Today is the one-year anniversary of Weird Theology, my first ever published novel! It’s been an incredible journey, watching how my first book has grown and hearing back from people that enjoyed it. The sequel, Strange Cosmology, will be published at the end of the summer so I’ve been spending a ton of time with my editor, working on revision and editing. However, editors are one thing – there’s another group of people that are an important part of the drafting process – beta readers.
A beta reader is someone, often a friend or a family member, who reads your book before you publish and provides feedback. If you’re trying to figure out which friends to ask, check out this list for suggestions. They’re incredibly valuable resources to have, but they aren’t editors. They’re so frequently people who care about you, not just the book, and that might lead them to provide only positive feedback. Sometimes that’s needed – I know if I get too much negative feedback it’s discouraging – but if you ask the right questions, you can get the information you need to improve your book.
So, let’s give them the right questions.
Each of the questions falls into one of three categories – Characterization, Analysis, and Immersion. This is by no means a definitive list of all things you should ask your beta readers, and all of them will probably have to follow up questions you’ll need to ask to clarify, so think of this as a bare minimum you should always ask for feedback. This will be a three-part series – today we’re going to focus on Characterization. Later will be Immersion and Analysis.
No promises that I’ll do them back-to-back. My brain might chase a butterfly at some point, and if nothing else I’ll have a Spider-Man: Far From Home review up soon.
What are my characters’ strengths and weaknesses?
A good character should have both. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know there. But even though you definitely have both strengths and weaknesses for your characters, that doesn’t mean you were able to convey them properly in the text. Just for a personal example (there’s gonna be a lot of those) in Weird Theology, Ryan’s biggest weakness was his anxiety brought about by years of being followed by a figure no one else could see. Yet, in the text, there were several cases where I missed those chances. His anxiety didn’t really come out in the first draft, and that was a problem on my end.
When you ask this question, you’re going to get one of two answers. The good news is, both of them are helpful.
- One type of answer will tell you what flaws and strengths your character has. If readers can’t identify this, you’ve written a flat character or one where their personality doesn’t come through. You need to go back and look for places where their flaws should impede them or where their strengths can shine through. There’s a subset here – you’ll often see where a beta reader can tell you strengths, but not point out flaws. At that point, you’ve stumbled into the dreaded Mary Sue or Gary Stu territory, and need to make certain you correct that as soon as possible.
- The other type of answer is going to be what makes the character compelling or interesting and where they lose the reader. Answers along those lines will be “he’s hilarious” or “she’s a snarky badass and I love it” for strengths, or “I want them to shut up” or “I don’t understand what they care about” for weaknesses. This is still incredibly helpful because you’ll know where the character works and were they don’t for the reader.
Ideally, you’ll get both answers, and you usually can with some probing questions or follow up ones. If a reader can only answer one or the other, ask why. It might be because you wrote a funny character with no discernable strengths or weaknesses, or an annoying character that is still well rounded. Oh, and as an important protip: If the reader’s answer is about the characters power for strength, and about their Kryptonite for weakness, you need to go back to the personality as well. Abilities are not acceptable substitutes for personality, and with a well-written character, one will inform the other.
Who was the protagonist? Who was the primary antagonist?
You’ll note a trend forming in these questions – these are things that you, as the author, should absolutely know before you start writing. You’re not asking because you don’t know, you’re asking to check you did a good job with conveying them to the reader properly. This was actually a flaw I had in my first draft of Strange Cosmology. I got very invested with a secondary protagonist and antagonist while writing it and ended up sidelining the protagonist as a result.
And I want to be clear, here – when my editor looked at the first draft, she said “You do realize Ryan spends the entire second half of the book just drinking at a bar, right?” I didn’t believe it until she showed me the breakdown. I’d been so invested in writing these secondary characters, I’d literally ghosted my protagonist at a bar.
It’s a flaw I’ve had to fix in revision, and this question will help you find if you’ve gone down that path. It also can lead things in an interesting direction – in my case, I knew that Ryan was the protagonist and didn’t want to change it. However, if you’re writing the first book in a series or a standalone, and readers are confused about who your protagonist is, you should ask yourself if there’s a reason they aren’t the protagonist. It could be you have a better story with them than your intended main character.
Were there characters that bothered you?
Sometimes, a character is supposed to bother the reader. The Antagonist of Mr. Mercedes bothered me on a fundamental level because he was such a sick human being. He was racist, he was perverted…he was an all-around monster. He was also a killer, so I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what Stephen King intended. If that’s what you’re going for, this is a good place to find out if you’re doing it right. You want to know that your character that is supposed to make the reader squirm is doing that.
