In writing class the other night we got into an interesting discussion. According to my teacher (an agented, traditionally-published writer), the biggest reason readers put down a book is…
They couldn’t relate to the protagonist.
It’s not poor writing, not faulty plot structure, not an overabundance of flashbacks or poorly-fleshed out secondary characters. To write a great novel, I’d argue you need all these things too, and more. But in terms of priorities, you must ensure your protagonist is relatable.
People need to be able to connect with at least one character in the story and care enough about what happens to them to keep reading. They need to be emotionally invested. After all, why would you want to read about someone to whose fate you’re indifferent?
Not always–but in a majority of cases–this means your protagonist needs to be likable. The aforementioned teacher once had an editor who told her she needed to improve her protagonist’s likability, and suggested giving her a dog (I love that tip).
Think about your favorite novels, and the reasons why you love them–for me, it truly does boil down to the fact that I was in love with the main characters and cared deeply about what happened to them (Harry Potter, Liesel Meminger, Holden Caulfield, Cassie Maddox, etc.)
There are exceptions to this, however. I would argue that it’s difficult to find a likable character in Gone Girl, yet we keep reading because these characters are so fascinatingly messed-up, we can’t help but want to know how their story turns out. I felt the same way about The Secret History. And in A Song of Ice and Fire, although it’s the characters I love that I follow the most closely, I did not skip over the chapters about my most-hated characters (ahem, Cersei)–I kept reading because I wanted to know what happened to them, as well.
So let’s amend this to say: in order to write a novel that people will keep reading, you must make your protagonist interesting.
I can’t think of a single novel I adored that doesn’t fit one of those two criteria.