From Agents and Editors – Top Reason for Rejection

May 22, 2011

I heard it yesterday, I’ve heard it before and I have no doubt I’ll hear it again.  I’ve been to dozens of presentations by agents and editors over the last decade.  Invariably, they will discuss, or will be asked, what they are looking for in a manuscript.  Many reasons have been offered as to why a manuscript will get rejected by an editor or agent, but the most common reason is that they do not think the characters are developed enough.  My own experience as a reader is that a lot of literary fiction you find on the shelves are character-driven novels. 

Abigail Samoun, former editor of Tricycle Press, gave a talk to the winners of the Mount Diablo Branch of CWC’s Young Writers Contest.  She took us through the stages (a 5 year process), Paul Llewellyn, author of “The Tilting House ( went through on his journey to publication.  One of the issues Llewellyn had to deal with was developing his main character so that he felt real.  I, too, have gotten rejections where the agent’s biggest concern was that he or she did not like (or did not care enough about) my main character. 

Character development is not one of my strengths as a writer.  I am very much a plot driven storyteller.  It should also be no surprise that, as a reader, I am also drawn to page turners with lots of twists and turns to the plot.   I really don’t need to know the entire life history of the main character, give me action, surprise me, and I will be a satisfied reader.   

My book club recently read a thriller novel plot (Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer) that I loved because of the plot.  One of our members described it as a “Brain Twinkie.”   The book is fast-paced, something that is needed for the thriller genre, but I wonder if she was also reacting to the main character – a smart, but not very likeable person.   

As a plot-driven writer, I have found character development exercises useful.  Here are a few websites that provide a list of questions or exercises to bring depth into your characters:

The more a writer knows about their characters, the better.  A writer must know what makes their characters tick before they can bring them to life on the page.