5 Awkward Situations to Make Your MC Shine

Ah, the joys of writing life! In the middle of editing Girl of Glass and Fury (an ongoing endeavor) and reading great books like The Theft of Sunlight, I realized one common thread that makes characters instantly endearing: awkwardness. A special feature was born!


5 Awkward Situations to Make Your Main Character Shine

Since not every character can have the same traits, I started noticing how authors get around this. Awkward situations put a chink in the armor of an otherwise confident and strong character, leaving room for them to rise above, fail miserably (or endearingly) and allow the reader to feel closer to the character.

  1. They lack experience almost everybody has

A late first kiss. An inability to ride in a world of horses. A lack of taste at a highly refined court.

These are just a few of the circumstances that make characters instantly endearing (as long as they know what they don’t know, of course). Characters in these situations allow the reader to travel along with them on their journey. As long as the circumstances aren’t pitiable (think of Daine in Wild Magic, unable to read because of her isolated upbringing), they can bring the reader closer to your main character. Heck, your readers probably root for your MC all the more.

Awkward Main Characters are vulnerable, human and relatable. With the right balance, they can walk the line between cringe-worthy and loveable, especially in a would-be romantic situation. (Think Mr. Darcy.)

  1. A new setting is a lot more complex than they ever thought

When your MC is a fish out of water, it’s the details that really count.

In Intisar Khanani’s The Theft of Sunlight, narrator Rae arrives at court to stay with her cousin. But she has another mission: after a tragedy at home, she arrives with a question about what the government is doing to track the snatchers and help recover stolen children. All of this involves more opportunities, danger and perilous politics than she ever imagines. Yet it’s the moments in which she’s drowning in lace, and the one in which she realizes just what kind of person is helping her (he’s not as savory as country girl Rae had hoped), that we feel the most sympathy for her.

Rae’s life as the hard-working daughter of a horse rancher leaves her out of her depth in the alternately fancy and gritty capital. It’s these little scenes that endear her to readers, even more than her instances of bravery and her drive to do what’s right. We all know what it’s like to make it through any number of complex hard times, only to be overwhelmed by one detail too many. Rae’s character is deeply identifiable in those moments.

  1. Everything they know is wrong

There are a lot of ways to play this one. Here are just a few examples:

  • The privileged MC learns how hard the lives of others are; is she brave/foolhardy enough to try to change it? (Thorn, by Intisar Khanani)
  • The privileged MC who plays an active role in it and must repent (The Black Witch, by Laurie Forest) 
  • The struggling MC who must realize she isn’t the only victim (The Dark Angel, by Meredith Ann Pierce
  • The history the MC has been taught leaves out inconvenient truths and puts everyone in danger (yes, it’s a plug, because it’s one of my favorite devices. I used this one myself in Girl of Shadow and Glass)
  • The seriously misjudged social situation that leads to disaster (Jane Austen’s eternal classic, Pride and Prejudice)
  • The villain isn’t who the MC—and everyone at home—thinks (An Enchantment of Thorns, by Helena Rookwood and Elm Vince)
  • The unknown villain who makes things way more serious than the (in this case innocent) narrator ever imagined (The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden)
  • The MC who lands in a secret world (City of Brass, by S.A. Chakraborty)
  • The MC who realizes she’s not in the “real” world (Between Jobs, by W.R. Gingell doing double-duty in this post)

I’m sure you can think of even more examples of this!

  1. Their job isn’t what they thought

Your character’s job doesn’t have to say anything about them (after all, not everybody can control what they do. There’s a lot of MCs who end up as thieves). Your character’s approach to their job says a lot about them. Watching them change their views on it gives the reader a front-row seat to your MC’s inner character.

(Slight, vague spoiler ahead.)

Take Cleric Chih in The Empress of Salt and Fortune. They begin the story eager to be to the first to document Thriving Fortune, the former residence of the now-deceased Empress In-yo. Instead, Chih gets a tale of a revolution behind closed doors and all the secrets that entails.

Every character needs a flaw, a rude awakening and/or an unexpected outcome. In The Empress of Salt and Fortune, Chih thinks she has it all together until she hears more of Rabbit’s story.

Though Chih blithely tells Rabbit, the part-time narrator of The Empress of Salt and Fortune, that the abbey she comes from holds countless secrets, Chih doesn’t understand just what that means until they’re entrusted with them. By the story’s end, the pride that drove Chih to become the first to learn those secrets ends up making them shudder. As their companion, Almost Brilliant, puts it, Chih is experiencing duty for the first time.