On the other hand, there are the other characters. The ones that bother the reader because they incite a white-hot rage every time they appear. To pick an example, if George Lucas had asked this question about The Phantom Menace, he would have learned that he had a serious problem – I can’t imagine a beta reader would have read that script and said “oo, messa excited about Jar Binks.”
When did my characters surprise you?
You might be picking up a pattern of questions that can reveal both strengths and flaws. That’s deliberate and carries over here.
- If your character surprised people by being clever, or overcoming an obstacle, or growing in an unexpected way, you can pat yourself on the back. You managed to pull off a hard to manage surprise, and it’s something readers tend to enjoy. Those are the moments that get talked about the most – the points where the reader goes “holy crap, I didn’t see that coming.”
- If, on the other hand, your character surprised the reader by acting out of character or doing something stupid when they were supposed to be smart or having no visible motivation for it, that’s something that needs to be fixed in edits. “Holy crap, I don’t believe that happened,” is said in a very different tone than the last reader quote.
This one is another of the cases where it’s important to ask probing questions. “I was shocked when character A pulled off his master plan” could be a good thing because it means the master plan was so well thought out it caught the reader off guard? Or, on the other hand, has that character spent the majority of the book up to this point eating paint chips and drooling in a corner so no one would believe the master plan.
I’m going back to the Star Wars prequels for this one. There’s a theory going around that Jar Jar Binks was intended to be a hidden Sith lord all along, and George Lucas scrapped that idea because of the negative fan reaction to the character. If that had been the plan, and Mr. Lucas had stuck to it, I can’t imagine people would have gone “Oh wow, that was really clever” at watching the comic relief that no one liked to turn into the big bad.
Which character was your favorite and least favorite?
Writers are like parents – we love all of our children equally. And just like parents, as much as we might protest, we sometimes have favorites. Our favorites, however, might not be the reader’s favorite. It’s absolutely vital to find out who your reader’s favorite characters are because it could be a side character you weren’t going to be focused on, but they really pop out to the reader. You might want to bring that character forward more, or you might want to keep them in mind for sequels or spin offs.
Note that this is different from like and dislike, which is another good follow up question. If you’re uncertain about what the difference means – the best way to describe it is your favorite character is who you enjoy watching the most, while the character you liked the most is the one you want to have coffee with. The Thor movies were a great example of that – Loki was everyone’s favorite, but most people liked Thor more. I wanted to watch Loki all day. I never wanted to have coffee with him. Because, you know, he’s arrogant as hell and would call me an ant.
Oh, and it’s important that you don’t go too crazy with a favorite character. Patrick Rothfuss did this with the Kingkiller Chronicles. The books are amazing, and I highly recommend them, and the spin off book sounds like a great idea – an entire book that focuses entirely on a minor character everyone loved. When we got it, however, we learned that this character was best in small doses.
Who were you rooting for?
Ideally, this should be the protagonists. Not the good guys – if you’re telling a story with bad guys as the protagonists, then you want the reader to be rooting for them. If your readers are cheering for the antagonists to succeed, you have a sticky situation.
Now, to be clear, sometimes this can work. If your protagonists are supposed to be unlikable jerks and you want the readers cheering for their opponents, that can be a good thing. I wouldn’t recommend it though, because a lot of readers will be turned off by having to focus so much on the awful people they dislike. It also can be different from the point of view character – when we’re reading Sherlock, no one’s really rooting for Watson. Holmes is the protagonist and we’re, appropriately, rooting for them.
Also, if you can pull off a situation where the readers are rooting for both the antagonist and protagonists, you’ve got something special. This is part of why Avatar: The Last Airbender is so well remembered. During the show, everyone was rooting for the protagonist and his crew because they were the heroes – and likable ones at that – and they’re trying to stop the evil advance of a tyrant. Classic hero stuff. On the other hand, we’re also rooting one of the major antagonists, Zuko. That might seem impossible, but it works so well because we’re not rooting for Zuko to win. We’re rooting for Zuko to realize his family is shitty and to better himself as a person.
That’s a good starting point for questions to ask your beta readers about your characters. As you get answers, you’ll flesh out what they mean in follow up questions and be able to get an even better feel for where you are.
Any questions you’d like to ask your beta readers I didn’t think of? Questions you wished other writers had asked their beta readers? Let me know in the comments! And don’t forget to check out my free book and Weird Theology to get ready for Strange Cosmology’s release!