So I'm writing a fantasy novel, and I have my plot fairly fleshed out, and I have my main players, my world is built, and now I've started to really flesh out my characters more. The only problem is, I've already fleshed out about 5 of my secondary characters, and it's really starting to feel like my main character pales in comparison. I'm not quite sure what to do.

For the purpose of the book and the plot, the main character the way I've imagined her, is a shy and unsure girl who is actually quite determined. She's thrown into a new world she doesn't really know much about (as YA protagonists frequently are, y'know...), where she kind of feels inadequate and out of place (obviously). I want her arc to be that of overcoming her own self-doubt and fear, and doing the things she needs to do in spite of her fear. Only, I feel like every time I put her next to my other characters, she comes across as annoyingly shy and mousy. She's more of a secondary character than my secondary characters, and at this point the way I feel about her is, if I read a book with a character like this, I would hate the hell out of it. I think this is because she's not fleshed out enough but I just don't know how to build her up while keeping her personality consistent.

I feel quite stuck and I was wondering what tools/ideas/techniques/things could help me see her in a different light?

  • 9
    I really don't want to be offensive, but it's the other way around: she should hate you, because you haven't fleshed her out. Shy and unsure is typical for YA, indeed, but that alone wouldn't ever make me to hate her. Just emphasize that she (nonetheless) does what she knows she has to do, despite her fears, and you might discover that your readers like a brave mouse better than a coward cat. Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 18:39
  • 3
    Somebody out there knows the name of the Forgotten Realms novel where the protagonist is a mousy woman who joins an adventuring party in distress but then finds a talisman and becomes completely badass. The author had similar problems making me care about her personal issues at the beginning. The solution of finding a talisman was sort of an obvious tool, but the story got a lot better when she was badass. It might be worth reading: in the end it was a good, short fantasy with a a lot of ideas on the topic of your question. If the protagonist doesn't have a lot of gumption to begin with, you
    – Stu W
    Commented Sep 4, 2017 at 0:15
  • ...risk sounding like a dozen different Disney movies.
    – Stu W
    Commented Sep 4, 2017 at 0:17
  • 1
    ask yourself, what would George R. R. Martin do?
    – hanshenrik
    Commented Sep 4, 2017 at 10:19
  • 3
    @hanshenrik well, he'd probably kill off some characters :P
    – circepix
    Commented Sep 4, 2017 at 10:25

8 Answers 8


You may have story problems, too. As Mark says (I have to say that a lot) she needs to want something, bad. You say she is "quite determined" but mousy: She can be usually mousy, but when it comes to taking a direction that does not lead to what she wants, she needs to show some steel. Bravery. A willingness to go it alone. A willingness to defy others. A willingness to fight, to be injured, to risk her life, to intentionally choose horrific pain over safe failure.

Whatever her brass ring may be (and it should be uniquely hers, not something everybody wants), her pushover, shy, unsure exterior better have a lethal warrior underneath it, or (and this is a good story telling strategy) your story must gradually develop it. (e.g. Luke Skywalker is an unsure farm kid, but a series of harrowing and painful story events turn him into a consummate warrior.)

The arc of a shy and mousy girl can end with a confident and battle tested adult ready to take on the world. After your setup, when you introduce what she wants more than her own life, you need her to take the first steps on that path and not by accident. She needs to make a hard choice and choose some sort of hardship over the wrong direction. It can be minor, and it doesn't even have to hurt. The reader needs to see she has her own mind, and when it is important she will risk danger over "going along", even if the danger does not materialize and harm her. The reader needs to see the glint of steel in her soul, and be looking forward to more of it later in the story.

  • 1
    Yes, thank you! I was worried that the arc of "mousy girl to brave hero" was too shallow or easy, but having her, as you said, take these steps of her own volition is exactly what she needs, Thanks for the suggestions! They were very helpful :)
    – circepix
    Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 16:14
  • @circepix For a character to be one thing at the beginning of a story, and the reader getting to follow them growing toward something else at the end of a story, is a common theme. (I hesitate to call it plot.) And for YA, it might be one of the better choices.
    – user
    Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 16:48
  • Yeah, you're right, I realize it's the journey that counts, I just was worried about rehashing the same tired thing over and over, but I suppose a lot of the strength of a story comes from all the pieces put together and not just the individual bits. Still, I was getting really stuck on this on issue. I'm glad to have gotten such useful feedback
    – circepix
    Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 16:54

You don't build a character around a psychological profile. The primary driver of character is desire. Do you know what this character wants? Do you know why they want that thing enough to overcome their shyness to strive for it? No one comes out of their shell except under the compulsion of desire.

Create the occasion of desire and you will have your character and your story.

