“…Couldn’t Connect to Your Main Character”
In the past year or so, I’ve become a regular attendee of the SCBWI’s #Dialogs group, which began as the Marginalized Writers’ Meet-Up organized by Adria Quiñones, and has since broadened to an online meeting to draw in people who don’t live in the New York metropolitan area. Last weekend, Adria organized a group phone discussion on the Discord platform (popular with gamers) focused on inclusion of marginalized voices within SCBWI. The discussions have been wide-ranging, but some of the most interesting ones have focused on craft issues and decoding agent-and-editor-speak in rejections.
I’ve written from my perspective as an autistic writer trying to decipher the code.
One of the most difficult things for me to deal with…is the dominant communication style of the industry. Everyone appears friendly. Everyone smiles. I interpreted that as a sign that they liked me, approved of whatever I was doing, and wanted me to hang around. I cannot “read between the lines.” I need to be told what is appropriate behavior in person and on social media — and the reason why….
Related to that is the way editors often interact with authors during the revision process. An editor who feels strongly that an aspect of plot or character needs to be changed may say, “You should think about changing this.” At this point, I would respond “I thought about changing this but decided in the end not to do it.” In other words, this kind of suggestive language doesn’t work for me….
It turns out, I’m not the only one who can’t read between the lines. In a Twitter thread that prompted the discussion at our recent #Dialogs meeting, agent Eric Smith talked about the common rejection line, “…couldn’t connect to your main character.” Not only is this line vague and unhelpful, it can also lead to misunderstandings between agents and editors on one hand and marginalized writers on the other. The results of these misunderstandings are not insignificant when writers come to believe that the industry doesn’t understand or welcome them and readers are deprived of authentic stories by those who share their backgrounds.
From my experience and that of other writers, “…couldn’t connect to your main character” can mean one of three separate issues. The first, and the one Adria and I discussed at the meeting, is that the main character lacks “interiority.” What is interiority, you may ask? Basically, it’s emotional depth, which allows readers to understand a character’s motivations and reactions, so that readers can empathize with the character. Interiority comes from knowing what the main character desires, both in each scene and in the novel as a whole, and what the stakes are if the character doesn’t attain that desire. Interiority comes from the writer’s thorough knowledge of the character’s personality, past traumas, patterns of thought and behavior, beliefs and misbeliefs, gestures — all the things that make a character lifelike. Mary Kole has a clear, concise essay about interiority on the KidLit site with great links, and if you’d like more, she has a book and an editorial service. Another good source for developing your protagonist’s interiority is Lisa Cron’s Story Genius. I used Story Genius to develop the three protagonists for my most recent novel, and I noticed that they felt fuller and more real than characters in my past books, both unpublished and published. I also felt the emotions in the novel were stronger and closer to the surface, and it stood out even more for me because I chose to write the novel in close third person rather than the more immediate first person. This fall I plan to use the same techniques to rework an earlier historical novel that languished on submission with one close call and that I pulled when a very similar book was announced to appear in October. I hope that the revision in light of my study and practice will not only differentiate my earlier novel from the competitor but also represent a level-up in my craft.
Sometimes the main characters have sufficient interiority, but they lack likeability. In fact, my contemporary YA manuscript that received only one actual rejection out of fourteen submissions (twelve editors never responded, and two turned it down for marketing reasons, not publishing contemporary YA or having a title too similar) had a “couldn’t connect to the main character.” In that case, the protagonist had plenty of interiority, which came through in gestures, dialogue, and internal monologue, but he was a truly unlikeable person. I liked him, but he resonated with few others because of the chip on his shoulder and his consistently self-destructive acts. He was — and this was a deliberate though possibly unwise choice on my part — his own worst enemy. At the time, I identified so closely with this protagonist that I rushed headlong into some self-destructive behaviors career-wise and paid the price. Readers like redemption arcs, but his redemption was too little, too late. He was in a rut (and so was I). While I think the failure of this manuscript had more to do with a too-thin plot — a common problem when trying to turn a short story, which this was, into a novel — my protagonist wasn’t the type of person who resonated with gatekeepers and many readers. While a rich interior life and a strong desire are two things that contribute to likeability, there are other ways to soften hard-edged characters, among them a strong sense of justice, protecting and caring for those who are weaker, self-deprecating humor, and facing and overcoming adversity. Keep in mind too — and this was a lesson I learned from some of the reviews of Rogue — an instance of colossal bad behavior can cancel out a lot of the good a character can do. Just as in real life.
And this brings us to the third cause of the “couldn’t connect.” Sometimes gatekeepers just don’t “get” your main character, and it can be because they don’t share your marginalization and don’t care to learn and empathize. This is why we need more diverse agents, editors, marketing staffs, and reviewers, because in spite of efforts by We Need Diverse Books and others, white, cis, abled people are still overrepresented. It also means that we creators need to seek out diverse agents and publishers and support diverse authors by buying their books, requesting them at the library, and posting reviews. We need to highlight authentic representations of marginalized and intersectional identities and explain why these are authentic, complex, and true to life. We may not succeed in getting every gatekeeper to change, but we have to try. Each changed attitude, each step toward understanding is a victory that can lead to more victories as these books find their way to new readers. And developing craft, specifically the interiority and likeability of your characters, raises the chances that your story will replace ignorance and misunderstanding with awareness, understanding, empathy, and delight.