People like proactivity and boldness. Indeed, this has been suggested to be why readers are often drawn to charismatic villains over heros, people are more drawn to the proactive, goal-oriented villains who often behave in a socially dominant manner and this is why readers will often white-wash or outright ignore the villainous actions of proactive villains while at the same time disliking heroic characters who aren't seen as assertive.

The protagonist of my urban fantasy story is not an assertive person. The best words to describe him would probably be neurotic, introverted, timid, and high-strung. His life has been thrust upside down into a world he didn't know existed (i.e., typical urban fantasy masquerade) and he's terrified out of his mind due to being trapped between the faction of monsters that wants to kill him and the faction of monsters who claim to be his friends, and he wasn't a very assertive person to begin with. He's not having much fun, he shows signs of PTSD and he would go home if it wasn't for the fact that he'd probably be killed if he left the safety of one of the supernatural factions. His entire story arc is about learning how to be braver and have more confidence in himself, ultimately culminating in him having a bit of self-actualization.

EDIT: Several respondents have pointed out that introverted and timid are not the same thing. This is true. The thing with this character is that they are both introverted and shy. Both character traits are often seen as negative by readers. People like extroverted characters because they like characters that are outgoing and social and extroverted characters have an easier time driving the story forward. People want to see interesting people doing interesting things, and if a character is reluctant to jump into the adventure they consider that an annoyance. Similarly, readers like seeing characters that are brave and exhibit socially dominant behaviors, for reasons that are probably too long to go into here. Hence, characters that are not outgoing and do not attack every problem head-on have an uphill battle to win reader sympathy if they are the protagonist. Side characters in general seem to get a bigger pass.

The problem with this is I'm worried about how to keep his character from coming off as whiny or annoying, given how the character naturally isn't very adventurous or gung-ho. This is especially the case at the beginning of the story where he is at the most controlled by his flaws, compared to later as he undergoes character development and starts being a bit more brave and assertive. People like characters who jump into the adventure and never look back, not ones who get dragged into it kicking and screaming, even if they have completely justified reasons to feel that way.

In general, the character is a deconstruction of the wish-fulfillment trope seen in a lot of urban fantasy where the protagonist becomes inducted into some kind of hidden world and manages to claw their way up to some position of social dominance like a vampire lord or a werewolf alpha (e.g., The Saga of Darren Shan, Kitty Norville, among others). The story goes out of its way to point out how utterly unsuited his is for this lifestyle, how just because he's become a supernatural he doesn't instantly skyrocket to social dominance because he's still the same dorky guy on the inside, and indeed how he is at a disadvantage compared to people who have fully acclimated or were born into this lifestyle because he lacks their innate viciousness from growing up in such a cutthroat world. Between this and the fact that his arc is about gaining self-confidence, it seems completely out of character for him to be assertive and adventurous. The problem with this is there's a reason why wish-fulfillment characters are a thing, people like the tropes even if they are completely at odds with reality.

He's also not in a position where he has a huge amount of power over events. He's a little fish in a big pond and part of his character at this point is that he's still trying to figure out his nature and as a newborn supernatural there are a lot of people that have a lot more knowledge or power than he does. He does try to effect things, but given his inexperience and lack of knowledge sometimes him taking actions either makes things worse or succeeds at resolving the problem with huge consequences. But the other characters mess up as much as he does, so it's not like he's a complete failure. This is a problem because when a character is introverted the solution the author comes up with to make them more sympathetic is giving them a goal for them to direct their attention towards (e.g., Frodo in Lord of the Rings), and people generally don't like characters who don't have the power to effect their surroundings.

He does have positive character traits. He's loyal, idealistic, highly moralistic, reliable, and responsible. Despite being constantly terrified he never explicitly shows cowardice, his actions being best described as a human Courage the Cowardly Dog. But as some have pointed out, those character traits are not as emotionally provocative or engaging as heroes that are brave, adventurous, etc.

Given all this, how do I keep this character from coming off as whiny and annoying before character development kicks in and tempers him a bit.

  • 1
    People love an underdog. I just finished watching The Fall, a drama about a sadistic strangler. When in one scene he is attacked in an elevator for an unrelated reason (becoming the underdog), it's hard not to empathize for that moment. Jan 18, 2021 at 15:55

6 Answers 6


Your reader must first understand him

People like characters who jump into the adventure and never look back, not ones who get dragged into it kicking and screaming, even if they have completely justified reasons to feel that way.

Then, you, as an author, must justify your character's behavior to the reader. Show why the character is not so 'gung-ho' about adventuring. If the reader can understand your character and their behavior, then they will not see your character as whiny - they might even see him as intelligent and cautious, rather than brave and stupid.

He's also not in a position where he has a huge amount of power over events. He's a little fish in a big pond and part of his character at this point is that he's still trying to figure out his nature and as a newborn supernatural there are a lot of people that have a lot more knowledge or power than he does.

