You have written a funny, brave, sexy, intelligent, strong-willed, etc. main character. Your reader should love him/her. But your beta-readers tell you that ... Well ... yes, he/she is nice, but something does not work.
Your problem may be in two areas: in the style or the substance.
Choice of words
Certain words (or rather their accumulation) tend to evoke a character who is bland, passive, or even downright coward. Your hero has the right to be afraid or suffer, but s/he must do it like a hero, not like a doormat! So, be very careful when, speaking of your protagonist, you use:
- The passive form: the character finds him/herself in a shady bar or in the bed of a pretty girl / boy (if she finds herself there, she must have gotten there, right?). He is beaten or kissed, is led by someone instead of following the person etc ...
- The adverb "involuntarily"
- The verbs "to feel" and "to experience"
- The verbs "to try" and "to attempt"
- For tags, verbs such as: moan, complain, grumble, yelp, squawk, cry, sigh.
Generally avoid formulations which imply passivity, especially when some part of the hero's body does something, instead of the whole hero:
"her hand grabbed her sword" instead of "she grabbed her sword".
That gives the impression of a character who does not control anything, not even her/his own body!
Again, it's not the use of certain words which ends up looking bad on your hero, but their accumulation. So read your text again and count how many times your main character:
- sigh (a particularly common problem with heroines)
- shrugs (especially as a sign of helplessness)
- hesitates (especially for stuff that isn't worth it, like how to dress), a common problem with urban fantasy heroines
- Overeact to minor stimuli: it could be the sound of the wind or a falling object. It can also be the appearance of a person who is unpleasant, but not directly threatening, like the "pretty chick on duty" in urban fantasy.
- Spends time (more than one or two sentences) experiencing both negative and passive emotions, like ruminating a past conflict, without drawing a conclusion.
- Spends time (and paragraphs) thinking without finding a solution or a plan of action.
- Has tics: bite his/her nails, bite his/her lips (still a common problem with heroines), grind his/her hair, swallow his/her saliva, clench his/her teeth...
- Has involuntary and unconscious actions (still a common problem for the female protagonist)
And in general, doesn't your hero have too many facial expressions? It's annoying if you described him as a big, stony, Clint Eastwood-style character!
Besides, try to really compare your hero/ïne to a movie character: how often do you see a Star Wars protagonist sigh, shrug his/her shoulders, bite lips, jump at the slightest noise, have unconscious reactions, etc.?
On the contrary, if you want to describe a character who is not heroic, even a bit of a doormat, an antihero, you can accumulate these terms. The important thing is to do it voluntarily!
She hesitated, biting her lip, then let out a deep sigh.
Versus: She stopped, frowned, then took a deep breath.
Or: She paused, mentally reviewed her options, then took a deep breath.
He hesitated, scratching his head.
Versus: He paused, taking time to think.
She sighed and tried to open the door.
Versus: She pushed on the door with all her might, to no avail.
Again, go through your dialogues and note the number of times your hero:
- "speaks to say nothing": his lines do not serve to advance the plot, or to give any useful information. Do you like people who give idle talk? Do you respect them? What should other characters think?
- If your hero makes a joke which more than 25% of your betareaders don't understand, seriously consider removing it.
- Your hero accumulates common places and clichés in his speech.
You have omitted to give your protagonist has hobbies or small pleasures (food, reading, TV, games, sports, walks, etc.). In real life, I suspect you'd be hard pressed to find nice a person with no interests outside killing evil wizards. If in addition, you make him dwell on some bad experience, your hero will not appear heroic, but frustrated (on the other hand, such a profile would be interesting for a villain). This is the case of many fantasy heroines, for whom one can wonder what they do in their free time: Kate Daniels, Catherine Crawfield, Kaleana etc…. In short, your character is not three-dimensional.
Some aspects of the plot which may look great, bring suspense, twists and turns, vast narrative arcs, unbearable conflicts etc ... also give a negative image of the hero if your reader care to think about it for two minutes (Oh, really? Readers do think? Damn!). Some detaials of the plot make your protagonist appear stupid and / or passive. Most writing manuals insist on the main character emotions, but hardly any address the problem of his/her intelligence. Do they assume the reader is stupid? That’s for another blog post.
You character can have a super level of education, S/he will still appear stupid if:
- S/he tries over and over to do something and fails, just because s/he does it wrong in an obvious way and the problem is easily solved by a secondary character.
