Finding your main character – and yourself

My writer friend – who is reading the chapters of my WIP as I edit them – recently confessed she does not like my main character.

“I don’t feel connected to her,” she said, her eyes soft, trying desperately not to hurt me.

But we vowed from the beginning to be honest.  We aren’t here to baby each other through this process – we are here to grow as writers.  And sometimes, you have to go through pain to grow.

So there it is.  My protagonist sucks.

Now I need to find out why.

We began to deconstruct, in attempt to discover the root of this reader/character disconnect.

And here are the points we came up with:

1)      We don’t hear enough of her internal dialogue.  Like most YA novels, the book is written in first person.  And yet, at the end of chapter six, we don’t really know who she is.


2)      She is me

This analysis inspired a few other questions – do I not know who I am?  Okay, maybe I do now.  But did I back in my adolescence?  And really, does anyone know themselves in adolescence?   That’s sort of a defining feature of that time of life, is it not?

To further my research, I went back to my hometown today and had lunch with an old friend from high school, in order to find out who I was back then.

Me and the girls in high school - that's me in the front.

Returning to the scene of my youth always stirs mixed emotions.  The landscape along the artery into town is barren and brown – signs of the recent drought.  The exit from the highway is the same path I took my first year of college when I commuted from home.

Some things have changed – the restaurant I pulled up to didn’t exist 15 years ago.  But others remained the same – the gas station next door where I used to buy cigarettes (cause they didn’t card) seemed not to have aged at all.

Candlebox was even on the radio.

I typically feel self-conscious around my old friend.  Not the way I feel around friends I’ve made in adulthood.  Perhaps there’s this fear that SHE KNOWS TOO MUCH about me.

But that’s why I’m here.

We talk about life for a while:  her husband, my kids, our respective day jobs.  When the check comes, I realize I’ve been stalling.  I don’t want to ask the question.  I’m not sure I want to know the answer.

“I have a question,” I say.  Finally.

I find myself looking away from her.  I can’t meet her eyes.  I’m afraid she’ll think the question is stupid.  I’m nervous.  And I hate myself for it.

It’s like I’m suddenly sixteen again.

“What did you like about me back in high school?”

I rush the words, in a hurry to get them out before I lose my nerve.

She smiles easily and cocks her head to one side.

I hastily tell her why I’m asking –I need to know what was likable about me back then so I can help make my main character more affable to the reader.

“You kept us out of trouble,” she says.

It was as I feared – my only role in my adolescent group dynamic was keeping my friends out of jail.

I really am that boring.

On my way out of my hometown, as I fought the urge for a cigarette and beer from a can, my cell phone rang.

“I thought of something else,” my friend said when I answered the phone.

Thank God.

“You were more independent than the rest of us,” she said.

I didn’t know how to respond to that.  And I’m not sure I agreed with it.

“You were not afraid to speak up when you disagreed with Erin (the spearhead of our little group).  You had other friends and did other things away from us.  You wanted to play tennis, so you joined the team.  You wanted to be in plays, so you joined the drama club.  The rest of us didn’t do anything else.”

Okay, so I diversified.  But I still didn’t understand how that made me likable, which I expressed to her.

“You were there by choice,” she said.  “You had outside perspective.  And it made me feel good to know that you could be somewhere else if you wanted to, but you chose to be with us.”

So, she liked me cause I liked her?

“No,” she said, getting frustrated.  “The rest of us weren’t brave enough to step outside our social circle.  But you were.  You were comfortable anywhere.”

Funny, because I always thought she was the brave one.  She was never afraid of what other people thought.  And neither were the other two girls in our circle.  (This was why I was the one that kept us out of trouble.  They would fearlessly construct a plan and I usually tried to convince them that jail was not a good thing – it wouldn’t look good on my college application – and so they would modify.)

My friend always seemed so confident, so perfectly happy with who she was.  If you didn’t say something that interested her, she ignored you.  I felt privileged to be her friend.

It’s hard for me to conceive that she thought of me as the brave one.

So now that I’ve examined myself as a teenage girl, I have to go back and scrutinize my main character.  I need to somehow infuse her with bravery without her becoming aware of it.  At least in the beginning.

If you’ve never asked this question of your old friends, I highly recommend it.  Distressing at first, yes, but well worth it in the end.  As most things are.

Leave a comment


  1. Interesting post. I’m working on my first fiction novel (been writing mostly memoirs).I’ve had a hard time revealing some things about the main character because it means I may be revealing things about me. I’ve held back in some instances and have had to go back and rework. I like how you went about discovering yourself/your character. Thanks for sharing.

  2. “Sometimes you have to go through pain to grow.” Love this!

    • Mamas

       /  February 20, 2012

      Thanks Amelia! Seems you know a thing or two about pain … and growth. Glad you stopped by.

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