Graduate’s Corner: Torture Your Character, Capture Your Reader by Elaine Isaak

Elaine Isaak is the author of The Singer’s Crown (Eos, 2005), and sequels The Eunuch’s Heir (Eos, 2006), and The Bastard Queen (Swimming Kangaroo, 2010). Her short fiction has recently appeared in Live Free or Undead and Escape Clauses. A graduate of the Odyssey Speculative Fiction Workshop, Elaine writes traditional fantasy in a mythic and historic vein, harrowing tales of complex human relationships in the realms of fantasy. Magic may offer the choice of transcendence–or tragedy–and the quest never leaves you untouched. Above all else, know this: you do not want to be her hero. She has written how-to articles for the Writer Magazine, and authored the Lady Blade fantasy writing column at AlienSkin magazine for three years. Her speaking engagements have included local chapters of Romance Writers of America, the World Science Fiction and World Fantasy conventions.


I am a strong advocate for the abuse of imaginary people–not because I am, by nature, cruel and wicked (at least–I hope not), but because it will make your characters stronger, your stories better, and you–a better writer. Continue reading “Graduate’s Corner: Torture Your Character, Capture Your Reader by Elaine Isaak”

Director’s Corner: Active Versus Reactive Characters

Jeanne Cavelos is the director of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. She was a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she worked for eight years, editing the fantasy/science fiction program, the Abyss horror line, and other fiction and nonfiction. Jeanne is also the bestselling author of seven books and numerous short stories and articles. She has won the World Fantasy Award and twice been nominated for the Stoker Award.


Active Versus Reactive Characters

One problem many developing writers have is that readers don’t like their main characters and don’t care what happens to them. If you can get readers to become emotionally invested in your protagonist, then they’ll follow you almost anywhere.

Readers tend to like characters who are struggling to achieve a goal. This simple principle can be invaluable in creating sympathetic protagonists. Characters working toward a goal are active characters. Characters who aren’t working toward a goal are reactive. Reactive characters are much weaker than active characters, and we tend not to like them. Unfortunately, many writers end up unknowingly creating reactive protagonists.

Here’s a scene with one active character and one reactive character:

Joe: “What do you want to do tonight?”

Jane: “I don’t know.”

Joe: “Let’s go see Lord of the Rings.”

Jane: “I already saw it.”

Joe: “Well, let’s go bowling then.”

Jane: “I hate bowling.”

Joe: “We could rent a video and stay home.”

Jane: “We did that last night.”

Joe is the active character, Jane reactive. Joe is working toward a goal (finding something pleasant for them to do together). Jane is just reacting to what Joe says, and is seemingly not interested in achieving that goal or any other. We relate to Joe, because at least he’s trying. We dislike Jane, because she’s not trying.

Some people certainly are reactive, and it’s fine to have reactive characters in your story. Just be aware that’s what you’re doing, and don’t expect your readers to like those characters.

Writing Question: Unlikable Protagonists

While a cool idea, unique world, or suspenseful plot may grab the reader’s interest, the story’s protagonist is often the key to making the reader love your story. A strong protagonist can move the reader to tears and stay with him for the rest of his life. A protagonist who rubs your reader the wrong way can make him throw the book across the room. How do you create a protagonist that the reader will follow through fire and blood? It’s a difficult task, so we asked the Odyssey graduates for their tips and advice when it comes to creating a protagonist.

Have you ever had readers react negatively to your protagonist? For example, do they reject your farmboy protagonist as whiny and prefer your scoundrel sidekick character?  How do you make readers like your protagonist? Do you think about making the character likeable as you create him, or do you simply make him someone you like and hope the reader will feel the same? 

Continue reading “Writing Question: Unlikable Protagonists”