What a character

August 1, 2010 at 5:45 am (Character, fantasy, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


I was recently visiting Nancy Kelly Allen’s blog and found some excellent advice on critiquing a manuscript. I must admit however, I was drawn to Nancy’s advice on the main character.

Is the main character active in carrying the plot forward? The main character should be responsible for solving the problem or reaching the goal. Uncle Hamm or an older brother should not step in and save the character that is experiencing the trouble.

This advice I have heard before. I don’t recall which blog I read it on but the author explained that the problem with book 6 or the Harry Potter series was that Harry was spending all of his time trying to win a sporting trophy rather than trying to solve any of his problems. In point of fact, Dumbledore deliberately kept Harry in the dark about what most of those problems were which meant that the reader was cheated out of a possibly more interesting story than the one we were delivered.

The fact that I’ve heard this advice before didn’t stop me from sitting and going ‘oh’. Mostly because it is one of thousands of things that when you think about it should be obvious but sometimes when you are looking at a draft completely eludes you until someone else points it out. It helps to be reminded, often, and it is a really important point.

Linking back to Harry Potter, one of my biggest problems with the series was that Harry was given the starring role in the first book but was almost the least interesting character in it. Hermione solved most of the problems while Ron randomly ran into things that may have helped and occasionally Harry would do something pretty stupid that turned out to be good. Harsh, but at the time that was how I saw it. The second book in the series was even worse as far as establishing Harry as the hero. Even in a coma Hermione was more useful than Harry turned out to be. She gave him the vital clue that made everything in the conclusion possible.

I actually do like the Harry Potter books and I’m not pulling them to pieces, just the main character who was always a little underwhelming to me.

Thanks Nancy for reminding us of this excellent advice.

What is the best advice you’ve been given about character recently?

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16 Comments

  1. Agatha82 said,

    I think what’s important and (maybe this is what she means) is that the main character should not be passive and sit there letting everything go by whilst others solve his problems. If that’s the case, perhaps the writer has chosen the wrong character as the protagonist. I’ve never read Harry Potter so I am afraid I cannot comment on the specific example..

  2. Nancy Kelly Allen said,

    Glad you enjoyed the post, Cassandra. I’ve been following your blog for quite a while and have recommended it to others.

  3. Carol Ann Hoel said,

    I’m new at blogging and enjoying learning all this new stuff. I’ve written a novel and a short story, both starring a young boy. I have not read Harry Potter. I don’t feel qualified to critique other authors at this point in my writing experience. I know when I read something whether or not it engages my interest and holds it. Why a story does or doesn’t hold my interest will be a question on my mind in the future. I will be more analytical attempting to identify technique, style, voice, cadence, and theme. I enjoy your blog, Cassandra. Your question is a good one. I will be watching for advice on main characters. We cannot study a more basic aspect of a story than its main character.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I wish I could just read for fun again. Unfortunately having trained to teach English, analysis of literature was kind of always going to interfere with the entertainment of it.

  4. amkuska said,

    I scrapped my first novel because of my character’s complete unwillingness to do anything but run and hide. -.- I loved the character, but she didn’t want to be shoved into the spotlight. She wanted to slink around in the shadows.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      A great trait in a spy, less helpful in most protagonists. Maybe you could revise her as a support character for a story.

  5. Jen said,

    It’s really nice stopping by your blog today 🙂

    I really enjoyed the Harry Potter series but I understand all the comments you are making. I loved Harry but I don’t think I would have loved him near as much if Hermione and Ron were not involved. They helped him grow and solve issues, but J.K. Rowling’s series was based on love and friendship, so though Harry may have been underwhelming of a main character I think she still pulled together in her story line.

    Wonderful post 🙂

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Yes, the Harry Potter storyline still works, even if there are issues with it at times. The benefits of having a great supporting cast.

  6. Lua said,

    Yes- this is absolutely one of those advice that is so obvious yet we fall into the trap of letting another character carry the plot forward from time to time… It should be about the main character, his desire and what is keeping him away from his desire. Letting some other character solve all his issues can be really confusing for the readers, leaving them with lots of questions… Thank you for the reminder Cassandra!

  7. Suma said,

    A very thought-provoking post Cassandra. I’ve been working on character development recently and the point about the MAIN Character setting out to accomplish the goal himself leaves me inspired.

    One of my learnings recently is that the main character should go the extra mile to be believable and real.

  8. Jemi Fraser said,

    That is really good advice – if the MC is always reacting instead of acting it’s not as enjoyable for the reader.

  9. Elizabeth Spann Craig said,

    I’ll admit that I get frustrated with the protagonist if they’re not the ones propelling the plot forward in some way. Good reminder!

  10. elisajeglin said,

    The Harry Potter series is a terrible example for this, everything you described about Harry was the point. If Harry had been a more “overwhelming” main character it would have changed the overall outcome of the story along with the many themes of change, friendship, love and coming of age. I really enjoyed the fact that Harry wasn’t the one who always figured out the problem, it would have made the books stale and boring, and taken some of the threat of Voldemort coming back into power away. Even if you believe he didn’t move the plot along himself, I would argue that it’s not always necessary to make your MC directly move the plot along, it depends on your message and what you’re trying to get across. I certainly don’t believe it diminished Harry Potter in the least.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Different opinions are what make the world interesting – and books diverse.

  11. catwoods said,

    Not making them perfect.

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