The All-Important Character

One of the things I have learned about writing while writing is that it often takes writing to learn about writing. Make sense? You know, I like to read about writing, everything from plotting journals to autobiographies of writers (and magazines, oodles of magazines). But in some ways, there is nothing like writing, and then editing, and then publishing, and then selling, to really teach you how to do those things. Like an apprenticeship, without the apprentisor.

It’s also really hard to know–from where you stand–what your writing strengths and weaknesses are. When I was writing on Benevolent, it occurred to me that I had never written a novel before. When I was editing it, I realized I had never edited a novel before. I had done plenty of poems, short stories, and essays, but I understood novels to be a different game. The longevity. The continuous story. The consistency. All new. Which is why, I suppose, plenty of authors don’t publish their first books and why it’s sort of weird that the majority of us do. I mean, what kind of crazy runs the first time in a sponsored marathon. But maybe that’s not fair. After all, it is unlikely an architect has ever built an actual building before the first time. They just train (and apprentice) and do smaller projects until… wham! Building! Novel!

Even after I had written the whole novel, edited it, and sent it to the press, I wondered. You get so close to a thing and it is hard to see. Was I any good at a long story line? Was my dialogue believable?

One of the surprises of my life has been one of the most common responses to Benevolent: “I love you characters! I want to hear more about them.” I think when I was writing and editing I concentrated more on the story than on the people, and wondered what sort of character-writer I was. Turns out, I am a character writer. The characters drive my story, making people believe in them and love them. The characters in Benevolent orchestrate the reader’s reactions, their feelings, and their rating. Who knew? Don’t look at me; I have never done this before.

Characters are quite important. Even if you are a plot writer (which lots of genre writers are), you still have to have good, solid characters (and vice versa: as a character writer, no one will read me without an interesting, compelling story). But how does one learn to take a character from page one all the way to page 450 and still have them be the same character, relate-able to real people, with a fatal flaw or two, and having grown in some way? And could you do it? Do it well?

I’m not sure there’s any other way to find out than to do it. And from there, you need to listen to your writing group and your editor and whatever instructor you may have around. Then use all those writing tools you have gleaned from courses, books, and magazines. You can get better, that we already know. Find your sparkle and buff it to a shine.

Ever since I realized everyone was loving my characters, I have noticed everywhere that many characters are as flat as a pancake (and even more tired than that simile). I didn’t like a movie? I blame it on the characters. A TV series flops? It’s the characters. And how many times this year have a said about a book, “There are just no lovable characters.” Because I think that’s one of the things I have really gotten from this process; you can have a super villain (I really don’t), or even a super flawed hero, but a story can’t endure without a lovable character.

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4 thoughts on “The All-Important Character

  1. Great post. I agree, we learn by doing. I facilitated a writing session and I told the group that sometimes it feels like you need just the right book and then your story will unfold, but it won’t. You actually have to write it. They all laughed. I’ve been guilty of it myself! Afraid to take the plunge and write.

    I love character books. I enjoy genre books occasionally with an exciting book, but I mostly fall back on novels with interesting characters. I think it has to do with how much I enjoy getting to know people and their motives as oppose to the gossip. There are so many expectations for characters and such a short time for readers to invest in them that the writer has to make it work right away.

    • I respectfully disagree. Sometimes media with unlikable characters succeeds, but the general public needs to relate to a character in a positive way. Not ALL characters, or even the MAIN character, but SOMEONE. Also, I don’t think wanting to be friends with the character is the same as having a likeable character.

  2. There are many, many successful examples to the contrary, including those that Messud lists and another that immediately comes to mind is Confederacy of Dunces, which won the Pulitzer Prize. I think the way that they are using the phrase “wanting to be friends with” a character is synonymous with “liking” a character from the context. Who wants to be friends with someone they don’t like? It was just a different way to say “likeable” character.

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