Pub Rants

Spend Time In Company?

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STATUS: It’s hard to get back into the swing of things. This long weekend just has me looking forward to next month’s big holiday break!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? I FEEL THE SAME by Bonnie Raitt

I had an interesting thought over the weekend. Just one though. Kidding. I had read a sample pages submission right before leaving for vacation and I have to say that the work kind of stayed with me.

That’s usually a good sign. If I find myself thinking about a manuscript, then I know it’s caught my interest. But this time I was thinking about those sample pages for a different reason. You see, I just loved the writing. I thought the author was top-notch but I ended up passing on seeing the full novel.

Sounds crazy until I explain a bit about why. When I’m torn about a request, I’ll often try and articulate aloud why something isn’t a clear “yes” for me.

For this project, I ended up asking myself this one question: I’m going to devote hours to reading this novel and do I really want to spend time in this main character’s company?

The answer ended up being “no” which is why I passed.

So then that got me thinking. There are different reasons to want to spend time in a character’s company and it doesn’t always mean that the main character has to be likable or nice. The character could be darkly fascinating (DARKLY DREAMING DEXTER comes to mind). It can be something I can’t articulate but draws me into the story (like the character is quirky, self-destructing, yet perversely likable). Maybe I adore the character and can’t wait to see what unfolds. I could answer this question in a dozen different ways.

But when I find myself liking the writing but finding that I’m not all that engaged in the main protagonist, there’s no way to “fix” that—and ultimately it’s probably something that shouldn’t be fixed because it might end up being another agent’s perfect cup of tea.

Does that make sense?

22 Responses

  1. Linnea said:

    Makes perfect sense. I read a novel like that a few weeks ago, or rather started to read a novel. I got so sick of the MC that I couldn’t care less what happened to her, I just didn’t want to listen to her anymore.

  2. Eileen said:

    Makes sense. Would you tell the writer that you liked their writing and if they had other projects you would like to see them or would you stick with the standard rejection letter.

  3. Mags said:

    I think that makes perfect sense. I myself cannot tolerate Catherine or Heathcliff, and nothing Dostoyevsky ever wrote was beautifully crafted enough to make up for how much I loathed his characters.

    If the writing is as you say, the book will find it’s match. How nice for the writer to read that something about it stayed with you, regardless.

  4. Kathy said:

    I think it’s a wonderful compliment to an author if you like his/her writing. It is also perfectly understandable if you don’t like the main character. It’s been said repeatedly but bears repeating again, this is a subjective business :).

    I personally would want an agent to be 110 percent with my main character to represent my book (even if the main character wants to stick a knife in me for saying this LOL). In other words, I think a main character has to come to life to the agent/editor in order for it to be the right match. I so love reading your blogs, Kristin, and thank you!

  5. sylvia said:

    That makes sense to me. Character and writing are the make-or-break factors for me as a reader, and while bad writing (or writing that may be just fine, but happens to annoy me) will sometimes make me stop reading a story I otherwise kind of like, no amount of beautiful writing will make me want to finish a book about characters I find boring, too squicky, too passive, or totally implausible.

  6. Rebecca Burgess said:

    Mags said:
    I myself cannot tolerate Catherine or Heathcliff, and nothing Dostoyevsky ever wrote was beautifully crafted enough to make up for how much I loathed his characters.

    Mags, this is a knife in my heart.

    Oh well, to each his own 🙂

  7. karen wester newton said:

    Re: Cathy and Heathcliff.

    I’m kinda that way about Scarlet O’Hara except I did keep reading hoping to see her get her comuppence. I guess I cared about her, but not in a good way.

  8. Allen B. Ogey said:

    This makes sense to me, but it worries me also because my protagonist in the novel I’m working on is not always likable.

    I just can’t write him any other way because he’s human. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s 19 and occasionally he makes the wrong choice, thinks with the small brain, and lets his darker side overcome him on occasion. At heart, though, he’s a good guy – he just hasn’t get figured out how to be a good guy most or all of the time.

    So….I worry when it comes time to send him out into the world whether folks will like him well enough to stick with him.

    I can’t write him otherwise, though, he’s his own character.

    I guess we’ll see.

  9. Mags said:

    Rebecca Burgess said:
    Mags, this is a knife in my heart.

    Oh no, Rebecca! I am sending you a styptic pencil and an ice cream cone right away.

    I’ve gone and drawn blood in a nice blog again. Oh damn.

  10. Ernest said:

    I can understand Kristin’s decision but I wonder what this post does to the — perhaps a dozen writers with samples at her agency awaiting word. I imagine whoever got the pass heard via email this afternoon, but aren’t all the other authors reading this, trying to decide whether their protagonists are engaging or engagingly wicked or compellingly nasty or what? I’m curious whether the agency gets a dozen frantic phone calls after a post such as this …

  11. Sheila Connolly said:

    I agree with your response to the work, but I hope you share your thoughts with the submitter. Too many agents just slip a form letter into the SASE, leaving the writer in the dark. You’re not saying “fix X, Y and Z and resubmit” because, as you pointed out, what you disliked is intrinsic to the book and the writer’s voice. But telling him/her that you really like the style would be treasured by the writer–and well need all the encouragement we can get!

  12. Janet said:

    I understand that perfectly too. I feel the same way about Flannery O’Connor. She’s a fantastic writer, and there are a couple of her short stories I’m rather fond of. But most of them deal with characters that are so repugnant it is positively painful to spend time with them. I made the mistake of reading her collected short stories this summer. Never again.