There are a lot of people in the world who feel this way. You should definitely highlight it in your book, because most readers like characters who are similar to them and can get over the problem in question, rather than never having the problem in the first place.

He does have positive character traits. He's loyal, idealistic, highly moralistic, reliable, and responsible. Despite being constantly terrified he never explicitly shows cowardice...

Good! Then, you have some things to work with. Bring light to these traits as well as the traits the character wishes he had to create a good balance between a responsible, intelligent, ethical, but somewhat 'scaredy-cat' character, and one who has the potential to transform into a big, brave, hero.

But think, does he need to be a big, strong, brave, hero?

Never force a role on a character.

This is definitely an important rule. Forcing a role on a character will make the character come out hollow and flat.

One of the most cliche and frustrating character developments to me is the character starting as a scared weakling who learns to be brave and strong.

And that is... Boring!

Instead, show who your character really is and make him a realistic character development arc.



How many bookworms do you know who are brave heroes out fighting fires and rescuing kittens from wells, or gunning down bad guys and conquering worlds? Your target demographic is just like your character. Quiet, shy nerdy people who are often terrified and overwhelmed by the pain and complexity of modern life. They seek a fantasy world and bravery as an escape. BUT they identify with your character. It's your job to make them want your guy to succeed - if he does, they feel a little like they do. But making him a hero up front is SO not believable.

In the movie Brazil, the main character lives in a dystopian bureaucracy, and he's a total shy introvert. There is little that would convince him to change, and it's totally the safe thing to do.

But as an introvert, he has an inner character, a sort of superhero, who he imagines himself to be. THAT self is brave, heroic, and powerful. Gradually, he comes to identify more and more with his inner hero and less with his outer life. The logic of his safe world crumbles and the real world becomes as surreal as his imaginary one. I won't tell you how it ends.

Have the character show more spine in his inner perception than his outer one. This may even take the form of a dream reality where he does the brave thing and it turns out well. Literature has a lot of characters who start out shy and afraid, or are even failures. But if those characters are decent, kind, and do the right thing, people will like them. Then, as they progress as people, they follow the traditional route of becoming more of the best self they can be.

Start with small challenges. Sometimes, even opening up a door can be an act of great courage. The struggle to do a simple thing shows he is on the journey to bravery. LET him be overwhelmed; if there are consequences to his actions, let him accept them and realize it could have been better if he was braver. Great writing and drama comes from pain and suffering.

His real world is flying apart. Like a soldier in basic training, your MC is torn apart and must rebuild himself into a new model, this one accepting that cowardice is as likely to get him killed as bravery. Once you accept that things can only get worse, then fear is replaced by acceptance.

I would also make him loyal to friends. Even a coward is apt to be brave if it means saving a friend. Failing to help someone makes him feel so bad that he'd rather die than do it again.

And finally, DON'T make him heroically brave!!! Let him agonize about what he's doing. If you are scared out of your mind and act anyway, you show more bravery than someone who acts and thinks like heroics are just what you do Tuesdays and Thursdays. The character IS cowardly, but like the Cowardly Lion, they can muster courage when they really have to.


Could you define introversion as you understand it, because it seems to me you are conflating introversion with "shy" which is not the case! Introversion is merely how one gets satisfaction from social activivity vs. solitary activity, not shy vs. outgoing. It's perfectly possible to be Introverted and outgoing in a party. IRL, I'm quite talkative and given the proper topic, getting me to shut up is quite the chore... I'm not shy at all. But, if you don't give me some time to be alone with my thoughts, I'm not going to be happy. To give a fictional example of this, there can be no doubt that Batman is an introvert. He only makes contact with people when he needs too and will be frustrated by having to attend social gatherings or events... he only does them so Bruce Wayne does not come under suspicion from the public. But nowhere is Batman defined as "Shy" and of your listed positive traits, he's perhaps only lacking in idealism. He's quite morarlistic, reliable, responsible, and loyal.

A popular introvert type in fiction is what the Myers-Briggs personality type test calls "The Mastermind" or an INTJ. These characters disporportionatly portrayed in fiction compared to their real life occurance (at 1% of the population, they are the rarest of the 16 personalities.). INTJ's are builders and manipulators of systems, will focus on the big picture plan to overcome their enemies. At their best, they not only anticipated their loss of a battle, but planned it, as the enemy victory leaves their position in the war untenable. If they are dealing with other peoples' plans they will often find the fatal flaw and present the solution to cover it. They aren't ones to seak out leadership and only desire it if no one else can effectively run the show... but once in the leader position, they are quite efficent, though they are not personable at times. They tend to be emotionally distant, though fiercly loyal to those in their favor. For their allies, there is no greater and for their foes, nothing scarier.