- Your protagonist regularly gets out of a difficult situation thanks to a deus ex machina: luck or a friend who arrives just in time.
- At the beginning of the story, your hero/ine lives in a difficult situation, but has never considered / dreamed / fantasized about doing anything to fix the problem. S/he comes across as a very stupid or very passive person.
Example (warning, spoiler): In the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews, the heroine happens to be the secret daughter of a powerful necromancer. He is not aware of her existence and would kill her without hesitation if he found out. This is why, she explains at the beginning of the series, she does not like to leave traces of blood anywhere.
In such a situation, any moderately sane person would start by moving as far as possible from the necromancer. But not Kate Daniels. She still lives in the same town as her biological father and works as a mercenary, which allows her to let her blood spill everywhere. At no point in the story does she wonder wether this is a good idea. Then, she can be as badass as you want and kill demons and vampires aplenty, she appears as a passive and not too bright character (besides, she ruminates a lot on what people think about her).
In short, take a new critical look at your text: haven't you transformed your badass hero into a grumbling doormat?
The case of the female protagonist
Yes, it requires a section of its own. First of all, you must be aware of double standards when imagining your story and your characters: behavior perceived as positive in a hero, might very well be perceived as "typically feminine" (and therefore rather negative) in a heroine. Most of the time, these double standards are applied quite unconsciously by the reader, so be careful when putting your female lead character in a situation which is mundane for a male lead character.
- At the beginning of the story, your hero is young, naive, uneducated and in an low-skilled, poorly paid job (like Luke Skywalker). Often he wants to escape his condition. He has challenges to overcome. Your reader expects to see him grow throughout the story.
- At the beginning of the story, your heroine is young, naive, uneducated and in a low-skilled and poorly paid job. That's normal, she's a woman. She has hardly considered escaping her condition. She needs to be protected. You will need to put her through some serious character development over the course of the story for the reader to notice the difference.
- Your hero talks a lot. He is a warm and open man.
- Your heroine talks a lot. That's normal, she's a woman. You better get her to say really smart things if you want to get away with it. Making her swear every sentence doesn't work, it makes her sound like someone who doesn't control her nerves (normal, she's a woman), imagine such a person in real life!
- Your hero makes an involuntary gesture: he is overwhelmed by emotion.
- Your heroine makes an involuntary gesture: That's normal, she's a woman. women are unable to control themselves.
- Your hero gives free rein to his emotions (joy, anger, affection…). This is normal, after the terrible ordeals he has just undergone / overcome.
- Your heroine gives free rein to her emotions: That's normal, she's a woman. Women are emotional (see the excerpt a little further). Do not to let her emotions spill until the end of really difficult situations.
- Your hero never reads newspapers / news websites / traveler's stories / drums / smoke signals /: he's a geek, a dreamer detached from the world.
- Your heroine never reads newspapers / news websites / traveler's stories / drums / smoke signals : that's normal, she's a woman. Do you know a lot of heroines who read newspapers in any form? Girls’ stuff is about cooking, guys, crafts and gossip. In the worse of cases, they can read old manuals (i.e. grimoires) or novels, but certainely not about modern politics, international affairs, economics, science, is not their thing.
- Your hero does not dare to make advances to the girl he has fallen in love with: it's cute. In addition, he is a man who respects women.
- Your heroine does not dare to make advances to the boy she has fallen in love with: that's normal, she's a girl. Good girls only give in to their sexual / romantic impulses unconsciously and involuntarily (see above). It is unthinkable that they would invite a man over for coffee, drop their handkerchief, write a sweet note, or fake an interstellar rocket failure.
I add that some behaviors I cited before overwhelmingly affect female protagonists:
- have tics
- experience all sorts of physical sensations
- Look down
And above all, they do not control their speech.
Example taken from The Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas:
"… They were silent for a few minutes before an explosion sounded nearby, then another.
“What is that awful noise?” Celaena said. The captain led her through a set of glass doors, and he pointed up as they entered into a garden.
“The clock tower,” he said, his bronze eyes shining with amusement, as the clock finished its war cry. She’d never heard bells like that.
From the garden sprouted a tower made of inky black stone. Two gargoyles, wings spread for flight, perched on each of the four clock faces, soundlessly roaring at those beneath.