Though the series moves away from Thriving Fortune, that telling change made me want to stick with Chih, who is a mostly passive MC in The Empress of Salt and Fortune, throughout their future travels.

  1. The unreal meets the everyday in their life

In Between Jobs, by W.R. Gingell, we see this happen in both senses: the MC’s everyday is interrupted by the unreal, and then the unreal is interrupted by the everyday.

When Pet ends up as an actual pet of two fae and one vampire who understands won’t speak English (not until he perfects it, anyway), she gets towed through the worlds Between and Behind, spots a sword pretending to be an umbrella, learns a little Korean on the fly and witnesses violent and bizzare battles she can’t understand. Being adaptable, she mostly manages to keep up, even if she can’t grasp everything she sees, and it’s interesting and hilarious to see her developing her new skills, often to the astonishment of her “three psychos.”

As fantastical (and often awkward) as that is, it’s when a policeman starts poking around that things get really interesting. Pet has to explain or redirect him from what was, until recently, unexplainable. She’s seen it with her own eyes, after all. Seeing those two (technically three) worlds constantly clashing, and watching Pet navigate it, makes for one endearing narrator and a very interesting start to The City Between series.

(Of course, you could also go the other way and have the MC blunder through the unreal. Dent Arthur Dent comes to mind.)

Have you ever put your MC into an awkward situation? Let me know in the comments below!

Contrast, Part III: Lessons from Bestselling Books

Welcome back to the last of this three-part blog series on how contrast makes for a great read. In this post, I’ll also touch on how classic techniques from another genre made a story more exciting.

Use Contrast Part III

III. The contrast of a known commodity and a total mystery

Want to keep the pages turning? Take a look at what Bethany C. Morrow did with her two teen narrators in A Song Below Water(You can also find my review here.)

Being a siren is dangerous—hated, too. Tavia is a black teenage girl dealing with how the world perceives and treats her. She’s also a closeted siren in fear of being ripped from the too-safe world her father created. To her father, the worst thing that could happen is if everyone found out who Tavia really is.

And then there is A Song Below Water‘s other narrator, Effie. Effie swims like a dolphin, suffers from itchy, dry skin that no lotion in the world can correct, and, for a few days every year, dons a mermaid tail. But that last part’s make-believe for a Renaissance fair. The rest of the year she’s (cheesy pun warning) a fish out of water.

Shy and in pain from the loss of her mother, Effie has never known her father. It’s clear that something is going on with her, but she has no idea what. The survivor of a frightening event, the strange and scary just keeps following her. Tavia knows exactly what can go wrong. Effie can’t even guess.

That undercurrent of fear and mystery helps keep A Song Below Water moving at a brisk pace. It borrows a few tricks from the mystery and horror genres to do so.

With Tavia, we immediately know she is under threat. Tav knows what could happen, and she has to stay one step ahead to stay safe. Will she ever stop running and confront what stalks her? With Effie, on the other hand, we see the wary detective on a case too close to home, full of the drive to know and the fear of what she’ll find. The few clues she has make no sense, and those who could help her aren’t talking.

Instant suspense. That tension is key to keeping the reader engaged.

The Lesson: The relationship between these two found-family sisters is beautiful. But the contrast between them—their opposing but equally anxious what-ifs as they question themselves and their world—keeps the reader moving in dogged pursuit of the outcome. A Song Below Water showed me a new rule for writing:

For every character certain of their abilities and who they are, there should be another who hasn’t got a clue.

That’s all! Thanks so much for joining me. I hope these posts will help you to take another look at your own favorite books. Write on!

Contrast, Part II: Lessons from Bestselling Books

Welcome to part 2 of 3 of this blog post series. Today I’m looking at the mind-bending, plot-twisting effect that differing beliefs about a beloved character can add to a story.

Use Contrast Part II

II. The contrast of how a character is perceived/how he perceives himself

This form of contrast can add depth to both plot and individual characters. The City of Brass is a masterclass in it.

Protagonist Ali is a morally upright (some would say uptight) djinn in S.A. Chakraborty‘s first-in-series novel. He’s wholesome and good amidst political schemers and tales of bloody sieges. He’s not without a temper and he can be subversive—if it’s for what’s right. But for a prince, he’s not great at politicking and pretenses. In fact, he’s easily fooled. Even Nahri, the story’s fellow narrator, can’t help but go against her streetwise, suspicious nature when she gets to know him.

