Recently I started reading Rodman Philbrick's The Last Book in the Universe. I got about halfway through it in one sitting, and since I'm a slow reader that's pretty good for me. But then I had to go do something else. I put the book down and I never opened it again.
I don't think my attention span is shorter than a ten- to twelve-year-old's, which is the age group the book was written for. What got me halfway through the book was suspense alone. It was pretty tense. There was lots of menace and danger. I wanted to see if the characters were going to die. But there was nothing to keep me reading except suspense and once the tension was broken by me putting the book down, I didn't care enough about the characters to come back to it.
"Three words for a writer: make me care." - Buffy Andrews
1. Make Him Perfect
You've probably run into him somewhere: the guy who can hit a bullseye without even looking, track an enemy through a million acres of wilderness, beat Jackie Chan at martial arts, and top it all off with stunning good looks. And don't forget about the prophecy that says he's going to save the universe. I can bet where you met this person was in a book because people like that don't exist in real life.
It's fine to make your hero incredibly talented, but it's also extremely easy. It's so easy that it's been done far too many times and I personally am getting tired of it. It might simply be because I'm an ordinary person myself, but I like stories about ordinary people. They can become super if they like--that's fine. But if they start out super without trying it feels a bit unfair.
However great the hero may be he's got to have at least three things for the story to work: he's got to have a weakness, he's got to have character growth, and he's got to have a moment of introspection.
That's the moment (usually just before the climax) when the hero sees himself for what he really is--not so hot; a failure; a let-down. When he realises that his problem is at least partly due to his own mistakes then he's ready to move on, grow a little, show up the bad guy, and save the day.
2. Make Him Horrible
But don't swing too far in the other direction and make him a complete loser, either. He can certainly have problems but he needs to have at least one thing that makes people like him. Blake Snyder calls it the Save the Cat moment--the thing the hero does right at the beginning of the story that gives the readers a reason to root for him. Maybe he saves a cat. Maybe he's just a fun guy, or maybe you just feel sorry for him because his life is rough. The point is you need to be on his side.
Some YA fiction writers seem to think it's all about angst. I love angst but you can have a fun angsty teen and you can have an annoying angsty teen. In The Last Book in the Universe Ryter was a nice guy and I felt sorry for Spaz, but face it: Ryter was boring and Spaz was a grumpy kid with issues. There wasn't anything about them that made me really care what happened to them and Spaz was so thoroughly unhappy that he completely turned me off. You can't be angsty all the time, can you? (I hope not.)
3. Make Everything Easy for Him
A hero has to fight to win. If the author hands him the victory without any personal cost to the hero, he's not really a hero--unless winning the lottery makes you a hero.
The temptation is to make everything easy for him. Everyone likes him. He's happy and safe. He's awesome (see point 1). Winning is no problem.
If, on the other hand, the hero's problems seem insurmountable, readers will want to read on to find out how he solves them. The higher the stakes and the harder it is for the hero to win them, the more interesting the story is.
4. Make Him Passive
That means things just happen to the hero; he doesn't actually get up and do anything. Instead of facing his problems, he runs from them. That's fine at the beginning of the story, but at some point the hero has to face his fears and do battle with his personal demons.
Sometimes all his problems are somebody else's fault. (See point 1 again.) If so, you need to do some revision because if all of his problems are due to someone or something else there's no need for internal change for the hero. A hero who doesn't change is a plastic person. He's boring.
There you have it: four deadly mistakes. Disagree about them? Know of any more? Leave me a comment!