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?

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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.

TheParisNotebook_w5955_300Now 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.

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I’m from Detroit, so not sure how local the MC5 were back in the day. (MC stands for Motor City). They had a couple of hits “Devil in a Blue Dress” and “Kick out the Jams” come to mind. The chorus to “Devil in a Blue Dress” sung fast, was ‘JennyJennyJenny, won’t you come along with me?’ and I’m thinking of it because Jenny Crusie is the writer who taught me everything I know about the craft of writing. And I’m looking back at those old lessons to try to get my WIP in order.

If you want the details on Jenny’s intensive workshop, I talk about our week together here. But back to today at my writing desk. Not a writing day goes by without me taking one of my Jenny hammers, wrenches, or screwdrivers out of the toolbox. Today, I’m going with a suggestion she gave me. This is a paraphrase, but the gist is:

Me: My books are too short. They’re more like novellas. How can I make them longer?

Jenny: One way is to add a subplot. The subplot should support the main plot. They should mirror each other and be entwined in ways important to theme and plot.

Great advice. Working on my second book in the Blue Lake series, I came to the end at about 40K. So of course, I needed a subplot. This was convenient, because I really wanted to write one, but with romance, editors can be picky about subplots. Now that I’m writing “women’s fiction” a subplot and even another point of view or two is not a problem.

So at first I thought, well, I can write the whole subplot as a separate book and then add it in where necessary. I have some experience with this in reverse when I had to pluck a subplot out of another book. That was pretty easy, but the opposite is not. Because really, a book needs to feel whole. Everything needs to seem like it naturally follows from what happened before. And I can’t get the theme/plot/intertwined thing doing the subplot as a stand alone.

So I’ve got three full scenes written and three or four ideas for scenes. My plan was to write out those scenes, but today I’ve decided I’m going to read through my WIP and decide where my supporting characters need to come in and why they are in this story in the first place.

And thanks Jenny for all you do and have done for me and many many other writers.