Pub Rants

When It’s Not Really An Answer

 32 Comments |  Share This:    

STATUS: I’m obviously not blogging in the morning…

What’s playing on the iPod right now? BREAKEVEN by The Script

This is strange enough to blog about because it’s happen three times in the last 10 days.

Toughest part is that I know that most writers are going to say that this is not really an answer. And I’m going to have to agree.

So what am I talking about? I’ve read three sample pages recently that were well-written, had good story concepts, and the authors definitely understood craft. But (and isn’t there always a but?) I didn’t ask for a full because I honestly didn’t like the characters in the story enough to spend a whole novel with them.

And yes, I completely get that there is a world of literature out there with unsympathetic characters. In fact, that could be considered a literary tradition.

Yet, it’s too simple to say I’m passing on asking for a full SOLELY for that reason. I have read fiction where the main narrators weren’t wholly sympathetic and yet I found myself totally intrigued by the nuance of those characters and the stories to read the entire novel. My book club’s pick for last month, Lev Grossman’s THE MAGICIANS, comes to mind. I really enjoyed that one.

So there is a balance—that fine line between tough characters and a story that remains gripping despite that.

For a couple of these sample pages, that wasn’t the case—at least for me.

And I know that’s not really an answer but it was the only one I could honestly give.

32 Responses

  1. Stephanie McGee said:

    You say it’s not an answer, but it is. Thinking about it, I’ve encountered this in my own reading. The story intrigued me enough to read through to the end. But at the end of the book, the characters didn’t resonate enough for me to see their story to the conclusion. (It was first of a trilogy.)

    Analyzing it, I can understand your point of view on this matter with regards to requesting material.

    Thanks for this post.

  2. Leona said:

    What if you did this and author rewrote story? As in added 20k and changed names, added to world building etc. Really rewrote it after finding beta readers and getting feed back?

    Would it be worth a retry? Or not?

  3. Robert Guthrie said:

    Why would we stick with a book if the main character isn’t someone we’d want to hang out with? It could be likability or that the character is damn interesting. If neither…

  4. Dawn Embers said:

    The answer makes sense to me. I experienced this issue on the side of a critic in a past critique group. We had a member who had a difficult time with his first couple of chapters because no one felt they had nothing about the main character to latch onto for a whole novel.

    It’s not easy to hear readers say “I wouldn’t continue reading past chapter one because of the main character.” His novel got better with a secondary character that appears but that’s not gonna help if the first chapters don’t get the reader interested.

  5. Anonymous said:

    Oh gosh. You asked for my pages and now I’m scared. Bummer. The waiting for the yes send more or no thanks email is hell.

  6. Cholisose said:

    I’ve been able to read books in the past where I disliked the main character, but it really does make it more difficult. There’s been time’s I really have tossed a book aside because I was so frustrated with the protagonist. Which is probably a bad sign.

  7. Lucy said:

    Leona said…

    What if you did this and author rewrote story? As in added 20k and changed names, added to world building etc. Really rewrote it after finding beta readers and getting feed back?

    Would it be worth a retry? Or not?

    @ Leona

    Changing names, world, etc., doesn’t create a more likable character. If you can’t address that issue, the rest isn’t going to help.

    But I think what you’re asking is: is it ok to re-query? Most agent advice I’ve seen says “Yes, IF you’ve made significant changes.” But wait a few months, and then do it only once. And then move on. At worst, you get rejected again, for that project.

    The problem with re-querying is that most of the time you don’t know why you were rejected. Which means it can be difficult to make effective changes–the reason for the initial rejection may be one you have no idea of. So it doesn’t hurt to re-query–politely and ONCE–but in general, it’s not the most constructive use of your time.

  8. LaylaF said:

    Hi Kristin,

    You passed on my 30 pages recently. (sad face) Maybe I’m one of those you are referring to in this post. I assumed it was my writing or story line…didn’t think about the fact that maybe you didn’t connect with the character(s). hmmmm. Food for thought. Thanks…love your posts!

  9. Laurel said:

    I disagree about that not being an answer. Even if the story moves a bit slowly or I stumble over a plot hole I’ll keep reading if I like the MC. The common denominator for a DNF is that I don’t like the protagonist. I’ve gotten three quarters of the way through a pretty decent story and gave up on the book because there was no indication that the MC would ever grow into someone I might like.

    When all is said and done, I have to like the main character enough to care about what happens to her.

  10. lbdiamond said:

    Sounds like you can have all the elements of good writing, but without the “X factor,” it feels like something is missing.

    The X factor is different for each person–that’s what makes finding the right match all the more important.

    I agree with the other comments–this is definitely an answer.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  11. Nicole Chardenet said:

    Anyone ever read “Bonfire of the Vanities”? I hated the main character by page four…but I finished the novel. I think Robert Guthrie nailed it. The character has to be likeable OR damned interesting.

  12. Red Boot Pearl said:

    I’ve read characters that I just didn’t connect with. I wondered why they were published, maybe someone did like them…but I’m turned off when the characters are totally whiney and annoying…who wants to hang out with that for 250 page?

