Category Archives: Blog

How to Write Great Characters – Who’s Your Protagonist?

Which of these fascinating characters is your protagonist? Readers must know!

Howdy folks!

Back on the blog train after a long hiatus during which I was so buried in work there was no time to blog. Today I want to talk about character.

In almost every edit letter I write, I coach the authors I work with on one or more characters. Without great characters, readers won’t care about your book. Even with a great plot, a great setting, and gorgeous prose, people like to read about people. It’s what drives us to tell and listen to stories in the first place.

So one of your tasks as an author is to immediately give the reader a character to care about. That can be a daunting task, especially if you’re new to the craft. I’ve spent my editing career studying bestsellers, trying to figure out how they work, and I’ve noticed that in every bestselling book I read, six things are apparent by the end of the first chapter:

  • Who the main character is
  • What the main character values
  • How the main character reacts when what they value is threatened
  • What the main character wants
  • What’s in their way
  • What they’re doing about it

I call these the six pillars of character, and I’m going to describe them one by one here on the blog over time.

We’ll start with Who the Main Character Is. It’s the most basic of the six, and I see a number of beginning authors, particularly ones writing epic fantasy, struggle with it. So here’s a basic rule:

  • In order to hook your readers, you must tell them who your story is going to be about.

There are many, many ways to do this, and when I edit, my goal is to lead the author toward the way that feels most natural to them. But in most cases, this means using the point of view in your first chapter to signal to your reader who the most important character is. Depending on the point of view you’ve chosen, this can be simple or tricky.

  • In first-person point of view, it’s dead easy. Whoever is “I” is the protagonist, and that’s immediately clear to the reader.
  • In third-person limited point of view, it’s still fairly easy. Whoever’s head we’re in (whoever’s subjective thoughts we’re receiving along with objective description: “The sleet was colder [objective] than her mother’s cursing [subjective].”) is going to be our protagonist. So make sure you stick to one character’s thoughts, and give us plenty of interesting ones. Use your language to establish a distinctive voice for them, and it’ll be clear that they’re our main character.
  • In third-person omniscient point of view, it’s trickiest. Your best bet is to signal who the protagonist is by focusing the chapter on them. We may be introduced to many characters. We may get many characters’ thoughts. But all of them should loop back around to the main character and affect their story in some way. Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings does a great job of this, if you’re looking for an example to study.
  • If you’re writing in second-person point of view, you overachiever you, the protagonist is “you,” whoever that is. This is, I think, the hardest point of view to work in, and best left until after you’ve mastered all the others. But if you’re trying it, you-the-author need to establish who you-the-reader is. Typically this is done by making sure your opening contains at least as much information about character as it does action. “You open the door” tells the reader nothing. “You scream at the kids, with their purple hair and saggy pants and wallet chains and ugly T-shirts, to stop cutting through your lawn” tells them more. “You hate everything you don’t understand, and you understand very little” tells them a lot. Combine the three sentences into a paragraph, and you’ve established a character.

That’s it for now! Like I said, this is the easy one. They’ll get more complex as we work down the list. If you have any questions, ask them in the comments, and as a reminder, you can always contact me at jeff [at] to book me to look at your novel or short story.

Why is it harder to sell a long book to publishers?

Okay, so I’ve neglected the blog for the last seven months or so . My bad on that, but I’ve been so busy editing that there just hasn’t been time.

Nevertheless, today a question came up in an editing loop I’m on about why traditional publishers make a big deal about word count when increased word count doesn’t translate to that many more pages and therefore doesn’t increase physical production costs by that much per book, and I wanted to share the answer, as I see it.

tl;dr longer books are riskier for publishers because they need to sell more copies than shorter books to accomplish the same goals. Therefore they have to be better to get published.

It’s less about number of pages and more about overall costs and return on investment. The markets for long books are limited, but there’s always room for a new standout star. Long books, however, are much more expensive to produce in terms of editing, layout, and design, which are heavy drivers of cost in traditional publishing.

If you’re considering hiring a freelance editor, this should be pretty clear to you. We charge twice as much for each pass of a 200,000-word book as we do for a 100,000-word book. A publisher with in-house editors doesn’t have to pay directly for those services (though many outsource copy editing and proofreading and so do pay directly for some stages of book production in which costs scale linearly with word count), but they do have to allocate limited editor time for it. So a 200,000-word novel needs to bring in a lot more revenue in order to cover its editing costs, let alone provide an equivalent return on investment, which is something publishing executives care about deeply because that’s what shareholders hound executives of all companies over.

Publishers can charge a little more for a longer book, but not a lot more. Mass-market paperbacks and e-books pretty much have capped prices for debut authors (so do trades and hardcovers, but that’s getting more complex than I want to be today). So longer books have to sell a whole lot more copies, which means they’re a much riskier bet than shorter ones.

