Monday, 15 August 2011

A QUESTION OF CHARACTER

Happy Monday, Dear Readers! I hope you all had a great weekend.

You'll be (vaguely) interested to know that my achievements this weekend included completing and posting back the U.S. copyedits for Shadows on the Moon (woooh!) and also breaking the 43,000 word mark on Big Secret Project (waaah!). Hopefully I should be able to share some more details of Big Secret Project with you within the next few months. I said hopefully. Cross your fingers!

After last week's blog extravaganza over on The Book Memoirs, today we're back to our regularly scheduled programming - which means answering some reader questions! The first questioner has chosen to remain anonymous, and says:
"I’m having boy trouble in my ms. The love interest is a supernatural creature who is helping my main character save the world. But the thing is...I don’t “feel” him. I know what he looks like but am worried he’s just a 1 dimensional character and I’m really struggling to put meat on him, which is making me worry a lot obviously. He is both cursed and blessed with various gifts but I’m thinking he’s just a bit meh. Too nice perhaps, too pouty...I don’t know. How do I rough him up, dirty him up, to make him attractive and a viable love interest for my main character?"
Strip it back a bit. You're telling me all about his outer attibutes here (Note: there was a more detailed description in the email, which I've redacted for confidentiality's sake), like who he is by birth, how he looks, his position, his talents. Clearly you've put a lot of thought into that, and that's great. But who is he inside?

That's what is really important. In order to 'feel' him, you need to dig into his soul and get to know him. Then I think the problem will solve itself. So, how to do that? Based on what you've told me about him, I think this might help.
1) Why is he helping the heroine in the first place?
What is his investment in trying to save mortals? Presumably there's some danger involved - why is he willing to risk it? Is he rebelling against something, trying to make amends for something, just doing it to impress a pretty girl? The reasons will be revealing.
2) What internal conflicts is he facing due to his decision to help the heroine?
He's a supernatural creature and the heroine is not. I'm guessing that supernaturals in your world don't generally go around offering a helping hand to humans just out of the goodness of their hearts, and unless your character has no family or friends within his own community (which, again, would be revealing) there must be some resistance from people he cares about to what he's doing. Is he betraying anyone, or putting his own life or someone else that he cares about in danger? How much does that matter to him?
3) What is his backstory?
What drives him to make these decisions, and take these risks? What has been the moment of supreme fear or anger or joy in his life so far, and how do the events of your story stack up against that? Has he been through so much in his past that nothing scares or moves him anymore, or is he really freaked out about what he's doing/risking?
4) How does he feel about the heroine?
He probably finds her attractive, but how does he really FEEL about her? What does he like about her? Dislike? And WHY? Is he scared of his feelings, or does he accept them easily? Does he conceal them from others, or even himself? How do these feelings interact with everything else he's been through in his life?
At the moment I think you're maybe focusing too much on what the heroine sees of him, or feels and thinks about him. Don't get me wrong - that's important, because (I'm guessing), that's the viewpoint you're telling the story from.

But the heroine is only seeing him from the outside. As the author, you need to see him from the inside, even if the reader and the POV character never do. In order to make him real to the reader, he needs to be real to you. Look at him as a person in his own right, not simply as a foil for the heroine. Look at the heroine and the world and his actions from HIS point of view.

Sometimes I find it really useful to let a non-viewpoint character ramble in my head a bit so that they have a chance to express their own internal monologue. The hero's viewpoint may never make it directly to the pages of your ms, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have one. Sit him down in your head and ask him to tell these events in his own words. What events would he start with. What would he have to say about the heroine? How would he describe himself? What are his justifications for his actions? Does he big himself up or play his role down?

Just free-write it, like a long, meandering dialogue. Hopefully soon you'll start to know and understand him not as Main Love Interest #1 but as a person - a complex, maybe conflicted individual with his own hopes and fears and dreams.

Onto the next question, which is from Aimen:
"I have this sort of pathological fear of my main characters. I'm afraid that all of them will turn out to be mean, unlikable b*stards who are unsympathetic and selfish and will eventually become tiring... I'd love to have any tips you can give on characterization and when a misunderstood character becomes so annoying that it is impossible to sympathize with him. I suppose that it also depends on readers somewhat but even if a character is ridiculously immature or in denial, what sort of becomes his redeeming quality? Or is that a question I have to answer?"
On the surface this question seems completely different to the first one - but in fact, you're having the exact same problem as Anonymous, Aimen. The exact same one.