While "Masterminds" in fiction tend to be the personality of villains, it's not always the case and they can be some very dangerous heroes and include in their list of protaganists the likes of "Scrooge McDuck, Katness Everdeen, Walter White (a villain protaganist, but the best part of the show is his conflict with the equally INTJ Gus Fringe), Ben Wyatt from Parks and Recs (a very real life portrayal), and the mythic Athena (noted in that while she and Ares were both patron gods of war, her patronage favored strategy while as Ares favored brute force... and the Greeks hated him as a result).

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    I would actually say both. I agree with you that introverted != shy, but the thing that sticks out when surveying audience reactions is that human beings in general are attracted to characters that exhibit extroversion and assertiveness. Extroverted characters are more social (and thus more likable) and more active in their narratives. Additionally, a lot of audiences like characters that are assertive and headstrong over ones that are shy and more thoughtful. They may hang out with introspective people in real life, but they make for less interesting reading. Jan 20, 2021 at 7:46

I believe that no matter what you do, some people are going to love your character, and some are going to hate your character. It's part of life. Make your character how you want them to be. If they're shy, so what? Does that stop them from doing whatever they have to do to be awesome? No! If they're introverted, does that stop them from doing whatever makes them awesome? No! If they're whiny, well, you may want to stay away from that unless they grow from that kinda quickly. That last bit about whiny characters was a personal preference... but, really, just write what you want. Everything will balance out in the end.

Also, personally, I love a character that starts somewhere unbelievable, and then works up to be the best character that ever existed! People should give the book time to develop them. People don't change in a day, in books, or in real life. It really is great to see someone whom everyone thought was a weakling rise up and show everyone that it is possible to grow and change and be amazing!

  • I agree with what you said, my concern is about maintaining audience interest in the earliest phases when they are at their most flawed and their potential "whinyiness" and annoyingness are at their maximum because they haven't had any character growth yet. Jan 20, 2021 at 7:43
  • Readers have to give a story some time. We can't just expect a character to be super amazing right at the very beginning. Maybe if you make them grow enough where they are pretty likable at a relatively fast pace, readers won't put down the book before you can show them how truly amazing your protagonist is.
    – user48450
    Jan 21, 2021 at 0:56

If you character is whiny in the beginning, you may want to have another character to balance it out. You could do alternating chapters between the two characters, so that way it balances out the whiny timid character and the bold proactive character. Make the bold proactive character die, which makes the whiny timid suddenly experience a big jump of growth by realizing, "Life isn't perfect and I've gotta stop whining about it. I must make sure my friend did not die in vain, and accept the challenge. I WILL SUCCEED!"

Anyway, this is just a suggestion. There are different ways as well, but I'm not experienced with them. Good luck!

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    If the character was scared about the future, having the braver character die probably wouldn't help the character's fear. Jan 27, 2021 at 22:18

Being introverted is not the same as shy, one can be introverted but love being before a crowd of thousands so long as its on their terms. Introverted is how they recharge alone, in happy solitude because if I said solitude some people think boring, depressing, it's not. It feels like hot chocolate & a blanket with a fire not depressingly eating snacks and watching reruns in the dark. You revive alone not in a crowd. Extroverts revive in a crowd or with a core person(s) not alone.

TV's Handmaidens tale she is introverted in the sense of speaking can get her killed, she is timid to survive but also on some degree she was genuinely scared she is a stuck character. She is liked because she's trying to go forward in whatever way she can to get unstuck it doesn't always work for her to move forward sometimes its backwards but she tries. A timid character who may not be bold all the time can have soft boldness or classical hard boldness some of the time.

Max Caufield from Life is Strange is introverted, shy, and in her own thoughts she is liked because she takes actions that grow in boldness and give her internal strength over the game as the stakes are raised and we care for the people she cares about.

understanding their drives, goals, what in their past formed them, and their motivations and of course writing and rewriting the scenes (sometimes drastically) can help you learn who they are and how they'll act to move the plot forward, backwards, or sideways be open the courses they take just cuz you want A doesn't mean they do.

Your character may not act so brashly unless really really pushed into it but they can have softer moments of bravery like killing a giant spider when they'd rather not but they summon the courage to do it anyway.

If you can tell this action isn't fitting that character readers will too. That said try not to think on what will readers think, do it on what do you feel, what makes you feel? And does the action they take fit their character traits?

I wrote a cool scene once with my mage character who is introverted, cautious, he undertook a bold action one with great imagery but after I re-read it a day later I was like hold up...he's near suicidal here! Sure the visuals are amazing but why would someone so cautious just do this!? So I scrapped it, learned that's not his fighting style especially as he was not pushed into it & crafted a fight scene that was restraining but tactful & precise to engage the opponent instead. Later on I found a way to push him into a radical movement that made sense why he went that direction because I knew more about him why is he introverted and cautious and when must he deviate.

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