Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Giving Your Characters their ABNA Makeover

For the past two years I've been a judge in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition-- a contest in which my novel, The Kingdom of Childhood, semifinaled in 2010. I'm very aware of how powerful this contest can be in helping an author vault up to the next level of publishing, and, having judged it as well, what can make or break a manuscript. With the submission period just about two months away, I'm here to offer an inside look at how you can get your novel in top form for ABNA.

Whether you've written sci-fi, romance, literary fiction, or any other genre, your characters are key to the judge's-- and readers'!-- level of engagement in your book, right from the beginning. A prevalent myth out there is that a main character needs to be sympathetic. Not true! Some of the best protagonists in fiction are downright unlikable. My favorite example is Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, who starts out unsympathetic and grows into someone detestable. But here's the trick: if your main character isn't going to be likable, he or she needs to be interesting. A judge may feel skeptical about following the story of an off-putting character, but if that character promises to pull me along on a hell of a ride, I'll give them the chance.

My favorite characters in the stories I've judged have been those with a spirit of mischief and a sense of irony or humor about their circumstances-- even just a hint of it. This doesn't mean that's what I'm looking for-- just that I tend to like it when I find it. Last year I judged a wonderful book about a woman who was working as a soap opera writer as her own life turned into a soap opera around her. Usually I don't go in for chick lit or romance, but I couldn't resist this tale of an exasperated writer navigating the slapstick comedy of her life. She was well-defined and funny, and if she had been real, I would have loved to meet her for coffee.

Lots of stories aren't suited for a character with these qualities, and that's just fine. But he or she-- let's go with she for now-- can often benefit from something that gives her an edge. Even a character who is a victim might have a sense of opposition or inner rebellion against her circumstances; a character who is profoundly confident may be hiding a particular insecurity. These opposing qualities give a personality dimension. And that's always a good thing.

What attributes should you avoid? What kinds of characters are turnoffs for your judge or reader? Here's a list of ideas-- not rules.

The Thinly-Veiled Antagonist. We've all heard of the thinly veiled protagonist-- a character who is a little too autobiographical. Just as common is the "antagonist" version-- a fictional version of a real-life person the author "has it in for." But how would the judge know this is the case? It's easy-- the antagonist has qualities and quirks that don't serve the plot at all. Let's face it-- we all have that person in our lives that we'd love to kill off in a novel. But if you take the leap and cram her in there, you won't be able to resist giving her the same haircut and patterns of speech, and mention some awful thing she's done-- even if these details are extraneous or, more commonly, even conflict with what's ideal for the plot. A skilled author will create the antagonist the story needs, and resist the urge to grab that real-life boss or PTA president by the scruff of her neck and drop her in the volcano.

The Girl With the Short Skirt and Long Jacket. Remember the song by Cake? It's about a girl with fingernails that "shine like justice," who "uses a machete to cut through red tape." Listen, I am all for a positive, feminist narrative. I would delight in receiving a manuscript in which a female protagonist kicks ass and takes names. What I'm tired of reading about are one-dimensional females with unlimited sex appeal-- which they're always using to render men into whimpering, helpless lumps-- and a snappy comeback in every verbal exchange, always delivered with a cocked hip. Can a woman show sexual power? Yes, but for a truly interesting female protagonist it will be only one of many tools in her toolbox.

The Dime-Store Humbert Humbert. I have bad news for you. You're not Vladimir Nabokov, and neither am I. That is why, when I wrote a statutory rapist into my novel, I included the victim's perspective and didn't attempt to write the book entirely from the point of view of a ghastly, morally corrupt and delusional individual. Believe it or not, one of the most common-- and most frustrating-- characterization mistakes I see in ABNA is an author writing a story from the bad guy's first-person point of view, start to finish. Yes, this can be done, but it's like choosing "Dream On" for karaoke. Sure, some people can sing it-- but if you can't hit all those high notes, it's going to feel like an aural assault to everyone else in the room with you. Few people seem to notice that, in Lolita, Nabokov managed to pull this off only because child-molesting Humbert Humbert addresses the novel to the "gentlewomen of the jury"-- putting the reader in the role of moral judge right from the beginning. This is crucial. With first-person point of view, the reader typically feels like she is supposed to be a sympathizer with the protagonist, which can be unbearable if the protagonist is someone who makes her squirm. I have been asked to critique and judge way too many novels that feel like I just sat down to coffee with a child molester.

