One common mistake (the one I made through several short stories) was to write about characters that resembled me. I’m loveable, I have struggles, so why not? The problem is that like most writers I’m a bookish, conflict-adverse, passive creature. No one wants to read about me, not even my own husband. That’s because I’m a homo sapiens, and the kind of characters readers turn pages for are what Jim Frey calls homo fictus.
The homo fictus looks, thinks and feels like a homo sapiens. The reader believes the character is like him, but there are some fundamental differences. The homo fictus is active. When she’s faced with a challenge she does her very best to overcome the obstacle. No one wants to read about a character paralyzed by indecision. No one wants to read about a character victimized by their circumstances. It’s boring. It’s depressing. Don’t do it.
Homo fictus is goal-driven. Being goal-driven is the single most important quality a successful character can have, more important than being likeable. The best example I can think of is Jo Nesbo’s wonderful novel, The Headhunters. The protagonist, Roger Brown, is a real bastard, but very early in the story he has to fight with every resource he can command to stay alive. I couldn’t help it, I wanted desperately for him to succeed. So desperately that I stole time from work to finish the book. FYI: it was worth the stolen time.
All goals are not created equal. My goal is to write ten novels before I die. I don’t believe many readers would find that compelling. Fighting for your life, saving the family farm, never going hungry again: those are goals most readers would commit to.