Lately I’ve been struggling with the main character of my novel. I could picture him perfectly, but several critique partners were not connecting with him. When I thought he was shy they read him as stuck up. When I thought he was quirky, they thought he needed counseling … or pharmaceuticals.
Frustrating, right? You have in mind a specific character, a character you love, and reader after reader tells you, “meh.”
What to do? I wanted to ignore this feedback, but I reluctantly accepted that I’d better at least consider it.
We writers, we are all magpies. We pick up a characteristic from this person, a setting from that trip, a plot point from something we know about or are interested in. In this case, I started this story more than 10 years ago, with my second-born child as my model. My second born was/is very much in their own head, not a joiner of sports or clubs, basically the exact opposite of me! My hope was that by writing this character I could understand and appreciate my own child more.
But I see now that, because I didn’t understand my child, I really didn’t understand the character. It turns out a lot was roiling around in my child’s brain; big things concerning gender identity that took years to evolve.
That is not the story I am writing. My story is about the power of friends, the power of finding something you love to do, the story is about competence; I’m not ready to make it about gender identity.
So I looked hard at my beloved main character
In true magpie fashion, I picked through my own life. I was, admittedly, in middle school about 50 years ago. Ugh.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t mine that experience for some qualities and universal, timeless feelings that make the reader feel more connected. That’s what we kidlit writers do, we try to “capture the essence of childhood,” as editor Paula Wiseman recently said.
I’ve been doing writing warm-ups focusing on my own early life. It feels a tiny bit like Professor Dumbledore’s “pensieve,” as I pull out threads and follow them back to my childhood, remembering feelings long buried. I find it limbers me up to write better about my main character.
Blogs about writing have also been helpful. One blog in particular – a series of posts by Mary Kole at kidlit.com — helped me think about interiority. Emotion is about more than showing furrowed brows, clenched fists and tapping fingers. This way of showing a character’s emotions is a cumbersome tool when used by itself says Kole.
As Kole writes, “But when you’re simply letting your body parts do the talking for the character, you will never get to the emotional nuances underneath.” So, I’m working on this.
I’ve also used mentor texts, especially books that have characters similar to how I see my main character. These texts show me how I might give him more substance. And I’ve tried to write letters to my character and diary entries, though this hasn’t been as helpful.
Ultimately, as “Countdown” author and master writer Deborah Wiles once said, you have to allow “… your character’s heart to break. How? Know thyself. Feel what you feel. Allow yourself your heartache. Share it with your character. Heal together.”
This is not my strong suit, but I suppose I could see it as a growth opportunity…
Wish me luck!