The Protest Marcher. This one is less common, but still bears mentioning. Now and then I run into a main character who feels like she is quietly carrying a protest sign for a cause that matters to the author. I'm kind of sympathetic to this, because we all want to write books that convey ideas that are important to us. Still, this needs to be done organically within a story, and the reader shouldn't feel manipulated; for a judge it's even more of a turnoff, because if we "vote up" selections like that, it can feel like bias. For example, one year I received a manuscript that appeared to have a thinly-concealed agenda against a particular social group. Characters in the story frequently made comments that were critical of this group, factoids were cited about problems with it, and characters engaged in discussions about why they wanted no part of it. Ostensibly it was the characters discussing this, but I felt like if I voted up this manuscript-- which I wouldn't have done anyway because of its many other problems-- I would be tacitly promoting the author's bias against this group. This is not to say that if you have written a book to promote a view, you shouldn't enter it in the contest. But I do recommend that you write a damn good story that compellingly engages that view, so the end product feels story-driven and not agenda-driven.

Before you submit your manuscript, spend some time mulling over your characters and consider whether a tweak here or there would make them a bit more compelling or even sympathetic-- often it doesn't take much. And if you have questions about characterization, I would be glad to try to answer them in the comments below.


  1. To be honest, I have the HUGE task (and honor) of having four main characters in my story. How do I give them all equal space, keep them unique and not fall into any of these traps? I want the readers to feel some sort of connection to them all even if it's, "I love that about this character, but I could never hang out with that one!" The novel switches between their perspectives and follows their journey together as well as their journeys apart. But all of them push the same storyline and you can't see the full picture without all of their pieces. Any advice on keeping them ALL compelling?

    1. Hi TMeShelle! It sounds like you've taken on a very ambitious project. What writing teachers generally say is that even in a book with multiple protagonists, the readers should have a sense of which is the *main* main character and whose side they should be on. I've been in your shoes, and I know it's frustrating when you feel like they really are all equally weighted and you like it that way. And in some novels, like "The Poisonwood Bible," it works just fine. I think part of the key is to have them keep reflecting on each other in their individual sections to give the novel a sense of a central core, and readers tend to like it when one character has information that another doesn't have or they have very different perspectives on the same incident. It can keep a reader engaged because she wants to figure out how all the pieces fit together.

      One ABNA manuscript I read, which had multiple main characters, had the problem of the characters being similar enough that it was difficult to remember who had experienced what. By the end of the novel I was pretty confused. It sounds like you won't have that problem because each is unique, and that is a strength in a novel like you're describing. I wish you luck with it!

  2. My story starts out with a prologue. In it the girl is young and she is reflecting on the death of her father and brother in an accident she believes she caused. Its important in the story because it explains the girl's isolation from her family and her problems that follow her as she tries to start a new life on her own. The thing I wonder is whether it will make the connection quick enough in the novel for just the excerpt round. Is something like that off-putting to a judge, or would it make them more likely to want to keep reading to make the connection?

    1. Hi Jerrie-- I'm sorry it's taken me so long to reply! I was away over Thanksgiving and that week I was not at my best. Without having read your excerpt, if your character (the girl) is engaging to the reader/judge, they will be interested in her story regardless of which parts you reveal in the earliest points of the novel. Some readers say they dislike prologues, but I think they can be a good way to start a story with a more interesting scene or crucial information. I had something like that in the novel I entered in the contest and it moved along just fine, so I don't imagine that will be an impediment to how your story does in the contest. Good luck!

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