I recently attended a fund raising mixer for our public library. As I mingled amongst the attendees, I overheard an ongoing conversation taking place between the members of the local book club. It was quite animated, and because I had been approached to become a member of this club when the next new book was to be introduced, I decided to drop in and listen to their conversation. They were discussing their most recent novel and were in the process of perhaps bailing out prior to completing it. Curiosity got the best of me, and I stopped to listen to their comments. They were well over the halfway point of the novel, and somehow starting a book and not finishing it was something I had rarely done.
The novel, which of course I won’t name, was authored by a highly esteemed and well-known writer. What these normally avid readers were saying was the novel’s problem wasn’t the plotline; it was very good, something they expected from the writing icon. The problem seemed to center on the characters. They hated them. Yes, that was the word they used. They were drawn to this conclusion not because there were too many antagonists, or flawed protagonists, or that these characters were distasteful to their personal values, but because they found them dull and uninteresting, and most damaging, predictable. It was an empowering moment for me. I had been told by a variety of my readers of my novel that they loved my characters. I pondered later, after returning home from the mixer, about the processes I had used to develop these characters.
What exactly had I done to produce enjoyable characters, people that most of my readers liked?
It isn’t an easy thing, creating characters. It takes patience. You have this story spinning around in your head you want to share; after all, writing a novel is one goal, but getting it published is your ultimate goal.
As a first time novelist, I had to remember an age old adage: the slower you go, the faster you will get there. Haste makes waste.
You must create your characters, especially your principal characters, from the very beginning of your novel. They have to grab your readers and entice them to keep reading. Once you have conquered that challenge, you must add and then at times delete some of your main and supporting cast. Creating your characters, who they are and how they will interact in your book, is perhaps the hardest part of crafting a novel. The decision concerning which ones are going to be center stage throughout the entire novel and which ones won’t is crucial.
The process involves asking some critical questions:
1. Who are these people?
4. What’s in their heads?
2. Are they likable or not?
5. How will they interact with one another?
3. Why are they who they are?
6. What are their backgrounds?
7. What particular events molded them into who they are?
8. Will the plotline transform them in some way from the character that is first introduced?
9. What happens when a key character doesn’t fit somewhere along the plotline?
10. Does this plotline dictate the characters or the other way around?
That last question is a hard one. Something, as a first time novelist, I really struggled with was quite daunting.
What do you do when you discover that your original solutions to these questions aren’t working?
In my case, I was actually immersed in what is now the sequel to my first novel but was forced to stop and put it aside. This was not an easy thing to do, as I was over one third into the book and was really itching to get something published. (I’ll return to this point later in the article.) On the positive side of this decision, I already knew which characters would appear in the ending of my first novel. They were already in the sequel, problem solved. The decision to bail out from that first novel attempt and start again was my first epiphany during my writing experience. I learned the importance of listening to my characters. It was probably the most important lesson of all.
My main protagonist in what is now the sequel to my first published novel was an elderly lady. I had employed some flashbacks to build her character, showing her as a spunky, smart, and at times overbearing young woman. I also used flashbacks to enhance her family background and heritage and employed exposition to characterize her relationship with her husband. None of that worked for me. My plotline and the characters themselves were flat-lining.
I never really experienced “writer’s block” during this first attempt at writing; the problem was what I was writing just wasn’t very good. One morning, this elderly lady in my book got in my head, and I listened to her. It was as if I were being told, “Take me back to the beginning of my life. I’m a hollow character unless the reader knows and can understand me, my growth, my struggles, my triumphs, my heartbreaks. I stopped writing, grabbed another cup of coffee, printed out what had already been written, threw it in a box labeled sequel, and dialed up a brand new document that would become my first published novel. I never stopped listening to my characters from that time on.
My next lesson in building characters that would engage the reader was to create characters who could engage me. I wanted characters who I could love, hate, cry over, laugh with, and the real litmus test, who I would want to have to my home for dinner (or not). These characters had to be multidimensional. They had to be able to adapt to plotline changes and capable of surprising the reader. In order for this to happen, I realized that to develop these engaging characters involved an immense amount of think tank time. Luckily I happen to live where think tank time is easily accessible.