  • I wasn't trying to build her around a profile (not intentionally anyway), rather i was stating that as this point in time this is the kind of personality she shows because if she were, for example, bold and brave, the plot wouldn't make sense. But yes you're right she probably needs better motivation :)
    – circepix
    Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 15:29
  • 4
    @circepix It is not just about needing better motivation. It is that desire is the mainspring of story. It drives everything. So it is not just a matter of characters needing a reason to act, but that the whole of the story is about the working out of the central desire that drives it. In other words, you don't invent motivations to make the plot work. Rather, the plot forms around the desire. It is flesh on the bones of desire. Otherwise it is not a plot but simply an imaginary history.
    – user16226
    Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 15:42
  • Oh alright, yes now I understand what you were saying earlier. You're right, I need to revisit the whole idea again. Great input, thank you! :)
    – circepix
    Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 15:44
  • Marks advice is spot on. Your character needs to have that desire. And in the second world type stories, give her that reason for wanting to get home. Her shyness and uncertainty will be overcome through her character development, but she needs that core desire to help her push herself
    – user18397
    Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 9:46

It seems to me that you might have begun to over-construct your characters (and maybe other parts of your narrative as well).

Many aspiring writers look for rules and guidelines in how-to books or on the internet and attempt to apply those principles in a very rational manner. As a consequence, they have no emotional connection to the characters and plot that they assemble.

This is what you experience. Your protagonist is meaningless to you beyond the fact that you have defined her as your protagonist.

What you need to do is to begin with a protagonist that you care about. Create her in the way that you feel most strongly for her.

Many writers put (a part of) themselves into their protagonists. Their heroes are their alter egos: who they are or who they want to be or who they are afraid to be. Other writers write about characters that they desire: the men and women they want as lovers or friends or in some other capacity in their lives.

If you have a character like that, a character that you deeply care for, then it no longer matters whether or not other characters are more "interesting". There are many persons more interesting than myself, and yet I would never write a novel about them, because it does not really interest me how they live their lives and do what they do.

What makes good books exciting and intriguing is the emotional investment of the author in their protagonist. That is what makes a fictional hero come alive.

I always like to compare writing to drawing. If you stupidly follow some schema of human proportions, your drawing will look technical and dead. But if you forget about the rules and just draw what you see, then the proportions of your figure may be off, but your linework will be vigorous and alive.

Mastery, of course, achieves both perfect structure and vivid emotionality, but I have found that as a consumer I value emotion over perfection and as an artist I manage structure best subconsciously and "from the gut".

  • Wow, that's a really good point, I hadn't thought of it that way. I think I left her construction to the end and now that I've constructed the other characters I've lost my relationship with this specific character. Also initially I did relate very strongly to her, but as I said, I feel like over time that got lost. I try not to follow set structures and write what I feel but I have a very strong tendency to write characters that are "too much" which is why I needed some perspective to help me think out of the box. :)
    – circepix
    Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 15:35
  • Nit: "alife" should be "alive".
    – user
    Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 16:59
  • Thank you, @MichaelKjörling
    – user26338
    Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 17:24

So, when this problem occurs, the question is "Why is this person your protagonist?" What makes her so special to the story that we need to spend a novel with her? Is it possible maybe one of your secondary characters is the real hero of the story? Can you tell the story from his/her POV and not lose anything?

My second recommendation is to consider what aspects of her do you not like? It seems like you're considering her arch-typical of the YA fantasy genre, and if so, identify those tropes and cliches, and then throw them out the window. For example, one of my favorite female protaganists was a pacifist who was on the meek and shy side... but this meekness and shyness lead several of her teammates to consider her the most dangerous member of the team... She would always advocate for the least possible kill count... but sometimes her alternatives were so ruthless that to the enemy's pov, they wished she had killed them.

Find what you don't like in her personality and find a decent way to compensate... maybe she's only meek and shy because she is afraid to let her true thoughts loose on the world... she can be down right brutal if she opens up... perhaps she's a leader candidate not because she is proactive, but because she listens (a classic INTJ style Mastermind... currently I'm working on assigning most of my major/major-secondary characters a Meyers-Briggs personality, and looking at which one fits my characters the best).

Does she have any flaws that make her more human? Is she allowed to fail and get rightfully called out on her failures because of it. Compare to Jar Jar Binks, who is almost universally disliked... At no time in the Phantom Menace does he get called out for his annoying nature nor does he admit with shame that he knows he's not perfect. Instead, he's promoted to General, then to Senator. The admittance in the narrative of rightful critiques of the character can help get the audience past the parts you don't like and allow for some change in the character (or a later defense of the flaws) to win back the crowd. If she's not the one to admit this, then make it someone who won't come off as a bully for doing this.

