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.

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.

Trust Your Process

Lee Child writes one draft per book. He does not plan, plot or outline in advance. He does not revise significantly. This process works for him. He consistently finished a book a year this way for the past 20 years. For some time, those books have landed in the #1 NYT bestseller sweetest-ever spot.

Reading about Child’s process made me trust my own more deeply. I’d only read about writers (particularly writers of mystery) who painstakingly plot their novels in advance. These writers advocate character sheets and detailed outlines and other things I never do. A part of me always wondered: is this why my novels aren’t reaching a wider audience?

Not that I’d change anything. It just wouldn’t be as fun the other way. And writing every day for hours and hours all alone in a room needs all the fun it can get. For some writers, plotting in advance is probably their idea of fun. Just like for some people, beer is the best alcoholic beverage on the planet. Neither are for me.


I think as writers we all develop our own processes, book by book. We try lots of stuff and we keep what works for us. I took a ton of workshops and attended many conferences and read a load of books about the writing process. I tried lots of stuff, and some of it stuck. But the way I start a book developed pretty early, before I’d read anything about process or taken any craft classes.

I begin each book with no clear picture of anything except for maybe a vague theme or a shadowy character.

I have written directly into the laptop and I have started with a Dr. Grip gel pen and a top spiral bound notebook. About longhand: I love writing this way. It absolutely shakes loose the story for me. But I hate transcribing all those pages from a notebook into my computer. I solved this process predicament by typing directly into my laptop every day after free-writing morning pages. My morning pages let me have that pen to paper experience without pressure. I write about everything, including where I’m at in the particular manuscript of the moment. What problems do I need to solve that day? What’s working, what isn’t, why and what I can do about it.

I love my process even more since I’ve figured out how to merge morning pages and novel writing. It really works–for me. The other thing I do is write freely without much of a plan for the first half of the book, maybe a little less. I tend to “know” when it’s time to read over the pages and begin to plan. Yes, I’m a pantser/planner. Neither one or the other, but both.

YourWords200At about 25K words, I read everything I’ve got straight through, jotting notes to myself along the way. Do I need more characterization? Does the plot fall flat in the middle? Is the beginning too weighed down by backstory? After six published novels, with another on the way, I have a whole list of problems easily spotted. Writing a book about writing, and teaching creative writing for a number of years, helped me to recognize these problems in a days’ work. It takes a little longer to figure out the solutions, but it does happen while the book is still a work in progress. It happens every morning when I wake up, into that first cup of coffee with the writing pages, all through the day as thoughts and answers come to me, even at night in my dreams.