Characters and Comfort Zones

My agent recently had this to say about my current work-in-progress: she couldn’t identify with my main character and couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to spend an entire novel with him.


Now, I can pull out my hair, or I can calm down (which, of course, I’ve done because that’s what I do). And once I wrapped my brain around her comments, it hit me that I don’t like my protagonist, either. He’s a jerk. Really. And he’s so much of a jerk that he’s… boring. No one is that much of a jerk all the time. A character—especially a main character, but also an antagonist as well as a secondary character—has to have redeeming qualities. My character needs complexity… nuance… depth.

So I’m on a quest to make him more likable, or at least interesting, and perhaps somewhat sympathetic, and I’ve considered techniques such as opening with a scene in which someone mistreats him (cue the universal instincts to root for the underdog and fight injustice), or a scene in which he’s in danger (get the adrenaline going).

But I think the better approach (time-consuming, but better) would be for me to dig more deeply into his character. I’ve shown his warts, and the problem is that my character is okay with that. He likes his tough exterior. He’s in his comfort zone, and I need to pull him out. So it’s Walgreens time: I need a tube of Compound W to peel away his roughness, find his soft spots… identify his longings… touch his heart.

I got to thinking about books that don’t open with a hook, and hook readers nonetheless, and one jumped to mind right away: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Such a fabulous book! Sáenz opens with a waking-up-bored-in-the-summer scene and still manages to hook me. How? Why? His writing is that good, his dialogue spot-on, his characters so real.

I could shelve my current WIP and begin a new novel. (My agent suggested as much.) But I’m stubborn. And I think this story needs to be told. And I believe in the value of perseverance. My first novel didn’t come together on the first draft, or the second, or the third. I just finished Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, a marvelous novel that Doerr says took him ten years to write. (I have to wonder what his manuscript looked like at the two-year mark, which is what I’m approaching with my draft.) Like Sáenz, Doerr doesn’t open with an obvious hook. He opens with engaging prose and introduces his characters slowly, letting their stories unfold layer by layer by layer. We see them in their comfort zones before their worlds turn upside down, and it’s there—without comfort—when we get to know them best.

Sure, I’d like to race through my next draft, but hey—writing this story is going to take time. So, excuse me, but I’m headed to Walgreens. I have a character who needs a little Compound W love. In my current draft, you’d never hear him admit that, but in the revision, well, let’s just say he’s softening.

6 thoughts on “Characters and Comfort Zones”

  1. You have a special challenge because your protagonists are young men who have to stand up to the hateful things they’ve been taught by their families and/or communities. I admire your honesty and your willingness to take on this difficult task, because most other books start with characters who have more sympathetic backstories (including those of Saenz’s novel). A couple of books I read recently with hard-to-love male leads who nonetheless get readers on their side are Brett Hartman’s CADILLAC CHRONICLES and Eric Devine’s TAP OUT.

  2. Thank you, Lyn, for those suggestions. I’ll put them on my to-be-read list. You’re very right about the sorts of characters that fascinate me. I don’t know why I’m drawn to try to understand people who are hard to love, but I am!

  3. I loved Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets of the Universe! I think it is such an important book in today’s time saying that you a free to love who you choose. We have it on our 8th grade shelf and I have recommended to a few students.

    I don’t think every character has to be loveable ….look at Gone Girl, I disliked both of the main characters during the story but I was still hooked as a reader.

  4. Agreed, Donna. Something in a novel has to appeal to readers, and it doesn’t HAVE to be the characters. But hey — in Dante & Aristotle — talk about lovable characters! I’m so glad you’re encouraging 8th graders to read that one. By the way, Saenz will participate in the 2014 VA Children’s Book Festival this coming October in Farmville! Here’s the website:

  5. Hi Anne! I agree with you that Doerr’s way of slowly opening his book was a great way to draw readers in. I couldn’t put it down! As a huge fan of the novel and Doerr’s previous works, I was inspired to learn more about the places in which the novel takes place, so I compiled a travel guide that takes readers through the key destinations in ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE. If you’re interested in visiting Paris, Essen, and Saint-Malo through a historical lens influenced by Doerr’s work, check out the travel guide here:

    Hope you and all the fans of Doerr’s incredible novel like it!

  6. Thanks, Alison. Great idea! Fans of my book started telling me that they wanted to walk the streets my characters walked, so I designed a walking tour of Richmond, complete with QR codes that let people listen to me read sections from the novel while they’re looking at a building here or a street there. Fun stuff!

    And for readers of my blog, lemme tell ya — I’ve got an awesome spam blocker on my site and it blocked Alison’s comment because of her commercial link. So she emailed me separately and I checked out her road trip, and WOW. It’s great. I had to override my spam blocker. If you loved ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, and you’re thinking of traveling to Europe to walk the streets Doerr’s characters walked, check out Alison’s post.

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