  • Oh I'm doing the exact same thing with the Meyers-Briggs! I found it so helpful in giving me a start for developing characters, because I tend to give characters all-good or all-bad personalities and I tend to forget to balance it out, so reading those profiles really helped me work around that.
    – circepix
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 9:38
  • @circepix Just make sure to ask yourself the question "Am I writing my Meyers-Brigg or theirs". I personally try to avoid my own because I have one of the rarer ones... but I have to work hard to avoid it unintentionally.
    – hszmv
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 12:16
  • yes same, I somehow avoided mine luckily but now that you mentioned it I will be sure to make a point of avoiding it now
    – circepix
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 15:43

I have a similar issue with one of my characters (although not for a novel, but a game). I have two alternatives to the work-arounds of her actually being steal after all.

First a disclaimer though: To a certain extend she will need some "steal" afterall: It cannot be that she is so shy that is becomes ridiculous in the sense of stupid. It cannot be that her shyness leads her to make stupid choices all the time. (From time to time is okay, I guess.) That would make her shyness unredeemable.

Make her interesting in other ways

The way you describe it, it sound that the main issue is not her being shy, but her being uninteresting. Make her interesting in other ways.

For example she could be shy, but really intelligent. Not just intelligent enough to be nerdy, but actually really intelligent. Better even if you are able to actually make her particularly non-nerdy in the typical ways. Throw in some street-smarts as well. For example she would know that she is shy and timid, so she devises strategies against it. Her being timid and intelligent makes her interesting, because she could not use direct approaches to solve her confrontations and conflicts, but the has to use indirect means. Since she is so smart though, it is not biggy for her to devise elaborate plans, that others would not even understand in a matter of seconds. Make her mind that of a military general - not because of her bravery, but of her moves on the chessboard.

Make her an observer character - the one to tell the story

This is a concept I have been thinking about for quite a few months now: Just because she is the character from who's perspective the story is written, she does not need to be the hero that saves the day. She could be more of the character that tells the story. Most of use live our lives (and thus our stories) with greater characters in them and still we are the main characters of our stories. When I talk about greater characters I mean people that are more successful, richer, more powerful, smarter etc. Still we might have interesting points of view to tell the story we live. I would love for someone to try this approach, though I suspect it might be challenging to write a story like that.

  • I love that second idea so much! It sounds like a really interesting approach to story telling, I need to look more into that. Thank you for your advice it's very well put and useful to me! :)
    – circepix
    Commented Sep 4, 2017 at 18:39

While the other great answers focus on how to fix this as part of your whole story, there's another perspective that may also help.

Nobody just has character traits. They come from somewhere - past experiences, cultural biases, being part of a group which is subject to discrimination - a whole host of reasons.

In a YA book, particularly if it's action based, you probably don't want ten chapters on her life experiences from birth until the moment the present story starts, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't write some of them anyway. They don't have to end up in the book, but the effect on you from having written them will.

You can also sit down with your character and talk with her about how she feels, thinks, and what she wants from her life.

If you treat her as a separate person from yourself, not just a character in your story/mind, you can discuss all sorts of things that may not directly fit into your story, but will make her real and vibrant to you so you can make her real and vibrant to your readers.

If you give a character respect and recognition, she may just take on a life of her own and tell you all sorts of things you couldn't have imagined to start with.

This works by you suspending your disbelief, just like you will be asking your readers to do, and putting aside the practical concerns and requirements of your story and just allowing it to happen.

IMHO, the fact that this is somewhat lacking is what makes Harry Potter a very good character, but not a great one.

  • Thanks, an excellent point! I started doing these little mini-chapters where each of my characters has an internal monologue about the other ones/meets other characters for the first time and gives impressions. But it gradually turned into a more in-depth look at each character, which is why I ended up over-developing all of my secondary characters. When I tried doing that with my MC i just kinda felt like "wow, who is she, why is she even the MC?" So yes you're right I need to reverse that process for her too. Thanks!
    – circepix
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 9:35

It seems like your protagonist may have been "head and shoulders" above the crowd when you first started your story.

Then you worked on your secondary characters, and you made them grow beyond the protagonist's starting point. That's not a bad thing.

Now you need to "reverse" the process, get back to work on the protagonist, and make her grow back above the secondary characters.

  • that's exactly what I did without realizing until just now...Developing my sec characters left me uninterested in my MC so I sort of lost the reasoning for why she is the MC...Thanks for the answer, much appreciated!
    – circepix
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 9:36

Does she have something she believes in? Maybe have another character with a much stronger personality make fun of something she likes or discount it, and have the protagonist talk back to them, defending whatever it is. That may fix a scene where the protagonist is being overpowered by stronger personalities. If she believes in something fully, she'll defend it, even if she sort of blushes and hides away a bit afterwards. Even the shyest people are passionate about something.

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