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I have a short story named Cured (which asks the question "What if you could take a pill to increase your empathy?"), in which the main character (Tony) doesn't talk or show much about himself until later, although he is described by his friends. A criticism I have received is that as a result of early self-definition, Tony is boring and completely un-engaging. This is really bad because this is supposed to be a mostly character driven story.

Is this a legitimate problem and if so, what are some heuristics that I can apply to tell if I'm not letting the main character talk/act/define himself enough?

Alternatively, if this is not a problem in general, but that my story has other issues that are crippling it, I will start a new question for the sole purpous of critique.

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Show, don't tell. You're are retelling a lot like the coffee incident instead of showing the actual action. Same goes for the dialog mentioning the hippie. Why use a flashback for the breakup, if you could start your story with it? What is the goal of your character? What does he want? What are the obstacles he must overcome? –  Stephen Aug 11 '13 at 19:54
    
Oh dear, I thought I was showing when I wrote the coffee scene... Is it that I don't leave enough room for the reader to interpret his actions? What if I removed the line that starts with "Usually I..." –  Seanny123 Aug 12 '13 at 13:41
    
I'm "refactoring" the story now and I honestly can't believe I didn't put the break-up in the beginning. Good call Stephen. –  Seanny123 Sep 7 '13 at 8:30
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3 Answers

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I read your story. It's not that Tony is boring; the problem is that he's too predictable and easy to understand. You only have to read the beginning of the story to know what's going on with him: he's depressed and emotionally unresponsive. There's very little the reader need to discover or know about him after that.

In order to engage the reader you have to make a character unpredictable and difficult to understand. If you do that, the reader will feel interested even if the character is boring.

Few examples:

The character spends the whole day in his apartment cooking spaghetti.

(Is he depressed? Is he an antisocial? Why spaghetti of all food?)

The character has been having a hard-on since his wife died.

(What could the hard-on symbolize? Anger? Frustration? Repressed sexual desire?

The character has decided to spend the rest of his life with a cardboard on his head.

(Reader: OK, what the hell?)

OK, not the best examples, but I think you get my idea.

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I've marked your answer as correct, since this basically summarizes the problems with all my stories (there are 3 on Github but about 13 in an encrypted folder on my hard-drive) and I am overjoyed to finally have the problem diagnosed with such precision. I will let you know when I've updated the story and you can judge whether I've taken your advice correctly. –  Seanny123 Aug 12 '13 at 13:43
    
@Seanny123 Glad I could help! By the way, don't put (or push?) your stories on github.com! Post them on scribophile.com. You'll receive invaluable feedback (talking from experience). –  Alexandro Chen Aug 12 '13 at 15:58
    
Cool. I just made an account! –  Seanny123 Aug 13 '13 at 0:52
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This advice really makes sense. Real people, even the most pedestrian ones, are complicated and mostly unknown. Without at least some of that, a character is not going to feel convincing/real. –  Joe Aug 13 '13 at 21:13
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Have you considered writing out a character bio? I come at writing from a bit of an RPGing background so the idea of a character sheet is sort of normal for me, but if it's not to you, just try and put together a little dossier - an FBI file - of what you know about your person. What's his demeanor like? Did his parents love each other? What was his childhood like? Describe a typical day at work for this guy. And so on and so forth. Note that not only does not of this have to be in the story proper, none of it probably should be in there. This is solely for you, the author, to understand who this person you're writing about is. Once you figure that out, my experience is that that character will start to come a lot more vibrant and have a lot more agency all on its own.

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I appreciate your feedback and do usually try to create character webs similar to what you describe in your sheets. I admittedly did have a bit of difficulty with Tony. My other story on my GitHub called Tempo, was much easier to write for. In your opinion, does he suffer from the same lack of dimension as Tony? I ask, because I am trying to develop a heuristic for how I feel about a character and how other people will see them. –  Seanny123 Aug 12 '13 at 13:52
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Does a character (presumably the protagonist) have to be definable to be engaging? In a word, yes. The character’s nature could be defined as anything. In fact, inconsistent suggests conflicted (internal conflict), but the audience must be able to define the character in some way. Otherwise, they cannot connect or care. I’ve struggled with protagonists whom readers didn’t care about for reasons similar to what you’re facing; they were do-nothing characters.


Plot, story, and character while independent concepts, overlap. A character driven story is not devoid of plot, because a story without plot provides no opportunity to demonstrate the protagonist’s character. Often we confuse characterization with true character. Characterization are all of the details of a character - what they look like, where they’re from, how they talk, walk, or dress. Also, what they say to themselves in they’re own head. This is all surface, adding little to the story. True character is demonstrated by the decisions the protagonist makes in response to events (plot). Particularly, in response to dilemmas, the high stakes decisions. When the bulk of the plot results from the world reacting to the protagonist’s decisions, that is a character-driven story, but the character must decide.

If I follow you’re question right, your protagonist lacks empathy. His or her initial decisions must demonstrate this lack of empathy. The events which result would then suggest to the protagonist that he or she must change. Thus, the decision to take the empathy pill. Or the world could force the taking of the pill, but this would lean away from character-driven.

Readers connect with characters who feel real. To feel real they must act (make decisions). Without the choices, the character is a sketch, a police description describing the subject’s appearance - not a person.

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