  13. Wendy Tyler Ryan said:

    I, for one, wish agents could stop time. Yes, that’s right. If they could, perhaps they could take a little of that stolen time and let those of us who have sent in those “well-crafted, but” queries know what it is we are doing wrong. Because the problem I see with never knowing, is that we may continue to keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again with each subsequent novel. I fully understand why agents can’t take the time with rejections, but we all wish you could.

  14. Gina Black said:

    I’d be grateful to get the feedback that you didn’t like my character well enough to keep reading. In fact, I did get that from an agent and also a beta reader and it caused me to really think hard and do a *great* deal of re-working to my story. What I have now is so much better. I really needed to know that. 🙂

  15. christwriter said:

    I’m the kind of person who automatically assumes the worst in any given situation (because it’s usually true). ANY feedback whatsoever is good. “I didn’t like the characters” means … hell, maybe it’s just taste and I can have hope that the next person might. Non-specific stuff makes me figure I suck so hard that light can’t escape.

    (Yeah, all I’ve ever gotten is non-specific stuff.)

  16. Jazz Sexton said:

    I’m halfway through The Magicians right now. Quentin and Alice are starting to get on my nerves despite liking them a lot up until now. I expect I will love and hate them throughout the second part of the novel. What keeps me going is that they feel like friends now even if they are getting on my nerves, and I want to find out what terrible things await them in the next 200 pages based on the mysteries Lev has set up so far.

  17. Anonymous said:


    It’s most definitely an answer, at least the writer knows that part of what they are doing is right and they know what they need to improve.

  18. Kelly Wittmann said:

    As someone who writes realistic, character-driven fiction, this has always been a problem for me. I don’t enjoy writing “sweet” characters, but go too far the other way, and you’re going to have trouble even finding an agent.

  19. Pat Zietlow Miller said:

    I just finished reading THE MAGICIANS, and I had the same reaction. The characters really weren’t likeable, but I had a hard time putting the book down, the storyline was so compelling.

    Even at the end, they really weren’t especially nice people, any of them.

    It was sort of like if Harry Potter had grown up without the any moral compass — no Hogwarts staff or stable friends or inspirational, dead parents.

  20. Elaine said:

    That’s a reason, and it’s better than a form rejection, which I just got from an agency. The form just leaves you wondering — was it concept? character? writing? length? if you know, it gives you the option of rewriting in a way that may eliminate the problem.

    Love your blog.

  21. Miranda said:

    I felt the same way about THE MAGICIANS. I loved the book – I even wrote Lev Grossman and drove him crazy telling him how much I enjoyed it, even though I couldn’t stand 95% of the characters. Then I went on Amazon and read the reviews, and I couldn’t believe how many people disliked the book just because the characters weren’t sympathetic. Just because a character isn’t charming and perfect doesn’t mean the book can’t be wonderful, but it goes to show how personal preferences mean everything.

  22. Lori said:

    I think it’s a super answer – it’s direct enough that a good writer can understand it and run with it.

    BTW, I started reading your blog because I love anyone who shares their music choices. And so far, I’ve picked up a few of them. Thanks for that!

  23. P.N. Elrod said:

    Back in the day the best rejection I EVER got was when I was told my MC just wasn’t sympathetic enough to grab the reader.

    Heave big sigh.

    Execute rewrite #25.

    Insert tweaks to round out MC into a believable person, tough, but likable.

    Next time out it sold.

  24. Vickie Motter said:

    It’s so true, there are so many factors we have to account for. Then there is the fact that some people may identify with the characters, and I’m always afraid I’m the odd person out that can’t! Haha, and I guess I’ll take The Magicians off my reading list.

  25. Anonymous said:

    If you recogonize that a writer knows his/her craft, it could boil down to a matter of taste. But I find so few novels following Aristotle’s Poetics these days. Give me a flawed character and put them in the middle of a conflict and let me sweat how they will work their way out. I have patience to see it through if the language sings. Am wondering why so many published books (clearly agented) don’t do this. The leads often are so flawless, the conflicts so uncreative, I lose interest.

  26. Anonymous said:

    can you speak about what you felt the characters were missing that didn’t draw you in? were they flat? did they not have personality that was shown through the dialogue? were they too soft? too hard? boring? without conflict? I’d find that helpful. Thanks for your post.

  27. An American Patriot said:

    Initially, there are three ways to get your reader to identify with the hero:
    1. Make the hero suffer.
    2. Put the hero in danger.
    3. Make the hero admirable in some way.

    Over the course of the story, the audience identifies with two things:
    The need and the desire of the hero.
    The need comes from the character’s weakness.
    The desire is the outer goal of the hero during the story.

    There are two kinds of weaknesses:
    1. Psychological Weakness – This is something about the character that is hurting him.

    2. Moral Weakness – This is something that hurts the character and other people as well.

    For instance, a psychological weakness might be vanity. The hero thinks he is better than others. A moral weakness could be arrogance. The hero puts other people down.

    Out of the weaknesses come the need and this forms the wellspring of the story. A good story is framed in this way, with the Weakness/Need at the start of the story and the Self-Revelation (where the character discovers what he has been doing wrong and changes) at the end of the story.

    Hope this info is useful.

    For more information, get the book, “The Anatomy of Story,” by John Truby. Its the best book there is on writing.

    Mark O. 🙂