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February 27, 2017
By Betty Kelly Sargent
Editor Betty Kelly Sargent answers writing questions submitted by readers. This month, she tackles weak, whiny, and unlikable characters.

Dear Editor:

How do I build compassion and realistic insecurities into my main character without having her come across as whiny, weak, or irritating? I like to create characters who react as everyday people would, not like action heroes. But I’ve received negative comments about one character, who was described as weak and stupid.—Kish Knight

Dear Kish,

Always trust your instincts. Do you think your character’s behavior is stupid and makes her appear weak? And what if she does appear weak? What if she is weak in some situations? Is that so terrible? A character’s vulnerability is usually what causes readers to bond with that character. Even James Bond had his soft spots.

Let’s say your story is about how a neglected child from Detroit learned to overcome her fear of water to become the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming. Does that fear make her weak or just human? Does any fear make a person weak, or just human? Or maybe your story is about a Nobel Prize–winning professor from MIT who keeps forgetting to turn off the burner under his coffee pot. Is that stupid, or a touching symptom of the failing memory of a brilliant man?

Who is this character? What do you want from her? What do you want the reader to feel about her? If you feel your critic made a valid point, then do your best to respond to it. But if your gut tells you that the actions you describe simply add to your character’s complexity, making her struggle more sympathetic to the reader, then stick with it.

If you have a question for the editor, email Betty Sargent at

Betty Kelly Sargent is an editor and the founder and CEO of BookWorks.