How characters can make your book a lemon

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In the last few weeks, I’ve read two books that failed to hit the mark for me. And when I say failed, I don’t mean in a grand and epic fashion. I mean in a baffling and miserable sludge puddle.

Both books were fantasies, from bestselling authors. Fair share of hype. Great covers. Reputable publishers. Promising plots. Great writing. Rock solid world-building.

Total disappointments.

I tried, I really did. I’ve loved other books written by these authors. I read all the way through both of them, hoping to hit that point where the plot starts to consume me and the characters become real. And then the last pages came, and with them that sense of how many hours of my life I couldn’t get back.

Eager to salvage something from the mess, I pinpointed what I didn’t like about them. In my opinion, both books lemoned in two key ways:

  1. The main characters.
  2. The love interests.

And when I write it like that, it starts to make sense. So… what made these characters so unlikable?

Before you ask, NO… I’m not going to name the books. That’s not what I’m about. Someone out there loved them. The editors, for one. The publishers, too. Probably even the authors at least 50% of the time. I didn’t, but that doesn’t mean I want to shout about it. One day, I’ll be a published author. And if someone thinks my books are lemons, I’m not sure I’ll want to know.

It’s important to write what you like to read, so here’s what I learnt by reading something I didn’t like:

 

Main characters should be people I want to bat for

I’m serious. If I’m going to devote myself to reading your book, I want the main character to be someone I can actually warm to. Especially if it’s in First Person POV. Because if the MC is boring or annoying, and they’re telling the story, then the book is boring or annoying too.

It doesn’t mean the MC needs to be good or perfect. They can do terrible things. They can make one hundred mistakes. Every chapter. But, by all that’s holy, do it in an interesting way with a touch of flair! If they’re annoying, fine, squeeze some humour out of it. If they’re killing people for a living, okay, make them re-home rescue puppies. I don’t know. Give readers something to admire in them. Help us like them. We want to, promise.

Book Lemon #1’s MC was nasty. To the author’s credit, that was intentional. But I never liked her and the whole book would have been better off if she’d been killed in the second chapter. I thought she’d get better. She didn’t.

Book Lemon #2’s MC was a one-dimensional conceited bore. She professed to make two great friends, but left them stranded and lied to them all the time. At one point, she was with one friend as she loudly proclaimed the other was her ‘best friend’. Well, ouch. I think we were supposed to believe in these grand friendships, but there was never enough warmth or feeling in the narrator’s tone. Too much effort spent on descriptions and world-building, not enough on character-building.

Ensure there is something in your main characters that the reader can relate to, that draws them in, that makes them want to know what happens next. Otherwise all your plotting and skill is for nothing.

 

Love Interests should be lovable

It kind of goes without saying, doesn’t it?

Book Lemon #1’s Love Interest was okay, except for that minor problem about wanting the MC just because she looked the same as the nice girl he used to love, who had died. And then he died too. So really, no one halfway nice survived that book. And no section of it made me feel happy. Books have such power for good, why focus on the bad to the detriment of reader happiness?

And an extra grump from me? Everyone in this book, and I mean EVERYONE, was drop-dead gorgeous. Bleurgh. A bit of balance wouldn’t go astray.

Book Lemon #2’s Love Interest was wooden, and not in a good way. The book was filled with how handsome he was, but did he actually do anything swoon-able? Was his personality as striking as his exterior? No. He’s portrayed as false… she calls him ‘swaggering’ right at the start. That’s full of negative connotations to me. He puts on ‘masks’, has a ‘practiced’ smile. Treats women like commodities. I was off him before he’d even left his first scene.

So what exactly made the MC fall for him? Ah – just his looks. I see. So. Then. Refer back to the top section about why I found the MC so unlikable. This was another relationship that didn’t feel real to me.

First impressions are important. In a recent manuscript, I thought I had created a great Love Interest. But when we first met him, he was stressed out, society was collapsing around him, and he acted aggressively towards the MC. I thought it a rational response to the situation, but my beta reader got pushed offside by it. He was an absolute sweetie for the rest of the book, but my reader couldn’t like him. Of course not, once it was pointed out to me, I could see that. Solution? I changed how they first met.

Romance is an important aspect of most Young Adult literature. It doesn’t have to be central, but it’s usually there. When people are falling in love on the pages we’re reading, we should be falling in love with them too.

Don’t make the mistake of describing a pretty face and thinking that’s all that’s required to make a Love Interest.

 

Phew. Well. Glad I got that off my chest.

And you know what? I feel like I’ve learnt something. I’ll just have a sip of literary lemonade…

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