“What a horrible thing,” she whispered.
Who says “What is that awful noise?”? Who whispers "What a horrible thing"? A decorative bimbo? A delicate princess? No, the heroine is supposed to be a hardened assassin who spent some time in a penal colony. You believe it, do you?
Another problem is the topics for reflection of the female protagonists: they usually relate to relationships, family, the community or their condition as a woman (discrimination, relationship with Prince Charming, mother in law, children). In short, her thoughts do not leave her body, her house or her village (like a respectable woman). Her “village” might be a coven of wizards, a pack of werewolves, or a kingdom, but she does not think beyond its limits. How many heroines are facing vast metaphysical problems or go to save the universe without being motivated by family relationships or a boy? How many simply set off to explore the wide world?
I would even dare to add that all these traits affect more often the female characters written by female authors. A shame, but a good example of unconscious stereotypes.
Not only the concerns of the heroines are mostly linked to relationships, but their behavior is emotional, even when they are hardened warriors and in an innocuous situation.
Another example from "The Throne of Glass":
"… The assassin pivoted around the table and took aim again. She missed. Gritting her teeth, she considered snapping the cue in half across her knee. But she’d been attempting to play for only an hour. She’d be incredible by midnight! She’d master this ridiculous game or she’d turn the table into firewood. And use it to burn Cain alive.
Celaena jabbed the cue, and hit the ball with such force that it zoomed toward the back wall of the table, knocking three colored balls out of its way before it collided with the number three ball, sending it shooting straight for a hole.
It stopped rolling at the edge of the pocket.
A shriek of rage ripped from her throat, and Celaena ran over to the pocket. She first screamed at the ball, then took the cue in her hands and bit down upon the shaft, still screaming through her clamped teeth.
To keep busy, the heroine plays billiards for the first time, alone in a room. Will she take the opportunity to relax? Think about a delicate problem? Learn the basics of the game which requires precision and concentration, like her job as an assassin? No. She immediately freaks out. I remind you that this is a hardened assassin who has just survived for a year in a penal colony. Now imagine a male protagonist in her place. Did you say "strong woman"?
By the way, you'll notice that Kaleana isn't screaming, but "a scream erupted from her throat". As I said above, this poor girl doesn't even control her body: it can scream by itself!
But then, you will ask, why such a success? Well, because there not many better books. And for young teens who have already internalized all the sexist clichés, Kaleana is an extraordinary girl, able to fight a bit, attract two suitors etc ... There are some novels with really heroic female protagonists, like Hunger Games, but can you name a lot of them? I suspect that girls who are fed up with these clichés simply read novels with male protagonists!
These clichés don't stop at heroines.
Take another usual fantasy character, the mentor, or rather here, the "mentoress". The grandmother. The healer. The old and wise witch. First, there aren't many. But when there is, what kind of advice do they usually give the heroine ? Well, most often, some advice on her love life. How many female mentors can you name with the stature of Gandalf, Ben Kenobi or Professor Dumbledore? For those who are going to quote Polgara again, I remind you that Pawn of Prophecy is over 30 years old. Polgara must feel very lonely in the Female Mentors Club! And if the old fantasy women can't do more, isn't it because they never stepped out of their own kitchen when they were young? What experience can they pass on apart from guys and recipes, even if it's healing recipes?
Sure, in 2020, women do have tics, sensations, sigh, hesitate, have low-skilled and poorly paid jobs and invest more heavily in the family than guys. However, you are not describing an ordinary woman. You are describing a heroine. Like her male counterpart, she must be a little larger than life! In addition, you are in an imaginary universe. So why do you have to imagine a character behaving like an ordinary housewife?
Perhaps you sincerely believe that a woman's role is to take care of her family and to stay at home. But then, please take it on. Don't write clichés unintentionally.
Now, as food for thought, I'll give you two traditional female behaviors that you almost never find in fantasy heroines (yes, I like paradoxes).
- They never cook. Sometimes, they even boast they can't boil an egg.
- They never take pleasure in dressing elegantly. At worst, they wonder if their cleavage is not too deep.
In real life, how would you feel about a woman with tics, swimming in her emotions, a bit shallow and not interested by food and clothes? I suspect you wouldn't have much sympathy for her. You might even perceive her as someone incredibly frustrated.
It is much more difficult to make a woman appear heroic than a man!