There are two answers to the question: a short answer and a long one.
The short answer:
Kill them. If the writer can’t relate to them, they won’t portray that character as a three-dimensional being and the reader won’t relate to them either.
The long answer:
If the character is your main character, you have a greater problem. You need to work out why your character isn’t working, and fix it. I use a gateaux approach to this problem: layers, upon layers.
Once a month, I host a write-in. This month, a fellow writer suggested I write a series of blogs addressing writerly problems. Today’s topic is knowing your characters.
Most writers know all about creating character profiles and writing GMC (Goal, motivation, conflict). They know that characters need believable backgrounds and both internal and external conflict. Yet I still read books where the writer has mixed up the characters’ names because they can’t remember who’s talking or whose head they’re in.
They don’t know their characters.
As a reader, that’s really irritating. It makes me think the author doesn’t care enough about their characters to know them properly and doesn’t care enough about their book to double check all those things and make sure it’s right. The fact that the book has generally gone through several rounds of editing and no one has picked it up tells me that the characters being confused are too similar to each other.
So how do you know when you know your character well enough that you won’t get them mixed up or forget who they are?
Many years ago, my writer friend attended a workshop run by Gary Crew who said he knew the character when he could hear his voice. Other authors might say they know their characters when they can see their walk or the way their eyes crinkle at the corners when they smile. That last description has been overused in the last three books I’ve read (one series by one author) to describe one of the major characters – a different one in each book.
For me, I rarely know my characters thoroughly enough to finish writing a book until I’ve written at least three chapters. It doesn’t matter if the chapters are from their point of view, or another character’s. What matters is that I learn how my character walks, talks, responds to other people and situations, and how they do those things differently to everyone else in the book.
By the end of three chapters, I’ve begun to think about my characters as real people. Their personalities have settled and their reactions to things that happen in the book match that. By the end of three chapters, I’ve worked out where the holes are in the character profile and how I need to change the character background or plot to account for the way the character responds to situations.
Of course, most of those three chapters end up on the bin, but at least I know who my character is.
One example of this process is Heath in Warrior Pledge. The book opens with Checa sitting on the mountainside watching the sunrise, waiting for Heath to arrive. Heath’s arrival is much anticipated and heralded by nature with as much fanfare as the new day. He bursts onto the scene in a bubble of joy which swings mercurially through hurt to anger. The scene shows Heath’s personality perfectly and lets the reader know exactly who he is and how he might respond to things that happen during the book.
That scene was one of the last scenes I wrote in the first draft.
I needed to write myself into Heath before I could portray him so accurately.
A challenge for you:
With the next book you read, make a note of when you thought you saw the true personality of the main character. Did you see it straight away? Was it revealed in a series of carefully or brilliantly scheduled actions? Were you told what the character was like, but he never lived up to the promise, always feeling two dimensional?
Which of those books did you like best?
A while ago, I agreed to do an interview for someone else's blog. For a number of reasons, that interview was never posted, so I decided to share it here. I've edited it to reflect the current status of my works-in-progress.
The Interview:How did you start writing ‘GENRE’.I’ve never really had an interest in writing literary fiction. Literary fiction doesn’t provide the escape from reality that I read fiction for. I don’t look for realism or esoteric philosophical musings. If I want that sort of thing, I’ll read research papers on the topic. Fiction, for me is an escape, and that means genre.
I’ve always been interested in writing but never seriously considered a career as a fiction writer until, as an adult, I read several books in a row that were really badly written, yet still managed to be published. I decided I could do better than that, or if I couldn’t, at least I’d have a better understanding of the process and more compassion for writers.
It turns out that writing a book isn’t as easy as I’d originally thought. My academic writing history actually hindered my development as a fiction author because academic writing requires precision and proof, and is passive. Fiction writing has a different sort of precision, needs to feel believable but doesn’t always need the proof of it, and is most effective when it’s active. My first dozen or so stories have long since been relegated to the ‘too dreadful to ever look at again’ folder, but they got me hooked.
I don’t like not being able to do something so I keep working on it until I know I can do it. Some things I stop once I know I’d be able to do it well if I practiced enough. Other things, I keep working on because I love it. Writing is one of those things.
Plotter or pantster?By personality, I’m a pantster, but it only works well with short stories and short novellas. With anything longer, the multiple plot elements and more complicated character arcs mean there are a lot of things for me to keep track of and to make sure I resolve before the end of the story. That means I have to write things down and keep track of them.
Learning to be a plotter has been a years-long process (I’m still working on it). I began adding achievable elements and going to classes and workshops to learn the skills I’d need to be able to do it well. I’m still not a complete plotter, but I do now write from a fluid outline and I know what the main story arc is before I begin. There are still lots of things I have to make up as I go along but I have fewer random things thrown in at the end of the book just because I think it’ll be fun to do so.
