Friday, March 20, 2015

Searching For Mr. Right

I had lunch with my stepdaughter this week and listened to her stories about the dating world.  It's always interesting, and even sometimes scary, to hear about the people she's meeting. I've tried to drill it into all of my girls' heads that the dating period is the "honeymoon" phase. It's not going to get any better. People will be on their Very Best Behavior while dating. 

The jerk that went to the Singles Party and acted like he didn't see her? That guy is a Loser. He's never going to turn into a Prince Charming. 

But the sweet guy that spent the evening talking to your lonely grandpa? He's a keeper.

How does this apply to writing?

Photo by Ian Muttoo


When dating, you meet someone for the first time and make many decisions based on first impressions. Walking into a book store and choosing a book is a little like dating. You pick up a book and study the cover. You like? It's passed the first test. Now you flip it over and read the back jacket. The equivalent of having a drink. Small spark? You open the book to check out the first page. 

The first line has set the stage nicely. If the character is interesting, maybe you read a little more. But then you hit a snag. 

"I can't get a hold of Bob." A childish whine snuck into her voice. She coughed to cover it up. Why did she always regress when she spoke to her older sister?   

Nope. I’m not reading about some whiner for 350 pages. Your protagonist doesn’t have to necessarily be likable. Lisabeth Sandler isn’t likable. But she is compelling. 


The call for strong female protagonists is stressed at writers conferences and all over twitter on the #MSWL. To me, this means a character like Taylor Stevens’ Vanessa Michael Munroe or Stieg Larson’s Lisabeth Sandler. While I love these books, my MC is not anything like . 

In reality, the "strong character" means a character with agency. The character must lead the story, rather than react to what happens to her.  Readers are interested in watching her figure things out. If she makes a poor choice that’s okay. It's still interesting. 

Lisabeth Sandler from

The blank character is another option. This character can still have some interesting attributes, and still must have agency, but he or she is just average enough for the reader to identify with and imagine being that character. Harry Potter is a prime example of a blank character. Keep in mind, the blank character is not to be confused with a flat character (one personality trait, i.e. all good, or all bad).

Harry Potter


Your characters must be consistent to themselves. You, the author, can make your character do something he might not want ti do--much like a strict teacher can make a bully apologize. But everyone knows the bully is not sincere. Just like the readers know your character isn't either.


The Bechdale Test originated as a way to measure the diversity of films in the 1985 comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and it’s still a way to build a more realistic female character. It has three criteria: 


I told my stepdaughter I was going to write a blog post comparing fictional characters to dating. Her reply was that it’s not comparable. She also gave me a funny look and asked if all writers are so mathematically oriented in character building. 

After researching for this post, I realize she’s right. Dating, to some degree, is looking for Mr. Right. Reading is entertainment. But you have to be engaged enough to spend ten to twenty hours with a character AND be compelled to spending that time inside a characters head. 

In closure, I give you my notes and my formula. Your character:
  1. Must have agency
  2. Must be consistent
  3. Must have inner conflict applied to external situation
  4. Interior narrative cannot be whiney
  5. Female characters must pass the Bechdal test

Please let me know your answer to the equation in the comments below.
~Charlotte Levine-Gruber


  1. I always sucked at algebra. (Lolol) I think your guidelines are great, and I need to think more about the agency thing. I'm not sure if my characters act or react. Hmm..

    1. Yes, Liv, characters with agency definitely gave me a pause as well.

  2. Populate your novel with real people. Love it!

    I think as people though, we react first to a situation, then act. I think a character can be pitched from wave to wave, reacting, trying their best to act by taking the steps necessary to get out of said predicament. I think life is a balance of reacting and acting. When we just react we get stuck in ruts. It's inertia, but sometimes reaching the lowest of lows is what catapults us into action so we can rise out of the chaos.

    In gratitude,
    Marissa xo

  3. I love it when art and math are brought together! Great post.

  4. Thanks! I had to include a little math!