Monday, 17 January 2011


Hi everyone! Congratulations on surviving Monday. There, there. It's over now, and things can only get better.

This weekend I have been world building, and I plan a looong post on that for Wednesday. Other than that, I baked fresh bread myself for the first time (although my sister actually made the dough - thanks, Victoria!) and joined Twitter, which quite frankly terrifies me. Everything moves *so* fast, and I'm not sure if it's cool to reply to the tweets of people you follow even if they don't follow you. Argh. Hopefully I'll get the hang of it. You can follow my babbling in the new Twitter panel down there on the left - my user name is @ZMarriott.

Right, on with the reader question. Regular blog commentator Isabel says: problem is with my main character. I’ve been having some trouble with her character development. I think about her a certain way, but she just won’t cooperate. I know this may sound like a good thing: that my character is so real that I have no control over her, but it’s not like that. She just doesn’t have enough depth. Do you know this feeling? That every other character seems so real, and yet when it comes to your procrastinator, you’re hopeless? I hope it’s not just me who feels this way. I’ve been making some progress on her development today, but I just don’t know. Is this unusual? Shouldn’t my main character be the one that is easiest to make come to life?

Oh, I know where you're coming from Isabel. Because of course it seems logical that the main character, the character through whose point of view you tell the story, would be the most vivid and real person in the story. It's all about them, after all. You're in their head. How much realer than they be, right?

WRONG! Wrong, wrong, oh so very wrong. It's *because* you're in their head that the POV character will often be the last person that you get to know. The main character is so busy trying to understand the other characters, observe the world that they're living in, and survive the plot - and most important of all, interpret all these impressions and all this information for the reader - that quite often they end up being just a cardboard cut-out through the eyes of which you, the author, peer at the progress of the story.

I've become resigned to the fact that I usually don't really get to actually know my main character until about a third of the way through the story. I mean, I try to get to know them. I think deeply about who they are, where they come from, what drives them (as per this post). But a collection of traits, preferences and backstory does not make a coherant, living character. It just makes a nice list. Only by writing the story, living through the events with the main character, allowing them to react to people and plot twists, will they take on the spark of life. When you begin to see them react to things in ways you didn't expect, when you start to really suffer with them, that's when you'll love them as a person instead of an idea.

That, incidentally, is why I've gotten resigned to chucking away the first eight to ten chapters of any first draft that I complete, and re-writing them from scratch. By the time I finish a manuscript I know the main character so well that those first chapters seem utterly wooden and false. But assuming that you'd like to speed the process up and get more comfy with your POV character right now, here are some helpful character building tips:
  • Write a monologue from the main character's POV. Pick another character that your POV person feels strongly about, whether that feeling is love or hate. Then, using dialogue only, let your main character rant to that character. Let them explain their feelings and actions, complain, get angry, offer excuses and justifications, spill their guts, demand that the other character explain themselves and generally say all the things that have been simmering under the surface. This can help bring their inner voice and their inner life into sharper focus for you.
  • Switch your writing style. Are you writing in first person? Switch to third person for a chapter. If you're writing in third switch to first. Or try writing from the POV of a different character, looking at your main character from the outside. You'll see and experience the character in a different way and this can offer useful insights. 
  • Write a dream or a nightmare. If your character were to have the most blissful dream ever, what would it be? What nightmare would make them wake up screaming? What images would haunt or comfort them in their sleep when they're the most vulnerable? This can show you who they really are inside.
None of these writing exercises are likely to produce any text that will end up in your story, but spending the time really thinking about the problem character can help you feel closer to understanding them. Other than that, it goes back to letting them move through the story and giving it time. And being will to rewrite later!

Hope this is helpful, Isabel. As always, any more writing/publishing related questions can go in the comments or be emailed to me through my profile. Read you on Wednesday!


Deva Fagan said...

It's very reassuring to hear other folks struggle with this too! I don't think I ever really *got* my main characters until I tried writing in first person. (Though now I worry it's a crutch, so I'm experimenting with third again, and once again struggling to get to know my protag).

And the fast pace of twitter unnerves me too. But it's also addictive. Hope you enjoy it!

Zoë Marriott said...

I think writers struggle with characters like a plumber struggles with money wrenches. It's an occupational hazard!

You're not kidding Twitter's addictive. I only joined yesterday and I've already wracked up 57 tweets!

Isabel said...

Thank you soooooooooo much, Zoë!!!!! You cannot believe how helpful this was. Especially the character building tips. I can't wait to try those out! I'm sure they will be *extremely* helpful—THANKS! What you said about main characters is true; I had suspected something of the kind. But I really don't want to have to delete my first ten chapters when I finish the book! (If I do, which I hope and believe I will.) But I realize how it may come down to that. I'll probably think my first few chapters are crap, anyway, by the time I finish. It'll probably be a loooong time until that happens, and I will have gotten a lot better at writing, plus my style will have changed a lot. I guess that just comes with the package. Anyway, thanks again! I'll be trying out the character development tips sometime soon and I'll tell you how it went.

I can't wait for Wednesday's post! I love word building, and of course, I love long posts, too!

No news on finding a copy of Shadows while I'm in Johannesburg? I'm really anxious to know, even though the chances may be slim. Good luck on Twitter! Don't let it take too much time off of writing and reading! Now, I'd like to say I'm off to read or write, but, unfortunately, I'm going to go study some more for my history test on Wednesday on the French Revolution. Such a fascinating unit! I love history.

Zoë Marriott said...

Oh, sorry Isabel! I completely forgot, probably because it's not great news. As far as my editor is aware Shadows won't be on sale in South Africa next July - and even if it was, generally only huuuuge bestsellers go on sale in airports, which I'm not, unfortunately. Once again, check out It's specifically set up for people from the US to order books cheaply.

Isabel said...

Oh, that's too bad. Oh well. Come July I'll try the book depository. I've tried ordering on UK Amazon before, and it said you had to be in the UK to order, but if this sight is specifically set up for people in the US to order books, than it seems as if I can get it from there. Thanks for checking! It's really not that bad - being able to order it like that, and cheaply, too. Plus, that way, I'll get the peeeeerty cover. (I'm assuming the US one could never be that good. All the same, post it when you know, okay?)

You never know - Shadows may be a huge success! I really hope so - you deserve to be a bestseller, Zoe. I guess most people just aren't sophisticated enough to appreciate great literature. Instead, they read stuff like Twilight. It really stinks; I wish it weren't that way.

Isabel said...

Sorry, now I really *will* go study, right after I check Megha's blog.

Zoë Marriott said...

I'll post the US cover as soon as I can. I don't know what it'll be like myself right now; let's cross our fingers. Thanks for your good wishes!

Alex Mullarky said...

Useful as always, and can't wait for the post about worldbuilding, something I'm also struggling through at the moment!

Zoë Marriott said...

Wow, I'm feeling a little pressure now! I'd better make the worldbuilding post good.

Shannon the BookStalker said...

Zoe, I'm so glad you joined twitter and that your having so much fun with it. Don't worry to much about the fast pace, it gets better. Oh and answer whom ever you want whether they follow you or not. :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks, Shannon! I used to wonder how people could get addicted to Twitter, but now I can barely tear my eyes away from the Twitter tab. I actually have to shut it down to get any work done.

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