Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Have We Met? When Characters Are Strangers


I recently read the draft of a novel where two-thirds of the way through, the characters were still unformed and unfamiliar. If I didn't know them, and I'd been trying to, how would other people? In this case, the characters were weak for two main reasons: They hadn't interacted enough, and they hadn't been put to the test—a lethal combination. Fictional characters are like everyone else; if they're never challenged, they don't grow. If they don't grow, they blend with the crowd.

Fortunately, there are several ways to address this problem.

Give the character(s) a past, one that's plausible. Give the main character a unique characteristic, not flying or the ability to see through things, necessarily, but a particular gift, interest or aptitude. Then frustrate that plan. Further raise the stakes by making it seem the dream is dead. For a realistic result, ask yourself what in the characters' past would cause problems now. Consider what ability or gift the character has that he/she would love to use, especially now, but can't. Consider a realistic way this desire could be frustrated. One good reason for doing all this is described well by stakes guru and literary agent Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel: "By risking what we most desire a novelist can show us how we are."

Happy New Year!

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