What the heck does all that mean, you ask? Let me give you a simplified example:

Book A is 90,000 words long. Publisher A hires me to do developmental and line edits on it at my current rates ($100 + $.02 per word for those two services together). So they spend $1,900 on those stages of editing. Let’s say they earn $4.23 per unit sold (publishers typically sell books at 60% of list price to wholesalers, and an author can reasonably expect a 7% royalty rate, so the publisher gets 53% of list. If the list price for that book is $7.99, they earn $4.23 per unit sold. In reality there are other costs that eat into that $4.23, and the numbers look different for e-books, but I’m trying to simplify here). To earn a return on investment of $1 for every $1 they spent on that editing, they need to make $3,800 ($1,900 to pay for the editing itself, and then another $1,900 on top of that). They need to sell 898 copies to do that.

Book B is 270,000 words long. Publisher B also hires me. So they spend $5,500 on editing. The book’s longer, so they can get away with charging $8.99 and thus make $4.76 per book. To earn an ROI of $1 for $1, they need to make $11,000. They need to sell 2,311 copies to do that.

In reality, the calculations are a heck of a lot more complex than that. And, importantly, publishers are looking for ROI much, much better than just $1 for $1. The ROI on their top books, the ones that sell hundreds of thousands or millions of copies, is enormous, and their shareholders, ideally, want them to come as close to that as possible with every single dollar they spend. When they publish shorter books, they have a better chance of accomplishing that.

And that’s why it’s harder to sell a long book to publishers.

Writing the First Page – Character

Each week for as long as it takes, I’m going to discuss an important craft element an author should consider on the first page of every story. As always, I hope the posts will help you take a look at your work and find ways to improve it. You can start the series here.

Like I said last week, the first page has a rotten job. Partly, it can get it done by shunting some of its work onto a character. It’s hard to get a reader to love a page. It’s a lot easier to get them to love a character. People are hard-wired to care about other people.

How do you take advantage of that? By focusing your first page on a character that a.) your readers will be likely to care about immediately and b.) your readers will continue to care about throughout your opening chapters.

Most authors, even when they’re just starting out, seem to know this intuitively. It’s pretty rare to see a first-page attempt that doesn’t feature a character at all. But I often see authors fail in the execution. They start with a minor character involved in a major plot episode, or they try to emulate TV and movies by starting with a minor or throwaway character who sets the stage for the grand dramatic entrance of the major character on page ten. Or they use the first page of their novel for a prologue that introduces an important plot element that creates a mystery (they’re commonly murders or other crimes, a stranger coming to town, or an Important Thing being broken or going missing). All of these approaches to first pages can work on a limited basis for certain types of stories, but you run some serious risks when you attempt them. To wit:

– Your writing may not be good enough. In order to pull off the “mysterious thing” opening, you need to have a flawless command of pacing and a heck of a mystery or high concept to introduce. You need to know exactly how much information to give the reader to get them hooked and then get the hell out of the way so that you can introduce them to a character as quickly as possible. This is not an easy structure to make work, so if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing with it, you’re probably better off going with a simpler opening.

– Your writing may be too good. If, in your “mysterious thing” opening, you introduce a character that the reader cares about too much, only to kill him or her immediately or never show him or her to the reader again, the reader may be very disappointed, possibly to the point of giving up on the book entirely. Even great books can run into this problem; I put off reading A Game of Thrones for years because of its prologue.

– You may create frustrated expectations. Really, this is another flavor of the “your writing may be too good” problem. Another fantasy mainstay, The Eye of the World, falls afoul of this. If you open with a scene that’s so far removed from your main narrative that the reader won’t understand its relevance until they’re a hundred pages into the book, why are you starting your book there at all? Unless the scene’s relevance is shown quickly, many readers will either forget about the scene or become frustrated by it, and either way you’ll be counting on something else to carry them through the first hundred pages. In most cases, you ought to start with whatever that is.

– Your reader can leave too easily. I apply this warning to any attempt to emulate TV or movies. Writers for broadcast television (less so today than they once could, but it still applies) and writers for movies can get away with things that writers of books can’t. They have tricks that we don’t (like actors and soundtracks—my god the things they get away with because of soundtracks) and their media are stickier. When was the last time you walked out of a movie theater partway through a film? When was the last time you flipped the channel away from a broadcast show without at least waiting for the first commercial break? TV and movie viewers have already bought the content when they start it. Readers haven’t. When was the last time you put a book down before getting to the end of the first page? Probably the last time you went browsing for books—reading the first page is part of how readers determine what to buy.

So, deviation over, why should you start your story with a major sympathetic character? Because so many readers read stories for the characters. If you’ve written a great book, you have a great character somewhere inside it. Don’t be coy with that character—give them to the reader immediately so that the reader can fall in love and decide to read your book.

You’ll get readers who care most about your world and you’ll get readers who care most about your plot, but a significant chunk of your readership is likely to come, and stay, for the characters you write. Give them what they want. The longer you wait to offer your reader a character they can care about for the long haul, the greater the risk you run of that reader bouncing off your story.