What are three things you have on your writing desk?My desk is not tidy. The most common response from anyone who sees my desk is to ask for a garbage bin. The second most common response is for them to immediately turn around and leave the room. Three things most people would see and take note of on my desk are:
A couple of things the blurb doesn’t mention are the dragons that LOVE adventure and that one of the main characters (not one of the romantic interests) can change gender at will. That was fun to write!
Checa is the main character in the book. He’s a tortured soul—literally. I love his strength and his honour, but I had some problems making sure I wrote his motivations clearly. It took a few rewrites to get Checa right, so that readers would also see how strong he is and how wonderful.
Finish this sentence: I write because ____...I write because I have people in my head doing things that I have to write down before I can think clearly. I write because somewhere out there, there are people who need to read something that will tell them they’re okay just the way they are. I write because my stories might bring other people joy, or escape, or something else they need to maintain balance in their lives. I write because if I don’t my family comes to me and threatens to lock me in my office until I write something and can behave like a nice person again. I write because it’s the perfect excuse to avoid doing housework. There are many reasons why I write. Some are important reasons, some are ridiculous. They all mean something to me and keep me writing.
What is your favorite type of character to write about?I have a couple of favourite types of characters and they tend to fit well together.
The first one is The Tortured Soul. This person has had to deal with some kind of trauma in their past which influences the way they interact with others in the present. They either can’t see their worth or have decided they don’t want to risk sharing themselves with anyone. There’s lots of potential for angst with this sort of character. Checa is this sort of character, and he’s noble with it.
The second type of character is the lonely one craving his own true love. He’s lonely even if he’s surrounded by friends and family, and he’s a romantic, whether he’s prepared to admit it or not. In a lot of cases, he’s just an ordinary guy with his own personality quirks, who knows himself reasonably well, but still learns a lot about himself as he gets to know the one who’ll be his love. Heath fits this character trope. He’s comfortable with who he is. He even knows who his true love is, but he can’t achieve nirvana because Checa won’t accept it. Even once they’ve Bonded, tied to each other for eternity, Heath doubts Checa’s commitment.
What is the sexiest scene you ever wrote?Every sex scene I write is sexy for its own reasons and in its own way. For me, I need to get the balance of emotions written around the sex and the physical aspects of it right. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes not so much.
A gentle sex scene that has stayed with me was the beach scene with David and Bernard in The Courage to Love. It’s 1920, they’re in a public place, risking arrest and jail time, and they simply can’t help expressing their love for each other.
A different sex scene that is just as powerful but more raw than the one from The Courage to Love is the cave scene with Checa and Heath in Warrior Pledge. Heath demands Checa take him, love him, never leave him. Checa gives him everything he can but can’t complete the Bond because it would risk Heath’s life. The way their need batters against the barriers to happiness gets me every time.
What is next on your writerly horizon? I’m currently editing (again) the sequel to Warrior Pledge. I took six months to write and, so far, eight months to edit.
Dragon God is the story of Fisher, whom we met in Warrior Pledge. Fisher is branded a traitor for kidnapping Rim and Ardelle in Warrior Pledge so he flees to the Lonely Isles in the south. He’s immediately arrested and incarcerated where he meets Gaelan, the dragon god. The two men escape and, through a series of tragedies, Fisher realizes he has to return to the land of his birth or thousands of people will die and he’ll be responsible. Risking his life to save others is a new thing for Fisher, and he’s not always happy that he’s decided to do it. Luckily Gaelan is there to help.
The dragons introduced in Warrior Pledge play a greater part in this story, at least the concept of them does, and of course Gaelan is the dragon god. I’ve really enjoyed working out how they’re born from rock and what special powers they have.
Warrior Pledge is available from:
E E Montgomery wants the world to be a better place, with equality and acceptance for all. Her philosophy is: We can’t change the world but we can change our small part of it and, in that way, influence the whole. Writing stories that show people finding their own ‘better place’ is part of E E Montgomery’s own small contribution.
Thankfully, there’s never a shortage of inspiration for stories that show people growing in their acceptance and love of themselves and others. A dedicated people-watcher, E E finds stories everywhere. In a cafe, a cemetery, a book on space exploration or on the news, there’ll be a story of personal growth, love, and unconditional acceptance there somewhere.
Web, blog and free short stories: www.eemontgomery.com
Dreamspinner Press: http://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/AuthorArcade/e-e-montgomery
Escape Publishing: http://www.escapepublishing.com.au/author/ee-montgomery
E E Montgomery
About writing, life, and random thoughts.
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