A month ago, I had a shocking revelation about my current work-in-progress: my main character lacked a distinguishable personality and clear motives. I’d spent over a year on the story and written almost 100,000 words. How did I manage to screw up one of the most important parts?
When you’re knee-deep in a project, being objective is difficult, so a flat character, especially a central one, can often hide in plain sight. That’s what happened to me. And figuring out how to reverse the damage was daunting.
When a side character needs more development (or replaced), the edits will be annoying but easy. However, when a main character is uninteresting even to you, the author, that’s the biggest red flag you can encounter. Readers want stories that inspire them to care, and the cover of yours won’t stay open for long unless your main characters are as relatable and complex as real human beings.
So what can you do if you suspect that a core member of your cast is not three-dimensional? Ask yourself these three questions:
1. Does the Character Have a Strong Voice?
The more recognizable and likable a character’s voice is, the more it sets her apart, giving her perspective a memorable flavor that also reveals who she is. Although some voices will flow out effortlessly while others will require extensive research, a character with little-to-no noticeable speech patterns will seem more like a detached narrator relating a list of events than a person responding to a situation as it plays out. Her scenes will blend into the surrounding POVs—or fade into the background if the others are more compelling.
2. Do You Enjoy Writing the Character’s Scenes?
The fastest way to identify a flat character is to pay attention to how you feel when writing her. Flat characters aren’t engaging, for readers and writers. The joy of creation is what drives writers back to their keyboards or notebooks day after day, and without that spark, the task becomes a burden. If you’re not eager to explore all of your main character’s faults and virtues, you’ll struggle to bring her to life.
3. Do You Care What Happens to the Character?
While your knee-jerk reply will probably be “of course,” try to step away from your story as the author and look at it as a reader. This is why you need to answer questions number one and two first. If your character has a weak voice and she bores you, why would you let her drag you through a hundred pages? Or worse, two hundred pages? The answer is that you wouldn’t because you have no emotional connection to her.
3 Possible Solutions
Exposing a flat main character is disheartening, but that doesn’t mean you have to start over. After my own panic subsided, relief (and eventually excitement) followed. The 100,000 words I’d invested were not unsalvageable, and neither is your story. You have three recourses.
Option #1: Write Something Else (for Now)
The hardest step in revising your story is distancing yourself from it. Once you’re aware of an issue, you’ll probably be tempted to tackle it right now! But before you can effectively determine what to change, you need to renew your creativity and energy. You’re unlikely to make a balanced decision when the story is still vivid in your mind and you’re tired from pouring so much time into it. So do yourself a favor and put the manuscript in a drawer, lock it if you can, and leave it there for a month or more. Focus on another project, or take a deliberate break from writing altogether.
Option #2: Refurbish Your Main Character
As I mentioned earlier, you don’t have to scrap your entire manuscript. Instead, comb through all of the scenes and pinpoint where and why your character comes across as flat. Is it her personality? Her voice? Her goals? Delve into your character’s head so readers can experience her motivations, her thoughts, her insecurities. Then examine her actions and reactions. Do they make sense and advance the plot? This rewrite will be a massive undertaking, and a great beta reader (or two) will exponentially increase your speed at finding those limp areas.
Option #3: Switch Main Characters
When faced with a glaringly flat character, the solution could already be in your manuscript, just waiting for you to notice. Cue the side character who keeps stealing the show. If he has a distinct voice and an engaging personality, consider handing him the leading role. I spent an entire year religiously writing a story with a flat main character only to realize that one of the side characters was more vibrant. I knew that promoting him was the correct move, because the instant the idea occurred to me, I couldn’t wait to explore the story from his angle.
Never Waste a Mistake (Especially a Big One)
The ugly truth about writing is that you have to make a lot of mistakes to grow. But these mistakes aren’t a waste of time or annoying hurdles to overcome. They are a necessary and essential aspect of the process. Without that failed first draft, I wouldn’t have discovered what the real story—the one I wanted to tell—was about. Mistakes become lessons learned and wisdom earned, shaping the best writers.
Rose Sheffler is a Kentucky native who began her writing career in the seventh grade by hijacking a simple assignment and turning it into an elaborate creative piece. Her teacher reprimanded her for not following the instructions and said, “You should be a writer.” She studied English Literature in college, with a focus on creative writing, and returned to teach seventh grade English at the same private school. Her favorite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and fairy tales.
This summer she completed a manuscript of new fairy tales and hopes to have them traditionally published. Until then, she homeschools her three kids, feeds her philosopher husband, grades papers, engages daily with her church community, talks to herself, updates her blog, reads too many children’s books, considers the brevity of life in the face of eternity, and takes bookish photographs for Instagram.