Monday, May 14, 2012

What Main Characters and Authors Have In Common

I’ve always been a plot-writer. When I get ideas, it’s almost always in the form of some incident or object, and then the character appears later. As a result, they were never as fleshed out as they should have been. I used to read that way, too, not caring so much for the characters as long as something exciting was happening. But I’ve grown to appreciate a robust, realistic character in the past few years, and that has extended to my writing.

However (and that’s a BIG however), that doesn’t mean I had an epiphany and could suddenly write these amazing characters. It just means I knew I needed to write them, so I set out to figure out how. And I discovered that I was far better at writing minor characters than main characters. It seems completely backwards, and it’s taken a long time to figure out why that is. But I think I’ve finally clued in to something…

I think most main characters are a huge reflection of the author. Yes, all the characters come from the author, and the minor characters might have fewer shared traits, but there are shared traits. The main character might not even share many traits with the author, but I think there is one thing that’s almost always in common: how they see the world.

I’ve always been the wallflower—on the outside looking in, watching people and seeing how they work, what makes them tick, how their paths will lead to either success or disaster, etc. I’ve always been too shy to be part of a group, so I observed instead. And, let me tell you, you can get some pretty deep insights into people when you spend so much time doing this. I feel that I understand people pretty well, and I can translate that understanding into subtle body language or tone of voice in my minor characters.

But what about the main character? Unless the story is being told in third person omniscient, there is no one observing him. We are in his head and can hear his innermost thoughts, fears, biases, etc, on an intimate level. But is that enough? Well, as I’m discovering, it isn’t.

Which brings us back to how the author and main character see the world. As I said before, I think I see people pretty well, but I don’t have a clue how they see me. They could see my shyness as a quiet sophistication, or they could think I’m snobby. I have no idea. And this is how my main characters see the world, too. They see others clearly, but they don’t have the first inkling how the world sees them. Depending on the story, that could still work. BUT, the author should know how the world sees them because it impacts the story, even on the tiniest level. And sometimes that tiny bit is what brings a book from good to great.

In order to compensate for this, I’ve created a set of exercises to add to my character worksheets. I take all the minor characters (who have significant roles in the story) and write a journal entry, from  their perspective, about what they think of the main character. Some really interesting things have come out of this, and it allowed me to add a bit more depth to my main character.

Have you ever done anything like this? How does your main character see the world, and how to you compensate for his/her shortcomings?


Kelly Hashway said...

Some of my favorite MCs are the ones that I created to be the way I wish I was. I get to see the world from a different perspective and imagine the kind of person I'd like to be.

I have done this exercise. It's a great one. And since I love minor characters, I find it extra fun to do.

Elizabeth Prats said...

Oh I would LOVE to try this exercise! :) Actually as of late I kept thinking about what a minor character thought or said about my main character and of course what she thought of the other MC (the male love interest) and boy was she super kind to one and mean to the other.

I think I may give this exercise a try very soon since I'm writing the end to my story already and will soon be jumping into the lovely revisions! :) Thanks so much! Following your blog :)

Tabitha Olson said...

Kelly - yes! I've done this too. It's like going on a vacation from being me. :)

Elizabeth - thanks! I love this exercise. Each time I do it, I always feel like I have a broader perspective of life. :)

Noting the Morning Dew said...

Great read!
Being a plot writer myself I completely understand the dilemma in trying to flesh out the characters. I also loved your reason on how the main character is most like you. I never really thought about explaining it that way.

Hudson x

Diane Carlisle said...

For the first time ever I created a character trait sheet this weekend. Boy, I never realized how screwed up my main character is. Now I'm beginning to wonder if she's the right person for the job.

Great post! Now I have to do the same for all my other characters. I might have to change the POV for my novel. :)

Beverly Stowe McClure said...

What a neat idea. I usually interview my characters, both major and minor. I also do personality profiles on each character, getting to know their likes and dislikes.

Good post. Will try your suggesstions.

Karla Gomez said...

WOW! I've never done anything like the journal thing--but I really want to try it out. Great tip!

Catherine Stine said...

Interesting post, sorry I got to this late. I've been traveling.I developed a character trait sheet for students. It really helps most of them, and ME, when I'm starting a new story!