I have a confession: I’ve made very little progress on my novel. Why? Crappy characters. I’ve spent a lot of time world building (the curse of many genre writers), and I’ve crafted a decent plot. Sadly, my characters are weak. And without strong characters, “decent” is about as good as that plot can get. And I don’t want to write just a decent story.
I’ve often heard this problem described as a character as a puppet, dancing to the author’s whims. Because the character doesn’t have true desires or motivations, the character simply does what is convenient to move the plot along. The way I look at it, a story’s plot is about a character with goals and motivations running into obstacles. The character responds, forms new goals, and runs into new obstacles. Do this enough times while raising the stakes, and plot results. But if a character’s only goal and motivation is to conform with an author’s outline, the character’s actions won’t ring true, and the story will be unsatisfying.
This is bad. But to me (and maybe this is the internal editor critiquing a rough draft), my characters are not puppets. Mine are worse. Mine are gingerbread people.
When considering the puppets metaphor above, I always picture marionettes. They are articulated objects capable of movement and subtlety. Gingerbread is not. It’s stiff, brittle. They are all punched from the same mold and despite a bit of icing, are pretty much all the same underneath. Delicious, but the same. Far from real.
This hit me when I looked over a scene and realized my protagonist’s voice was constantly shifting. Every line of dialogue was a guess, and none quite hit the mark. Basically, I don’t know who my characters are. Sure, I had created backstories, a physical description, and I had a vague sense of who they are, but I didn’t really know.
I wasn’t seeing the world through their eyes. I wasn’t processing the world through their minds, with their perspectives, their baggage. I knew what they should want (according to my outline), but I didn’t have a great sense as to why. And the kicker is I’m too much of a plotter to find my voice as I write the story. I want to know who they are so that the story will move forward in a true direction, even if that deviates from my outline. I’ll take truth in art any day in my quest to rise above decent.
Conclusions about Characters
So what can I do to improve my characters?
- Try on voices. Sketch out scenes not in the book to see how well I really know my characters. Keep putting them in odd situations until I know them inside and out.
- Know that my characters might want to push beyond my outline, and be prepared to adapt if it leads to a better story. I know I’m not a pantser, but there is only so much plotting I can do.
- Accept this as a setback on the novel, but not on my overall writing ability. This is a skill that I would like to get better at. Accordingly, I’m going to have to identify my weaknesses and work to improve them. One step at a time, even if I feel like I am going one step forward, two steps back on this novel.
(Image courtesy of Liliana Fuchs’s Flickr, under a Creative Commons, Attribution, NonCommercial, NoDerivatives license.)