The Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Main Characters
By Chris Abouzeid
You put your heart and soul into your main character. You present him/her to your workshop or agent or editor, and you get: “He just isn’t likeable,” “I couldn’t picture her,” “Didn’t seem very believable.”
Aaaah! That character was you, or some version of you, or just a character you happen to really, really like. How could people think he’s a jerk? How could they think she was vague, inconsistent, unbelievable?
Yes, you could put bricks in your pockets and walk into the nearest river. But before you go all Quentin (Compson, not Tarantino) on us, consider this. Your character isn’t defective. He just has a condition that’s interfering with his success. In other words, a character disorder.
For mental health issues, clinicians use The Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). But where do you go for help with character disorders?
The Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Main Characters (DSM-MC)!
Previously available only to professionals, the DSM-MC is now available to any desperate soul who needs it. And to help you figure out what kind of breakdown your character is having, Beyond the Margins has gotten permission to reprint a few of the most common diagnoses, along with suggested treatments.
117.9 – Unsympathetic Personality Disorder
Comments such as “Not very likeable,” “Kind of a jerk,” or “I hate this character so much I stabbed your manuscript.”
Change of Perspective – If you’re telling the story from the first person point-of-view, your character may sound too self-absorbed, cruel or whiny. Consider switching to another POV. Or try for a more humorous tone.
Breadcrumbs to the Heart – Nabokov had a child molester as his main character, so why can’t you have a paranoid schizophrenic mass murderer? You can. But the more unpleasant your main character is, the harder it’s going to be to make him/her sympathetic. Try laying a trail of breadcrumbs to the character’s heart right away—through internal turmoil, tiny moments that hint at care or kindness, a wounded personality, etc.—and don’t let the bloodbaths wash them away.
201.4 – Originality Deficit Syndrome
Criticisms such as “stereotypical,” “trite,” “been done,” “seen this character a thousand times before,” and “Dan Brown called – he wants his cookie cutter back.”
Find a Role Model – A good way to breathe originality into a character is to find a real life model for that character. A fictional grandmother with the characteristics of a person you know is more likely to feel genuine than one based on a generic image of grandmothers (or Betty White). Borrow whatever intrigues you about that person and you’ll be closer to having a unique character.
Inject the Unexpected – That scantily clad Warrior Woman you created? Her clones are all over the Sci-Fi/Fantasy shelves. But give her the inner life of your anxious, needy, judgmental Aunt Wilma and voila! A new warrior is born. Of course, you can’t just throw a lot of quirks and paradoxical habits together. You have to apply skill and intuition. But a little of the unexpected can go a long way toward making your character more interesting.
349.7 – Delusions of Definition Disorder
Criticisms such as “Too vague,” “Can’t really picture him/her,” “Dude, nice chalk outline – should be on CSI.” Often a result of too much focus applied to plot or prose, or too little thought applied to character.
Try therapies listed above: Find a Role Model, Inject the Unexpected (see under “201.4 – Originality Deficit Syndrome”).
Flip the POV – Write a one-page description of the main character from the point-of-view of another character. Concentrate on how he/she looks and behaves, also on what kind of emotional impressions he/she makes on the other character. Then go back and incorporate some of those details into your manuscript.
Virtual Biopic – Write a one-page bio of your main character, from birth to present. Include not only events, but how he/she feels about childhood, adolescence, upbringing, schooling, etc. If she/he has specific abilities (e.g. x-ray vision, ability to see dead people), include when, where and how those came about.
476.3 – Inconsistent Personality Disorder
Inconsistent behavior, mysterious choices, arbitrary actions, etc. Disgusted readers and book throwing are common side effects.
Identity Crisis – For cases where the problem is caused by a weak sense of your character’s personality, try Find a Role Model (“201.4 – Originality Deficit Syndrome”), or Virtual Biopic and Flip the POV (“349.7 – Delusions of Definition Disorder”).
Inferiority Complex –For cases where you are trying too hard to make your character complex, try going back to the stereotype. Figure out what aspects a reader would expect to see no matter what, then slowly begin layering back on the quirks and complexities. If you find any that require explanation or rationalization, toss them.
Keeping It Real – You couldn’t resist making your heroine an ass-kicking Victorian nun who saves orphans, goes to fancy dress balls, and indulges in light S&M on the weekends? Time to get real. Make a list of your character’s strengths and weaknesses and stick to them. If your plot is leading to a change in those strengths or weaknesses, make sure we see the whole process (e.g. in A Christmas Carol, Scrooge stays true to his hard nature through most of the book, but tiny bits of his humanity are revealed every step of the way).
That’s it for now. But remember: the diagnoses and treatments in the DSM-MC are for reference only. If you suspect your character has an actual disorder, please consult anyone who’s not related to you. If the character is quasi-autobiographical, please consult a therapist. For emergencies, please tweet #helpmycharactersfallenandcantgetup.
Chris Abouzeid is the author of the Young Adult novel, Anatopsis. His short stories, poetry and book reviews have appeared in The Boston Globe, Agni Magazine, The Literary Review, Epoch, Southern Review, New England Review, Other Voices, and Literal Latté. His awards include grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, the St. Botolph’s Club Foundation, and the Somerville Arts Council, and Honorable Mentions from the Pushcart Prize and The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.