Character Development is Hard

My College Hunk movers arrived a little over an hour ago. They each appear to be in their early 20s, bright-eyed and jocular in the way of 20-somethings and probably visit the gym 2-3 times per week. It occurs to me that I wouldn’t know a hunk if one smacked me in the face. I haven’t asked if either is enrolled in college.

I decided to read my editorial letter today. My editor, Mollie Traver, is terrific and a pro, and I am learning a ton already. By underscoring my story’s strengths early in her letter, she has primed me to receive what I have paid her for, which is her nuts and bolts critique of where I’m missing the mark. Of my main character she writes,

She doesn’t seem concerned with anything involving people, period, and in fact seems overly hostile and misanthropic when it comes to other people.

It is only just starting to sink in for me the straightforward truth that all stories are a combination of plot (stuff that happens), and character (the subject). The character part has been more tricky for me to grasp because it’s very abstract at first, until you nail down your who your character is and relate that to the way he or she behaves or thinks in situation X. As usual, you have to get specific and concrete.

The next time you pick up a novel or watch your favorite TV show, pay attention to the things that SHOW what makes the main character tick. I did this yesterday watching Breaking Bad. At the end of season 4, episode 1, there is a long shot showing Jesse have a nervous breakdown. There is no dialogue, just him begging his friends to stay for another 24 hour bender, and when they refuse, Jesse cranks up the volume of his subwoofer, slinks down against the speaker, and his hands begin to shake. Here’s the part that’s only just starting to sink in for me: SOMEONE HAD TO MAKE THAT UP AND WRITE IT IN THE SCRIPT. I know you’re thinking, “duh”, but when was the last time you appreciated the fact that every last detail of your favorite show is made up?

Mollie’s take on my main character is a result of my having given very little thought to who my protagonist is, and how to show who she is in the way she behaves. My main character’s misanthropic attitude is completely accidental!

2 thoughts

  1. I’m in the editing phase of my book too, and am in a similar situation. I never did flesh out my characters—I just wanted to write the story—and now I’m trying to learn more about character arcs and depth. I guess that’s the learning part of writing, huh? Wishing you all the best with your WIP!

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    1. It’s encouraging to hear that I’m not the only one. You’re right, it is part of learning (and the fun) of writing. I would imagine it’s a skill as many other things in storytelling.

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