVs or do you prefer only one? Let us know!

Finding a Home for Your Story: Advice on Publication

Way back when I was about 22-years-old, I took a poetry class that changed my writing forever. I’m by no means a poet. I barely managed to write any decent poetry during the class. And since leaving the class, I’ve hardly ever written a poem – except for the occasional one that is born out of a purely emotional moment. But my lack of poetry skills isn’t what I took away from that class. It was actually quite the opposite. I walked away from that course as a newly-infused writer full of confidence and a sense of hope. As writers, we should always be filled with a sense of hope as we tell our stories. And we should always be hopeful that our work will find its intended audience.

That is probably the biggest take away that I received from my professor. She often spoke about “finding a home for your writing.” At first, we all thought she was talking about publication and finding the right magazine or journal to accept your work. That’s not remotely what she meant.

She told us a story about a series of poems she had written, which subsequently got rejected from every place she submitted to. Discouraged, she put them away in a file cabinet and forgot about them. Then, one day years later, she was going through the file cabinet and found them again. She was experiencing some personal difficulties at the time and her own words ended up being exactly what she needed to hear in that moment.

“Sometimes, you won’t always reach the broad audience base every writer dreams of,” she said bluntly. “Sometimes you’ll find that what you created will only reach a few people or even just one: yourself.”

The silence after she said those words covered the room in an impenetrable cloud of thought. I scanned the pensive faces of my fellow students as they digested what she’d just said.

Sensing many crushed dreams in that moment, my professor smiled as she added, “But you also have to keep in mind that your work serves a higher purpose. Everything you pour onto the page is intended for someone to read – to provide someone with whatever comfort they need in that moment. It will always find its intended audience so don’t be discouraged by your words. Use them. They will always be hope for someone who needs to read them.”

To this day, I still get chills when I think back to that moment in class. Every writer has a moment when they defined themselves as a writer – and that was mine, at the back of the classroom, quietly absorbing this poet’s wise words. Yes, we all want to be discovered as the next J.K. Rowling and have our stories printed for the masses, but those grandiose dreams are really us getting ahead of ourselves.

The journey to finding a home for our story doesn’t begin at the end of the road with a publishing contract and an advance; it begins with ourselves. We are our story’s first home. We are the ones who need to take comfort in our own words – after all, they live within us. Finding the hope within our writing will have a ripple effect. So far, I’ve had a couple short stories published and each one was the most honest version of the story in my mind that I managed to tell on paper.

Writing 10k in One Day

How many of us have participated in writing challenges like NaNoWriMo or its April and July offshoots of Camp NaNoWriMo? Chances are we’ve done it at least once, maybe twice. But how many of us have been successful at it? We all want to think of ourselves as writers who can pump out a huge word count like it’s nothing. But the reality is many of us really struggle to write even a fifteen-hundred words in one session. 

I recently decided to partake in the July Camp NaNoWriMo. And in my annual fashion, within a week I was well behind my word count goals. It’s not that I didn’t do any writing, it’s just that I got distracted. I started writing everything that wasn’t the manuscript that I was meant to work on. So, what do you do when you’re 10k behind your goal? You do your best to catch up in the span of a weekend. 

But is it possible to pump out 10k in one day? Yes, it is. It just takes a lot of patience, persistence, and a looming deadline that scares the crap out of you. For me, that looming deadline was getting this manuscript finally finished and sent off to a professional editor on the first of August. And that is what got me to write 10k words in one day. 

And here are some useful tips and tricks that I used in order to get it done: 

Know What You’re Writing

This is very important because if you have a direction for your story then the 10k will flow slightly easier. That is why if you’re doing a writing challenge, I highly recommend dedicating the entire month ahead of time to plotting out your story and creating a scene by scene break down. That way when you start tackling your word goal you can write huge chunks of story on a daily basis by just reviewing your notes. And if you need to do a catch up on the weekend, it’s much easier to get through 10k if you’ve got a fully plotted out story than if you’re just writing by the seam of your pants. 

Make A Plan

This isn’t just a plan for your writing, but for your day as well. With plenty of dedication, we can manage 10k in a day. But there is no way that can be done in an hour or two. 10k is 20 pages single spaced, or 40 double spaced. Even the fastest writers can’t manage that in a short span of time – we’ve all tried in college. What you need is a whole day. Clear the schedule, wake up early, and get ready to dedicate a good 8 hours to getting 10k done. 

Take Breaks

Even though you’re planning to be writing for roughly 8 hours in order to hit 10k in one day, that doesn’t mean you can’t, or shouldn’t, take breaks. Breaks are good. Breaks give your mind a chance to reboot for a little bit. I personally like to challenge myself to hour long sprints where I write 1,500 words in an hour, then I reward myself with a little break. During that break I’ll either get up and make a cup of tea or coffee and get back to the writing for another hour (if I happen to find myself on a creative roll), or I’ll go for a walk (if I’m feeling like I’m hitting a wall with my writing). But just be sure that you don’t do anything too strenuous or time consuming during your break that will then end up distracting you. Speaking of which…

Beware Distractions

You know how you can go the whole week not doing the laundry, but then sit down to write and suddenly the laundry needs to be done, the dishes need cleaning, the oven can use a scrub, and the bathtub should really be bleached. Don’t let yourself get distracted. If you’re like me and you can get distracted by household chores either arrange to do your writing in a different location or address the potential distractions ahead of time. If you can do housework the day before writing, do it. If you can go to a local coffee shop or if the weather is nice, write outside in a park or the beach or even your own backyard. If you have kids, arrange a playdate. If you browse the internet too much, disable your wifi and hide your phone. The less distractions there are, the easier it will be to get those 10k words done in one day. 

Keep Pushing Forward

Even if you don’t hit 10k in one day, if you are able to double what you’d normally write in a day then be proud of yourself – you’ve already done well. If you don’t get to 10k in the first try, just keep at it. It took me several consecutive Saturdays before I managed to hit a full 10k in one day. You’ll get there, just keep going.