Then there’s how others view Ali: he’s a zealot, a bigot, a person who’s unbending and who can be uncaring of those who don’t fit his world view (in this case, an entire tribe he’s supposed to protect). In the eyes of those in power, that makes Mr. Play-by-the-Rules as potentially dangerous as the rebels threatening Daevabad. (Reminder: he really is a protagonist. Right?!)

As contradictory as those views of Ali are, it’s all true. Ali gets to be the hero of his own story. He knows he has faults, but doesn’t see them all or understand they’re that big. Is he biased against the djinn? Sure, but to him they’re fire-worshippers; that goes against God’s law. In Ali’s mind, it’s all justified. He’s an upstanding citizen and a man of faith, a person trying to do what’s right. He certainly doesn’t realize other people’s view of him is so different from his own. Even when warned, he doesn’t get it.

At the same time, people close to Ali are swayed by their feelings and don’t perceive all of him. Which means everybody, including Ali, can’t possibly have all their expectations met—especially anyone who wants him to change. It’s realistic, and it’s a major plot point just waiting to happen.

Better still, he’s not the only central character who gets this treatment.

The Lesson: The City of Brass makes a theme of perception versus reality. This drives the plot effectively, and both the story and characters reach ever-greater depths because of it. The reader never quite knows what to think—and it makes The City of Brass so interesting, even after the last page is turned.

This technique is also perfect for a series. I still don’t know what to make of the characters in The City of Brass, and have been forced to reserve judgment until I read the other two books. Which means I feel that much more compelled to do so.

In short, if you want to add depth, interest and potential intrigue to your plot and characters, let one of your primary characters be the hero of his or her own story—and let the others disagree (or at least feel a lot less sure about whether that’s true).

This blog series concludes next week with Part III. See you then!

Contrast, Part I: Lessons from Bestselling Books

Over the next three weeks, I’ll be sharing some writing tips I picked up. Where did I find them? In some very famous books by skillful authors, books I couldn’t stop thinking about.

I wanted to know just what made these books so memorable, and what drove me to keep turning the pages. Some of it has to do with a generous helping of mystery, and some of it, like today’s tip, comes from a look into a character’s past. But after thinking about it, I noticed these books all have one thing in common: well-developed characters that leap off the page and plotlines that strike a chord. And to make that happen, the authors used contrast.

This is the first of three types of contrast that helped bestselling writers build deeper, more memorable stories and characters.

Use Contrast Part I

I. The contrast of innocence and (cruel) reality

In this lauded work of historical fiction, the contrast between the characters’ innocence and reality drives the main character’s choices and creates the book’s theme.

In The German Girl, by Armando Lucas Correa, heroine Hanna shares a free-roaming, adventurous childhood with Leo, who swears he will marry her as soon as they’re old enough. In the midst of being forced out of their homes by Nazis, their relationship is sweet and wholesome—with an almost inevitably tragic end. But it doesn’t truly end there.

Hannah carries Leo with her throughout the rest of her life. Through every atrocity she sees and no matter how she suppresses it, that bittersweet memory is there. Leo is a force long after he’s left the story, their innocent love representing everything that is simple and good.

This does three things: anchors the book in a relatable emotional core; portrays Hannah as more than just a victim (she gets a life of her own affected by but predating the forces of the story); and provides respite from (and therefore depth to) a tragedy.

That contrast is how the cruelty in The German Girl becomes more than just acts of outright evil: it’s also found in the indifference of the people around Hannah. If we never saw what no-strings-attached caring looked like in the story, that theme would be weaker and easily missed.

Here’s another example of it working, this time from the fantasy genre. In George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, innocence versus cruelty is the reason the Hound’s attachment to Sansa lifts her storyline: it’s a break from the almost unending selfishness and cruelty in King’s Landing. If there is no touch of relatable innocence, all that backstabbing and abuse of power blurs together.

This contrast humanizes the Hound (there’s a heart in there somewhere) and gives supposed good guy/victim Sansa a critical flaw (she can’t see past how ugly and scary he is. Cersei ain’t the only selfish gal in King’s Landing).

See how innocence versus cruelty brings more to a story than just good versus evil?

The Lesson:  Innocence is something everyone relates to. It triggers the reader’s reflex to be protective, which makes the reader invest in the character’s fate. The Hound becomes unforgettable in an onslaught of characters and names. The German Girl leaves an indelible mark, but it’s pure-hearted Leo and his relationship with Hannah—the way these innocents only wanted to live a normal life together—that breaks readers’ hearts the most.


That’s all for now! See you next week for Part II.