You're looking at your characters from the outside, from the point of view of the reader, and worrying about what they will see. But you're the writer! You shouldn't ever be afraid of your main characters or feel that they're unsympathetic - because you can get inside them and see exactly who they are deep down. You can understand exactly what fears and insecurities and good intentions and fantasies dive them to act the way they do.

I think you should follow the advice I've given the first questioner. Stop worrying about what readers will see right now, because what is important is what YOU see. Ask yourself about the *inside* of the character - what is most important to them, what they fear most, what they love most, what they will fight to escape or protect. Trace their actions in your plot back to events in their past that have shaped them. Write a summary of the events of the story from their point of view, or get them to describe themselves, or another character. Get to really know them.

I think when you've done this you'll find that instead of a bunch of people who make you feel uneasy and worried and whom you feel are probably going to turn out to be b*stards, you'll end up with a group that you care about deeply and understand very well. And when you write them, that understanding and compassion will translate onto the page in such a way that readers will grow to care about them too, even if sometimes their actions are off-putting at times.

One other note (for both questioners!): I find readers have a lot of patience for characters who initially seem abrasive or unlikeable so long as they evolve throughout the story. That doesn't necessarily mean they need to undergo a startling transformation and become a whole new person, but the reader needs to see different aspects of them and watch their relationships with others develop. If they're evolving, that means they're a real person. If they stay completely static, that means they're cardboard.

More questions on writing, reading or publishing? Feel free to drop them in the comments or send me an email through my website. See you on Wednesday :)

10 comments:

Vivienne said...

Excellent post Zoe. Definitely a good point to remember when looking at the relationships between characters and making sure they are analysed from all angles.

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks, Dippy :)

Anonymous said...

Are the American covers going to be the same? Could you post a picture when you have one. How many countries is Shadows going to?

Zoë Marriott said...

Anon: No, Candlewick Press are doing their own cover, which I will definitely post as soon as it's finished and I have permission. At the moment Shadows will be exported (in the UK edition) to Australia/NZ and South Africa later this year, will come out in the US in the Candlewick edition in April 2012, and will come out in translation in Poland sometime in 2012 too. Hopefully some more foreign rights might sell later, but there are no guarantees.

Jenni @ Juniper's Jungle said...

Really interesting post, thank you.

Isabel said...

This is a really excellent post! Your answer to the second question was especially helpful for me because I am planning to have my main character make a decision in this story that is driven on by her faith in a certain person, and may not be the wisest decision. It goes against everything she ever thought she believed in, and I was having doubts about it before, until I read this post. Thanks so much!

...I also just realized that tomorrow will be exactly a year after the original idea for the story I'm writing came to me. I still have the piece of paper where my sister first jotted down some rough ideas that I threw at her -- very different than what I'm writing now, of course -- and at the top it says, "August 16, 2010". How exciting... I should probably have a mini celebration...

Zoë Marriott said...

Jenni: You're welcome!

Isabel: Oh, good - I do love to be useful :) And yes, you should have a celebration. A year is a long time to pour your passion and spare time into any project, and it requires a great deal of self-discipline and dedication. Pat yourself on the back.

Isabel said...

Zoë: Thank you! I spent the longest time just planning it out, and then I started it and everything I thought was set in stone got turned on its head and now my story is really different -- and still changing! After I had written the prologue and chapter one I sort of neglected it -- until Alex and Megha came along. Which is why I still have a long way to go. But still, I feel like it's at a point where I sort of have to keep going -- after a year, I know it's something special, and the story is sort of second nature to me. Hopefully I will be able to keep going until I finish it. :)

Now I'm going to start chapter fourteen...

Cam said...

Thank you. This post was really helpful,especially your answers to the first question. I was worrying about the same thing,and, as stupid as it sounds, I hadn't thought about the hero being his own seperate person until then.Thanks again, the suggestions were invaluable.

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: Good luck with Ch. 14!

Cam: That's what I'm here for :) Most problems can be solved by going back to character, I think. It's just that when you're buried under layers of words it can sometimes be hard to remember that.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...