Is your main character vanilla?

I’m not a fan of vanilla. To me, it’s the “safe” flavor, the flavor that gets picked because all the other choices seem too “out there.” Me? I’m a Bavarian chocolate mocha peppermint rocky road and pralines kinda gal. I like lots of flavor because it’s more interesting to me. Either that or I have unusual taste buds.

Like my food, I like equally flavorful characters. I just finished reading a novel [pubbed by Simon & Schuster] whose main character was about as vanilla as they get. While she is going through some heady issues of feeling abandoned by her mother and realizing how this has shaped her life, her personality was as dry as my meatloaf.

The author surrounded her Ms. Vanilla with rich, colorful characters, whom I found far more interesting. I kept wondering why on earth Mr. Hunky Doood – and all the other Hunky Dooods – would fall for her since she displayed as much personality as our Homecoming Queen in high school – an empty vessel of beauty and zero brains. I got to the point where I just wished for the book to end.

Why her/him?

Your main character is your main character for a reason, right? Presumably you love this character because they display some kind of trait that’s worthy of exploration. For instance, this MC went to another country for one reason and ended up reconciling her past. Cool, heady stuff. But the author forgot to make her endearing. I kept wondering what it was about this character that the author felt worth focusing on.

It was like the author gave her all the right conflicts and a great setup, but she forgot to give her a personality. Because her supporting cast is so vibrant, the MC blends into the wall. Had she not occupied Lead Dog status, she would have stayed there.

Main character status does not mean he/she gets a free pass to likeability any more than a cheeseball of a boss can demand respect. It must be earned. Why do we like your main character? Her/his internal dilemmas aren’t enough to engage us.

Give ’em a personality

I had a friend back in college who, for years, I tried to like. She was a Steady Eddie type – dependable, caring, kind , and…just…there. She was so bland, so vanilla that, as nice as she was, I began to avoid her and bugger off to the library when I saw her coming. I felt like going to the Science Dept. and ordering up a freeze-dried personality that I could slip into her coffee. She had an interesting backstory, but geez, have a little spice. Please.

What kind of personality do they have? Are they outgoing? Funny? Shy? Do they have a great quip to ease tense situations, or do they curl up into the fetal position? Are they angry? Aggressive? Think of the people who populate your dance card. Write down their personality traits and think about how you can paint your character’s blank canvas.

But please, for the love of all that’s holy, do not make them flat, dull pieces of talking cardboard where all they do is react off their much richer counterparts. They MUST stand out.

Think logically – cause and effect

There is absolutely no excuse for your MC being devoid of a personality. You are the creator – you are your own Literary Cosmic Muffin. Oh, the power! Think logically – heh, my dad would laugh himself into a coma seeing me say that, since logic used to elude me much as the beagle eludes work. But I digress.

If your main character is popular, or sought after, then there must be a logical reason why. Making them flat and lifeless isn’t logical because readers are hideously smart. First thing they’ll ask is why this MC is so…fill in the blank.

It’s a case of cause and effect. If a character is respected, then she can’t be a dimwit who says, “yanno” a lot. Likewise, if a character is seen by his peers as dim bulb, then he can’t be Ivy League magna cum laude.

In the book I just finished, the main character had all these lovely characters who love her and consider her a member of their family. I couldn’t help but wonder why. She had done nothing to deserve this honor. Her vanilla personality wasn’t endearing, exciting, or anyone I’d want to meet. So what did they see in her? There was no cause and effect going on, so it was an illogical disconnect.

Readers will not go from Point A to Point B unless you lead them there.

Avoid cliche

Oboy. Is there anything we hate reading more than a cliche character? Why is it that every detective story is populated with a burnt out ex-cop, divorced, struggling with smoking or booze, down on his luck – or some flavor of this? Are there no happily married, well-adjusted detectives out there? I realize that we need to give the character some sort of inner conflict that usually coincides with whatever case he’s trying to solve, but geez, folks. We’re writers, so can’t we puhleeeze break the mold?

And why is it that women’s fiction or romance invariably have a main character who’s a clutz? Oh yes, we use that affectation in order to meet Dreamy McHunky, and it’s supposed to make us laugh and love her all the more. “Oh look, isn’t she cute?” we all mutter. Bleh. Enough already. I’m tired of clumsy characters. Does no one know how to walk in romance or women’s fiction, or is this anomaly only appropriate in other genres?

Ok, I’ll admit that I did manage to have my MC dump her dinner on my other MC’s leg, but that was the only clutzy thing she ever did, and it was only because she’d had too much champagne. This, I forgive. But to make her a Clumsy Clara throughout? It’s overdone. Move on, please.

Good supporting cast Literary Newtonian Law of Motion

A good character needs an equally good supporting cast. Your characters are the vehicle which moves the plot. The more colorful your cast, the more engaged readers will become because they have dimension.

I always harken back to John Lescroart – because I adore his books – and how he surrounds Dismas Hardy with a rich supporting cast. They allow Diz  “bounce-ability.” The supporting cast is his Literary Newtonian Law of Motion where every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It’s through his supporting cast that Diz’s personality shines through.

That action/reaction comes through good interaction. The supporting cast is helpful in propping up the MC, while also helping to propel the plot. So much information and pertinent backstory can be divulged seamlessly and effortlessly through the supporting cast, so use them liberally and wisely. But don’t let them overpower your MC.

I have no idea whether the author’s editor was asleep at the wheel or what, but remember: if we don’t like ’em, we don’t care. You can have a rich inner conflict or the most amazing plot in the world, but if the characters are vanilla, we’ll throw the book across the room and order up a Bavarian chocolate mocha peppermint rocky road and pralines ice cream.

9 Responses to Is your main character vanilla?

  1. Mary Hoffman says:

    Thank you, Lynn. I needed this today. Going to add enough cinnamon and ginger to my vanilla lady to make the reader sit up and notice!

  2. Scott says:

    Pour some chocolate sauce over the character and get on with it! I’m a Ben & Jerry’s chocolate therapy kinda guy . . . most of the time, but vanilla with chocolate sauce is another fave.

    I try to infuse my charcters with, well, character. I want to, on some level, relate to the characters I’m writing, and the ones I’m reading about. I don’t want to go “Now why is Miss Non-Personality the object of affection of the entire Chippendales troupe?” Is she an heiress? Well, then I could understand. Is she living paycheck to paycheck and has no hope of ever attaining wealth? Well, then I have no clue why every man within a 75 mile radius wants her!

    Great advice and I’ll probably link to this at some point . . . and get your last name right this time. I hope!

    S

  3. catwoods says:

    Character is what draws me to, or pushes me away from, a novel.

    It’s a hard balance between believable and unique.

    *heads back to editing with a focus on character development*

  4. Jane Smith says:

    What catwoods said. Character is what I like in a book: real character.

    If people are dull, why would I want to spend hours of my life reading about them?

  5. Exactly, Cat and Jane. That’s why I wanted to throw the book across the room…except that it was on my Kindle. Eeek.

  6. Cat says:

    I need a little chilli in my chocolate – or perhaps tension in my tuna!

  7. Brian Clegg says:

    Lynn – I’m sure you’re right about the characters, but you are wrong about vanilla! See http://brianclegg.blogspot.com/2010/02/why-does-vanilla-get-such-bad-press.html

  8. Yes, Brian, my hubby, who will only order vanilla ice cream, pointed out the error of my ways. I remain resolute.

    Cat, you crack me up – tension in your tuna. Still chuckling…

  9. Ann says:

    Great advice. I like the vanilla ice cream correlation.
    I like rich dark chocolate mousse ice cream myself. I must make sure to incorporate this richness into my MC’s.

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