My home is located in a very rural area in the Texas Hill Country. My first morning routine after I have finished my writing time is to take my morning three mile walk with my dear friend and my little rescue dog. I, in a sense, use this morning exercise to take my characters for a walk. I know I must not be a very good walking partner because I don’t carry on a conversation with my real life walk-mate. I simply think about and piece by piece craft my characters and how they will fit in my plotline. I think about where I am in the story and if changes need to be made. Are the people in my story flourishing or floundering? In case of the latter, what can I do to get everything rolling again? I want to make sure that these characters and what they are doing enhances the plotline. I also want to be positive that when I do manipulate them or change their direction in the plotline, it will fit, not just for the moment at hand, but throughout the near future events.
By the end of my walk, I should have made an assessment, at least on the current place of my story. I always ask myself this question:
If I was reading this story rather than writing it, would I savor the characters or become soured towards the author as my book club friends had become? Most importantly, would my characters seem authentic and real to the reader?
It was during this walking process that I made the decisions to add characters, create twists and turns in the plotline to enhance them, modify personalities, or add unexpected dimensions to my characters. In several instances, I had to make the difficult decision to write out characters from the book. This is very difficult if you have become, as a writer, quite fond of your created characters, but then there can’t be tragedy if you don’t lose a good, kind, and loveable character. I had become so engaged with my surviving characters that I struggled terribly when it came time to end my book. Even though those at the end would continue on in my sequel novel, time and events would transform them into different people. I had to let them go as I knew them. As unbelievable as it may seem, it took me almost three months to write the last four chapters of my book. It had to be right, and it had to be honest; I’m not completely sure that I accomplished that. Perhaps, I will make amends in the sequel. One defining hurdle I encountered in writing my first novel was to rid myself of personal biases and prejudices. We all have them, and I had to reach deep down and find the blank slate points of view I had held as a girl when everything was a wonderful discovery and everything seemed possible. As you age, life’s challenges and its disappointments can alter how you think and feel. You become less able to compromise on differences in people or their situations. Perhaps when you lose that sense of innocence in the world around you, cynicism can snake its ugly way into your mindset. Your potential readers can come from all walks of life with their own mindsets, and thank goodness the world isn’t made up of people who are exactly alike. For my characters to be engaging, they needed to reflect the world’s diversity.
I know I wouldn’t want to read a novel filled with people just like me. I am an avid reader because when I read (and now write), I am able to escape my own little life for a period of time and immerse myself into a new place and time. So in casting my hopefully engaging characters that my readers would savor, I needed a virtual potpourri of different types of people. That’s the way the real world is. To my delight, I found that although a writer takes a risk of offending a would be reader, thus dooming the prospects of that reader purchasing and reading more of their work, it is a risk worth taking.
The truth is creating a variety of characters that are strong, engaging, and unique in their own way pays more dividends than taking the middle of the road. People are people, and we are not all the same. How dull that would be if we were. I took some risks writing my novel, Strongest Bonds, Broken Fences. To me, it was well worth the gamble. I took my morning walks with all sorts of characters, and from those characters I gained many insights and learned many lessons. I don’t think my novel would have been as believable or my characters as interesting, as my readers claimed, had I not jumped the mold of playing it safe. I had to change my personal paradigms. I had always thought of myself as a very open and accepting person, but in truth I discovered that I was letting my own beliefs and biases hold back my characters. Instead, I got out of the way and concentrated on creating characters I thought my readers would savor. My greatest joy of being published was hearing from so many of my readers, “I loved your characters.”
About the author:
Having lived in Texas for over forty years, JoAnne Marich MacIntyre embraces the Texas Hill Country as the primary setting for her first novel, a historical fiction, Strongest Bonds, Broken Fences. Her employment background includes a successful business career with a prominent Houston corporation and twenty years of teaching. Ms. MacIntyre moved from Houston in 1995 to her acreage in the Texas Hill Country where she enjoys hiking, gardening, and writing. She currently is promoting her first novel and is busy writing its sequel, When the Sandman Calls All Aboard. She hopes to have this latest novel out in late 2014.
Also by JoAnne Marich MacIntyre:
1. Writing Historical Fiction: The Forgotten Golden Egg of Writing (article)
2. The Magic of Powerful Story Settings (article)