Avoid the Dreaded DNF

Updated on March 1, 2024.

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Over the past five years, I’ve averaged finishing 133 books. Undoubtedly most of them are fiction, but I’ve been known to throw in some nonfiction books occasionally just to spice things up a bit. I don’t bring this up to brag, because I readily admit that I’m in a privileged enough place to have the time and funds to do so.

I bring this up because in an effort to find something to write about that was directly related to this week’s general topic, introducing characters to readers, I had an epiphany. The 531 books I tracked between 2019 and 2023 are just the ones I finished.

It took me years to admit that DNF’ing a book (did not finish), whether fiction or nonfiction, is actually a normal part of the reading experience. Some books just aren’t for me; I’m not that author’s target reader.

It’s not unheard of for readers to give a novel or nonfiction book about ten percent of its total page count to hook them enough to keep reading, sometimes less and sometimes more. That’s an average of thirty to fifty pages. Essentially, you have two to four chapters to make readers care enough about your protagonist emotionally to want to follow those external conflicts said protagonist will experience.

Here’s a few questions to answer in those first thirty to fifty pages that will lower the odds of your target reader closing your book and not picking it up again.

Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash

Why this specific character at this specific point in their life?

Characterization is about much more than physical descriptions, no matter how uniquely blue the protagonist’s eyes are or how self-conscious they are around the movie-star-gorgeous tattoo shop owner next door to the protagonist’s floral shop. Characterization centers around creating the perfect combination of detail, commonness, and familiarity that your readers will believe in with the same fervency as you.

The characters a reader identifies with the most changes as the reader matures, as they experience different facets of the human experience. When tossing around characterization ideas in your noggin, take into consideration the mental headspace of your target reader, where research tells you they’re at in their life. Mold your character into someone they can believe is both important enough and admirable enough that your protagonist proves to be someone they can connect with their own lived experiences (or hoped-for experiences).

Which point-of-view would best portray this character’s story?

When it comes to convincing your target reader to pick up your book, Alicia Rasley believes “each genre has a distinct purpose, set of conventions, and boundaries that readers understand and expect.” Your novel’s genre will usually have a direct effect on the POV you use for your protagonist, including how you eventually market your book to your target audience. More importantly, your POV determines just how closely you bring readers into your character’s life, on the tone, mood, energy, and pace of your scenes and overall narrative.

  • First Person brings the reader inside the protagonist’s head and only the protagonist’s head, with first-person singular and plural pronouns (e.g., I, us, mine, ourselves). In this POV, the reader can only know what the protagonist knows and when they know it. This is especially useful when you want readers to identify more strongly with this protagonist, to see and experience the world as they do.
  • Second Person addresses the reader as though they are the protagonist (e.g., you, yours, yourself). This POV primarily appears in self-help or professional improvement books. In fiction, it’s likely to be seen in Choose Your Own Adventure books aimed at adolescents or preteens.
  • Third Person Limited (or Deep Third Person) is similar to first person in that you bring a reader into one character’s head at a time, especially when there are multiple viewpoint characters. It gives you the freedom to both describe the character from the outside and show how they’re experiencing the world from the inside.

There is also the omniscient POV, where the author can go into the mind of any character at any point but can also directly comment on the action. It tells the story from the narrator’s perspective, who is rarely described or explained, and who readers accept without analyzing who that narrator is or why they’re telling this story. It was the primary POV used in and around the 19th century. Not so much with contemporary fiction, at least post-1950s or thereabouts. It may seem like an easy POV to wield, but experienced authors agree that it is the most difficult to use when telling modern fiction stories.

What antagonistic (or villainous) force would most effectively show how and why your character needs to change?

Picking—and fully developing—the opposing force to your protagonist can be argued to be even more important than doing so for your protagonist. This person or force is who or what keeps your protagonist from achieving their goal. How that happens is directly related to how major the protagonist’s goal is in the grand scheme of the story, how major their change arc will be from opening salvo to dramatic climax.

A good antagonist mirrors your protagonist’s goals, desires, and wants, with the ultimate intention to thwart the protagonist in whatever way possible. Dig deep into their past, their surface-level and soul-deep beliefs and how those beliefs shape their motivations and actions. Readers need a source for the antagonist’s actions in order to understand exactly why that antagonist provides the appropriate obstacles for your protagonist to overcome.

In shaping your antagonist or villain, think about some of the following:

  • What is their familial background? Were they raised in an intact home or in a divorced family? Did they suffer physical, mental, or even sexual abuse? How did that turn them into who they are today?
  • Will past trauma directly or indirectly influence their actions in the current story time? How does this trauma manifest in their actions and daily life?
  • What does a “normal” day look like for them? Do they have a white-collar, blue-collar, or criminal job? Do they live alone or with a roommate or significant other?

Protagonists are only as good as the person or force they’re in conflict with. The conflict is only as meaningful as it is to both the protagonist and antagonist/villain. Give the antagonist an equal chance to make choices, even if those choices are wrong or immoral in the eyes of the protagonist (and reader).

As of today, I’ve finished eight books in 2024:

  • Four espionage thrillers
  • One poetry book
  • One nonfiction U.S. Army Ranger biography
  • One nonfiction U.S. prosecutor autobiography
  • One writing craft book

Why are these numbers important to you, though?

You’re not just writing your character or topic for you. Readers want to finish books, especially if it’s in their preferred category and genre. Once you make that mindset shift, it’s all the easier to create those well-rounded characters that will hook your target readers within that first ten percent of your story.

Using the above questions as a starting point, you can create deeper characters, more realistic conflicts, and more satisfying resolutions. You’ll have a better chance of leaving readers reflecting on those characters long after the book is finished, one word at a time.

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