It's okay, authors, we're all guilty of it. When we write our characters, we fall in love with them. We want to see our main character and their band of merry sidekicks save the day and kick major villain butt. But when our novels progress and the stakes get steep, they need to be able to accomplish one vital thing: growth. Without a sufficient character arc your protagonist won't be able to rise to their full potential as a hero, and your antagonist won't be able to grow into their supervillain shoes.
What does this look like for your narrative? Your protagonist and antagonist are opposites of one another, destined to share similarities and a major platform that they fundamentally disagree upon. When your protagonist grows and change, your antagonist needs to do the same, but growth looks different for them. Your protagonist needs to positively change so that they're strong enough to face their villain, and your antagonist needs to embrace their evil deeds and sink deeper into villainy. When one or both lack this character development it can seriously hinder your pacing and plot overall.
When the feedback from your editor comes back with comments such as "not enough character growth", "incomplete character arc", "main character or antagonist aren't strong enough" it's a good indication that you may be subconsciously shielding your characters. If you receive feedback that your plot lacks tension, your pacing is too slow, or that there isn't enough to drive the story forward this is almost certainly the case.
5 Signs That You're Coddling Your Characters (And How To Fix It)
1. You use "distancing" words and passive language when describing your characters:
One sure way to diagnose whether you're coddling your characters or not is to examine your work for distancing phrases. If there's immediate danger in a scene and your main character is not in the middle of the action or the threat is not set up to directly challenge them, then chances are it's because there's too much distance between them and the conflict. For instance, an evil sorcerer sets a magical trap for the often naive hero but rather than walk straight into it (which would be characteristic of them) they are actually two miles away doing something completely unrelated that doesn't further the plot. Another example would be a female student enters her new school for the first time, but rather than suffering from an awkward introduction by their homeroom teacher to the rest of the class, she slips in unnoticed and takes an empty seat in the back.
Another way that coddling happens subconsciously is through passive language. This is language that is uncertain and protects the character from experiencing an event to the full extent. Back to our examples: The naive hero finds out that they've been betrayed by their best friend, but the author pens phrases such as "almost feels", "barely thinks", "can't even begin to figure out what to do next". These phrases put the hero on the border of real emotions, thoughts, and actions that are reactionary but never allows them to fully commit to any of them. Likewise, if the new student finds herself in the uncomfortable position of finding a place to sit in the lunchroom but the author writes "unsure of what she's feeling", "doesn't know what to make of the stares", "too shy to make eye contact with anyone" then the same mistake is being made. When the main character can't make a decision about how they feel or how to handle a situation, it means the plot stalls and their personal growth stagnates.
Solution: Conflict accomplishes two things within storytelling. It helps move the plot forward and it allows your characters to change. The goal of a character arc is to see your character face challenges and learn from them. Your protagonist should not be the same person they were at the beginning of the novel by the end. The only way to accomplish that is to allow them to fully face the unpleasant, the unexpected, and the terrible. In these two cases, distance and uncertain language creates a barrier that keeps the respective protagonists in a bubble of comfort.
2. No one ever gets seriously hurt or suffers any life-changing consequences:
As authors, we set events into motion that are designed to test our characters. Our greatest job is to pretend to be a god-like being: ever-watching, omniscient, and detached. It's when we forget this golden rule and step in to "save" or "safeguard" our created humans that the narrative suffers. At some point we're all guilty of this and often the way it manifests in minor wounds, more severe injuries or traumas happening to secondary characters, quick bounces back from traumatic emotional experiences, and tying nice neat bows on situations that otherwise wouldn't easily be solved. For example, your magical main character fights a demon but the demon never lands a solid blow. Another is your heroine gets her heart broken by the man of her dreams, but the next morning she flirts with a cute neighbor at a local coffee shop as though nothing ever happened.
Solution: Remember that to experience true growth, your character needs to feel the full spectrum of human emotions following a life-altering event. If your instinct is to change the pacing of natural events like slapping a band-aid on a wound larger than a paper cut so your heroine can go fight the next obstacle, fight the urge. Events like these have an evolution that helps develop your plot along with your character arcs. It brings out the best and worst in your heroine and forces her to confront real-world consequences. Let the demon injure your magical hero and don't let him get away unscathed. The worse the wound, the larger the struggle to heal and seeing him overcome that challenge will keep your readers rooting for him. Similarly, let your brokenhearted heroine feel the full scope of her loss and rather than show immediate interest in the the new coffee shop cutie, have her be offended by the advance initially to keep your reader guessing.
3. Your villain's motives are falling flat or they aren't wicked enough:
Similar to the main character issue, this one is for the antagonist. Think about your antagonist's main goal. It should be clear to the reader from the beginning what they're after and why. While it may be obvious in the opening chapters, sometimes their evil plan starts to deflate as the novel progresses. There's a couple reasons why this might occur. One, the author may not have a clear vision for how their plotline progresses. Two, the villain may be a weaker or a quieter personality that is being overshadowed by other characters. And three, the author may not be pushing their villain far enough into the gray area where evil lies.
If you suspect that this might be the issue for your story, there's a few indicators to look for. For example, if your villain's plan isn't solid then you'll find many scenes that deviate from the main goal or don't contribute to driving the story forward such as random bickering with other characters, your villain defers to other characters for what to do next, and side trips that serve a minor purpose. It may be the case that you have a quiet villain who naturally takes a backseat to their extroverted counterparts, in which case the problem becomes showcasing their personality over the more aggressive one. And lastly, if you objectively look at your antagonists actions and find that they don't hurt anyone physically or emotionally, go out of their way to show empathy, are pushed around by other characters (without taking some form of revenge), and generally speaking aren't thinking about their "master plan", then you may have fallen off course.