    Obviously a lot of people do not share my opinion.

  13. Rebecca Burgess said:


    Alas, you are too late. I’ve spent the night bleeding all over my two copies (different translations) of Crime and Punishment.

    Catherine and Heathcliff and crying out for me as we speak.

  14. Lynnette Labelle said:

    Allen B. Ogey said…
    “This makes sense to me, but it worries me also because my protagonist in the novel I’m working on is not always likable. I just can’t write him any other way because he’s human. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s 19 and occasionally he makes the wrong choice, thinks with the small brain, and lets his darker side overcome him on occasion. At heart, though, he’s a good guy – he just hasn’t get figured out how to be a good guy most or all of the time.”

    It’s okay to have a MC with a slight darker side as long as the good side is his stronger side. We all have flaws and showing this in your MC only makes him human. The biggest thing is that he has to grow by the end of the novel. Does your MC learn from his mistakes or realize he’s on the wrong path?

  15. Anonymous said:

    I understand Kristin’s point. Something speaks to you or it doesn’t. It just makes me wonder how ANYTHING gets published with all the knitpicking requirements (that seem to change direction like the wind) that every agent, editor, and publishing house has.

    Yet James Patterson is a best seller? Good grief.

  16. Linnea said:

    I don’t know precisely why Kristin didn’t want to spend time in the company of the MC but for me it had nothing to do with whether or not they were flawed or really rotten but I need to CARE. I’ll tell you why I didn’t care. The MC was a female detective and she overheard a couple of male detectives making a negative comment about her – say, that she’s a dumb blonde. It wasn’t that but for the sake of the example I’ll use it. For the rest of the novel, or at least the first half I read, she was constantly, and I mean CONSTANTLY, referring to it and saying things like, “They’ll be sorry when this dumb blonde solves the case” or “Bet they’ll wish they didn’t call me a dumb blonde”. This went on ad nauseum until I finally got sick of hearing it and dropped the book.

  17. Arjay said:

    I totally disagree that “there’s no way to fix” the character.

    Sounds to me like – “Oh, this might be a little work, I’d better say no.”

  18. Kim Stagliano said:

    I’m pragmatic about this. Ms. Nelson’s job is to sell the MS to a publisher. It sure helps if your heart is in the process, no matter what the product. Even a manuscript. Which writers tend to infuse with almost human qualities (my darlings!) because they take so much work and love and angst and sweat and tears to create. But at the end of the day, the MS is a product for sale. Better an agent passes than takes on a book that will get pushed to the back of the “product list” by her feelings. That’s my thinking. I was in sales for many years. I sold that lines I had enthusiasm for before other lines. My two cents.

  19. L.C.McCabe said:


    I understand. I brought up the subject of likability on review I wrote regarding the new Beowulf movie. I did not like the main character because while he was strong, brave, and powerful, he lacked honor.

    In other words, Beowulf was an ass.

    I watched a movie that for two hours showcased someone I did not care for at all. I felt nothing when he died, because I did not like the character.

    It could have been different with a different script, but it might also have needed a different actor. Someone who can charm the audience even if they are despicable.

    It takes a brilliant actor to pull that off, but it can be done.

    Michael Shurtleff was a casting director on Broadway and wrote the wonderful backlist title Audition: Everything an Actor Needs to Know to Get the Part and this was what he said about likability of performers:

    You’re always ahead if you cast a performer who is likable. Unlikable performers can sometimes have long, even important, careers, if they have talent, fascination, sexuality, and uniqueness, but some odd chemistry always happens in their relationship to an audience. Frequently the audience does not know they don’t like a performer, but they are disturbed by him (or her), and the elements work in a strange, frequently unpredictable way. I have seen too many productions in which the actor comes off with great notices and the project fails — because the actor is arrogant.” page 170 in the trade paperback edition.

    (Here is a link to my full review in case you are interested: )

    So when it comes to fiction, it is incumbent upon the author to make their reader want to spend time with their main character. You do not want characters to be “perfect” because those people don’t exist in real life, and if there are any they are incredibly annoying. No, what you want are sympathetic characters who you recognize have faults and human frailties just like everyone else.

    The reader wants to become invested and engaged in rooting for the main character to overcome whatever conflict the maniacal author throws in their path.

    If the authorial intent was to create a different emotional reaction in their readers and s/he is not interested in giving their character personality face-lift, then yes it makes sense to pass on the project even if the writing was beautiful.

    I did not like The Stranger by Albert Camus when I was required to read it in high school. I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of ennui when reading the story and although it made a lasting impression, I have no desire whatsoever to re-read that book regardless of how many accolades it has received.


  20. Anonymous said:

    I will read a book about a character, or characters, that I don’t like, but I won’t wast my time on characters the writer has not made interesting. I have to CARE what happens to the character, even if I want the character to die a painful death.

  21. Beth said:

    l.c.mccabe said: Beowulf was an ass.

    I fervently agree.

    Wiglaf, on the other hand…

    But what a stupid ending. As if there was any doubt what Wiglaf the Clear-Sighted would do with that choice.

  22. Nanette said:

    It seems to me that the most interesting characters are the villains, the non-likeable ones. In writing memoirs, it is difficult to “give” a character some “likeable” qualities, because then the whole point of the memoir is mute.