This is kind of an alternate take on my other recent question, as well as the inverse problem to this question.

I've been told by more than one beta reader that there's a specific chapter where they went from "meh" on my book to really feeling invested. But that chapter is just past the halfway point. What I think people are responding to in that chapter --a deepening friendship between the main characters --has been built up through the first half of the book, so it isn't necessarily something I can solve by moving events around.

What might cause this specific pattern of reader response, and what are ways to address it? In a world where I could guarantee people would read my book, I would be OK with a slow build leading to a satisfying reader experience in the second half. Given, however, that you send the first few pages in your query, and that the modern audience demands instant gratification, it's clear that my book needs to engage people right from the very start.

To be clear, there's plenty of action in the opening of my book, but it takes time for the deeper, more emotionally resonant themes to develop. (Furthermore, as I highlighted in my other question, my character isn't initially very likeable.)

up vote 17 down vote accepted

There may be action, but perhaps what you are missing is conflict. (Conflict is the MC personally having to make choices and solve problems, not just reacting to or living through "action".) Your character might be unlikable to other characters, but for me it would be impossible to get people interested in an MC that they don't like at all.

You only need one early incident (in the first 15% of the story) of your MC actually performing an altruistic act to help somebody, even a stranger, to get the sympathy of the reader. You need to show they are at heart a good person, even if they are irritable or think the worst of many other people, when it comes down to it they have some sense of justice or charity or humanity.

When you do that, make this altruism cost him! Hours, irritation, slipping and falling in the damn mud, whatever. But he perseveres. Altruistic acts that cost nothing are not as endearing as persisting in your altruistic act despite experiencing costs, or persisting knowing it will cost you.

Also, this act doesn't have to benefit a human. For example, it can be to free an animal that has been trapped somehow, tangled in some garbage a thoughtless person discarded in a field. Or a baby animal trapped in some mud. A painful altruistic act that nobody is going to know about (except the reader) is even more endearing.

Especially if somebody asks him and he doesn't brag on it. "What happened, Mike?" -- "What's it look like? I fell in the damn mud."

A working definition of "evil" in fiction is somebody willing to hurt innocent people for their own selfish gain, pleasure, or power (or out of selfishness is willing to allow them to be hurt). You need to show the reader your MC is NOT evil, but is actively good.

Otherwise, watching somebody we don't give a crap about running about doing things is meh. The MC can be an anti-hero, but anti-heroes are shown to have some redeeming quality in the story setup. The hitman hero has a puppy that loves him (John Wick).

  • +1 I've been working hard to build in some more likeability, but this really pinpoints it. He needs to do something altruistic, and he needs to do it early. I do have him doing some good things, but they aren't really all that altruistic. This definitely helps. – Chris Sunami Oct 22 at 20:42
  • I got a lot of good advice (on both questions) but this answer had a specific, actionable solution that I think really helped me out --give him a genuinely altruistic act, and give it to him early. – Chris Sunami Oct 23 at 14:01
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    @ChrisSunami When you do that, make it cost him! Hours, irritation, slipping and falling in the damn mud, whatever. But he perseveres. Altruistic acts that cost nothing are not as endearing as persisting in your altruistic act despite experiencing costs, and expecting more. Also, it doesn't have to be for a human, it can be to free an animal as one example. A painful altruistic act that nobody is going to know about (except the reader) is even more endearing. Especially if somebody asks him and he doesn't brag on it. "What happened, Mike?" -- "What's it look like? I fell in the damn mud." – Amadeus Oct 23 at 14:14
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    That's a pretty good working definition of "evil" outside of fiction as well. – Mason Wheeler Oct 23 at 18:36
  • @Amadeus - You might edit the comment about the hard work into the answer itself, I think it makes it stronger. – Chris Sunami Oct 25 at 12:00

Often books take a while to get into when they have a slow start, when not much is happening for the first part of the novel. However, you say that's not the case with you - you have plenty of action.

I would therefore surmise that the problem is exactly the one you point out in your other question: readers are not particularly invested in your MC. If readers don't care about your MC, it doesn't matter that there's action - the readers have no stake in it. Imagine reading that some two celebrities you've never heard of had a breakup - it doesn't matter how dramatic the breakup was, if you have no idea who those celebrities are, you couldn't care less. That's the position you're putting your readers into.

What to do? Make the MC more compelling, give us a reason to care. How? First and foremost, I think, make his internal monologue interesting. Make him someone we'd want to listen to. Maybe he has a unique view on things, maybe he's witty, maybe he's particularly observant, maybe something else - we're supposed to listen to him talk, so it'd better be good. Second, give him some compelling trait. Maybe it's his sense of humour. Maybe it's his audacity. Maybe he's a gentle and devoted son. Anything. The moment we have a reason to care about the MC, the action and conflict would come into focus, and the whole novel would be much more engaging.

  • This is good advice. I think part of my issue is that I have a soft spot for brats, both in fiction and real life. I think I probably find my MC more appealing than most people would --even apart from having written him. – Chris Sunami Oct 22 at 20:51
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    @ChrisSunami Tom Sawyer was a bit of a brat. And very appealing. What is it that makes brats appealing to you? Try to find that, and give it more spotlight, perhaps. – Galastel Oct 22 at 21:16
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    @ChrisSunami Defying authority and playful can definitely be appealing. Sometimes this can make the character look somebody who's just unpleasant to others. You need to make sure that people get the right idea about the MC being actually good - understanding responsibility, feelings etc. It also helps to show his failings, and how he reacts to them. There's a thin line between a likable brat and an infuriating troll, but it mostly boils down to one critical thing - the likable brat still cares about people (or anything, really). Which really goes back to the core - depth. – Luaan Oct 23 at 8:25

How about putting a scene from a later chapter at the beginning and then doing a flashback to tell the story of how it began? I've read/viewed multiple franchises who do that (with varying degrees of success).

You may have to consider whether the first half is necessary. You can tell a story starting from any point, after all. If the story people care for only starts there...

  • I'm pretty sure first half contains much information about setting, characters, etc. so wiping it completely is not a workable soultion. – rus9384 Oct 23 at 19:24
  • I have considered that, but I don't think the second half works without the first half. I did cut a lot of unnecessary material from the front half, however, to make it more lean. – Chris Sunami Oct 23 at 20:14

Is it possible that the first half of the book led them to the expectation that, because the character was perceived as unlikeable, he was going to "get his", and then when that expectation changed, it caused them to react negatively? That might explain the timing of it; when he starts to become more sympathetic the readers were upset by that.

Maybe you just need to take a stronger hold of their expectations. How are you creating sympathy for the character? He needs some redeeming characteristics, and you need to make sure the readers understand that that are supposed to sympathize with him.

Here's a good way to give readers sympathy for an unsympathetic character; make everyone around him worse.

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    It's actually the other way around, people like the book more once he does become more sympathetic. I'll edit to make that more clear in the question. – Chris Sunami Oct 22 at 20:33
  • Oh, ok, yes I thought you had said the other way around. That's good news then, and makes more sense. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Oct 23 at 17:44

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