Solution: If your antagonist's plotline is the issue, it's time to go back to the drawing board. Spend some time charting out the key points that will bring your villain to achieve their ultimate goal (and how your hero will respond to thwart them). By allowing yourself to do more planning behind-the-scenes, you'll be able to fix your antagonist's chapters and put them back on track. Don't be afraid to delete the fluff and keep them focused. If you find your villain is taking a back seat to "louder" characters it's time to do some character development. Scan your novel for scenes where the extroverted character is stealing the spotlight and steering the ship. Is your villain supposed to be in charge here? If the answer is yes, the you know what to do. If the problem persists, maybe it's time to consider a new villain. If you make it past these other two and realize that your villain isn't so evil after all, it's time to push the boundaries further. Sometimes the issue is psychological rather than the character's fault. Are you as the author afraid to hurt your protagonist and their friends? Are you worried about writing a character who does awful things to others and how that will make you feel as the writer? While it means you're probably an awesome human being, unfortunately you'll have to mentally find a way to deal if you want your readers to cringe when they read. A good way to start is to use your biggest fears as inspiration- What scares you most? What makes your heart hurt? Write from those emotions and pen those feelings into your novel. If you follow your instincts, you'll be sure your readers will feel those strong emotions too.
4. Your main character barely struggles physically or emotionally when facing major plot points:
We're sure you can already guess why this is an issue. If the aim of your novel is to show how much your protagonist has changed by the end, how much growth could they really have if they are never allowed to experience true difficulty? If you're finding that your pacing has slowed when it should be building and you don't know why, take another look at how your protagonist reacts to the key plot points. When they are dealt a major blow, how do they act? When a big reveal happens, how do they process it after? How do they handle a difficult situation or a particularly challenging event? How do they rise after they fall? You may notice that your hero isn't suffering to the full extent that they could be. Sure, perhaps they feel down, suffer from anxiety, depression, or from minor scraps and bruises. But is it enough? Often, the clear answer is no. For example, your hero faces three major obstacles in a row- a battle with a dragon that leaves him severely wounded, the death of his beloved daughter leaves him emotionally shattered, and his enemy sends him a would-be olive branch that he is suspects is a trap. If the author rushes it might look like this: The hero finds a magical herb on his path down the dragon's lair that helps heal him in record time. Then he manages to get over the death of his daughter by making a few jokes with his friend and off he goes physically and emotionally healed to decide that he doesn't trust the villain. Now, what's wrong with this picture?
Solution: The answer is quite a few things. If your hero doesn't struggle from his life-threatening injuries because of a chance encounter with the rare cure, then we never see his ingenuity and resilience despite his near-death experience. We also never get to see who is clever enough to help him. If he magically heals his emotional wound left by his daughter's death with a joke and a fun night out with friends, then clearly he's a psychopath. No one would ever recover from a child's death and certainly not without many many years of torment. Anyone would be half-mad and vulnerable in the throes of these great hardships, so wouldn't it then stand to reason that your hero's judgement would be skewed? Perhaps the best decision for your story, in this case, is the worst one. It certainly is the most exciting. The point, writers, is that only through complete and total torment can one find the greatest of storytelling truths.
5. Your villain over-justifies their bad behavior:
Back to our antagonist with this final scenario. There's nothing more disappointing to a reader than an antagonist who seems to have everything- bad attitude, terrible minions, forces the likes of which the world has never known, and the moral compass of the devil himself- only to have him trip before the finish line. This refers to the villain who does everything right except for one crucial failure. He explains every last little detail and reason why he does what he does to the protagonist before (and after) his evil deeds. Suddenly, the once powerful villain heralded for his dastardly plots is reduced to a wannabe member of Team Rocket from Pokemon. If you're unfamiliar, Team Rocket is a trio of "bad guys" who announce that they are bad guys, what their motives are, and always botch their minor-league plans each time they appear in the show. They become a mockery and while it works for Pokemon, it unfortunately does not work the same for novels. What makes this a mistake is that the protagonist is unable to struggle to make sense of the antagonist's motives (which is half of what makes up their own suffering). Thus both villain and main character stagnant in character growth because one is already bowing, albeit subtly, to the other, eliminating the guessing game of who will ultimately win before the final showdown.
Solution: Leave a little mystery. The most exciting villain is not the one who commits atrocities without a motive, but the one who is reluctant to share it whenever the opportunity arises. Let your antagonist show their motive through their actions- allude to it, but don't have him shout it from the rooftops. It will mirror real life, where hardly anything is explained. Have your protagonist fret over why your antagonist acts the way he does and let them both fully revel in their own individual cause/effect emotional cycle. Remember the goal of the novel is to bring their relationship to a final conclusion that leaves readers feeling satisfied. To do that, both characters need to be on equal terms in regards to strength, talent, how others view them, magic, and keeping their advantages close to the vest. If you, the author, can't guess who will win in the end that's the sweet spot because it means your reader won't be able to guess either.
In the end, coddling your characters is something all writers do. It's the natural instinct to protect those we care about, but we can overcome this urge by keeping our primary goal in mind. When we approach our writing knowing that we have to let our protagonist suffer in order to grow and to let our antagonist sink into debauchery in order to become the fearsome villain they're destined to be, the going gets easier. Until then, hopefully these tips help you get there!