It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon and I’m looking forward to reading a book. I make a cup of coffee, retreat to my room and settle down. After 10 pages, I feel uneasy. After 20 pages, I feel trapped. After 30 pages, boredom overwhelms me and I toss the book aside.
I know I’m not alone with this problem and I decided to ask other readers what made them stop reading a book. The most common response was that they just did not care. Even if the book had a great premise, everything hinged on the execution.
Slow beginnings with backstory and detailed descriptions were a problem. Pretentious, stylised, literary writing was another. But mostly, they abandoned books because they felt no emotional connection to the protagonist. Some even said they were not sure who the protagonist was.
- Writers start at the wrong moment in the story. Authors need to introduce the protagonist in the opening scenes. I am not interested in the weather or minor characters. I am also not interested in your protagonist’s backstory until something meaningful happens to her. Once it does, and if I really need to know, you can tell me how she ended up there.
- There are unrealistic or weak stakes. A character who is worried in an abstract way about Earth being destroyed by corporations is not good enough. However, I will care about her if her farm has been flooded because of global warming.
- There is no reason to empathise with the protagonist. I do not have to like her, but I need to find redeeming qualities, or understand her motivations, early on. If she is planning to kill someone, give me her reason for doing so. She should not be perfect, but I have to care about her to carry on reading.
If you think readers may stop reading your book because of a weak protagonist, ask yourself these five questions.
- Who is she?
- Why do we care what happens to her?
- What does she want and what is she doing (straight away) to get it?
- What is at stake for her?
- Who stands in the way of her achieving her goal?
Make sure you have good answers for each one. If you do, you will have one of the basic requirements for keeping a reader interested: a motivated protagonist with a story goal.
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