How To Color a Character
When I first started sending my novels around to publishers and agents, I often heard that my main character was not very fun/nice/likable. “He’s no hero” and “she’s got too many issues” were typical comments. This perplexed me for a number of reasons. I liked my characters, for one. They were human and real to me. They were often based on, well, me. Or on Men I Have Known. They sort of wrote themselves. So how could they be wrong?
As it turns out, writing for publication is a business. And the business model says that a heroine should not have too many issues and a hero needs to be more heroic than a real man. I quickly learned that if I wanted to play this game, I’d have to learn the craft. In fact, one kind editor said exactly this to me. “Your writing is fine. You just need to learn your craft.”
Really? There’s a craft to it? What exactly is craft? And where do I get it?
I got mine in Ohio. This is where I traveled to take a week-long intensive with bestselling novelist Jennifer Crusie. Jenny said a couple of things about character that were key to my novelist education. One was that a hero needs to be more heroic than any actual man I may have met (or married) in real life. The other was that readers want to cheer for a main character. They want to see someone worthy work hard, get knocked down, but finally, win the prize.
So I went home and proceeded to make up a character. What I’d done previously was simply write whoever showed up on the page (some version of me and an ex) and whatever they did. Now I was a writer who knew a thing or two about the theory (if not execution) of craft. It was time to execute. Kill my darlings. Reshape them into people with whom readers might want to spend time.
Now I start every novel with the idea that my main character is going to work very hard. She is not afraid of hard work. She will do whatever it takes to get the job done. After six published novels, it’s like second nature to me. Having practiced my craft, I understand hard work. So I get it. But at first it was difficult to go in and reshape these beings.
Give them better qualities, like a work ethic or heroic heart. You have to figure out ways to show this. What’s their job? Show them doing it. Avoid being boring. This part of writing, the planning and firmly putting character is the place you want them to be, is different than writing.
When I write, I hit a stream and flow. When I step back and plan, it’s more like being the person I am in daily life. I am not in the fictional trance. I’m present, with a problem, or maybe just dinner to make, that same sort of mindset. I cut the fat, choose the spices, make sure not to burn my hand. And thus, my character becomes something of my deliberate creation, something of which readers of popular fiction might make a meal.