Wednesday, September 26, 2007

When Good Characters Go Bad

Those of you who write fiction have probably had this experience. You develop a character who, in your head, is going to pull the reader through your story. Since I write women's fiction, I'll refer to my character as 'she.' You give her life by describing her physical attributes and her personality, providing her with a career that's fun or interesting. You hope she's a woman who will evoke the reader's sympathy--someone they'd like to have living next door, invite over for a cup of coffee. You get a few chapters into her story and then it happens--something goes terribly wrong.

Your character turns on you, like an obstinate two-year-old. No matter where you want her to go, she stamps her foot and says, "No!" Even the secondary characters can't stand her anymore. They take a secret vote and whisper in your head, "Please, do something with her."

You are at a crossroads. Do you change the story line to fit where your character is leading, or do you reel her back in and put her in her place? I'm raising this question because I am now just finishing a complete rewrite of ten chapters that I labored over the first time. What happened? My main character, originally envisioned as a bright, talented, albeit emotionally fractured young woman, became sullen, angry and rude. Her younger sister (a secondary character) took over. She is, at first glance, fun-loving and playful, a don't-take-life-too-seriously contrast to her older, more conservative sibling. Her purpose is to reflect the main character's personality and to draw her out throughout the story. But, since the younger sister is more enjoyable, she quickly shifted into a primary position with my critique partners. She was just more likable. It would've been fun to write her story.

So, what do we do when a good character goes bad?

I sat down with my character to talk about what was going on with her. My work as a psychotherapist helped a bit. (And my colleagues are now getting my committal papers ready. I'm counseling imaginary people.)

It turns out it wasn't my character, at all. I was over-writing her story. She simply put her foot down. I'm a pantser--I don't plot or do much of a story outline. I just write. When I took the time to 'listen' to my character and to go back through her story, as I'd written it to that point, I spotted the problem right away. I'd given her a conflict, added a past crisis, then heaped on another deep, dark secret. Well, no wonder she turned on me!

When good characters go bad and turn on you, their creator, take a look at the situation in which you've placed them. Odds are good you've put them in an impossible circumstance or painted them into a corner with too many problems to resolve.

Once I'd relieved her of her deep, dark secret, refocused her on the initial conflict, and put her past crisis into perspective (and with a possible resolution), she lightened up considerably. And my secondary character fell into place, as well, serving to show the contrast between the two women without overshadowing. She became the prop she was intended to be in the first place.

What I learned: It's all about balance.

And that leads me to my next topic, coming soon--the value of having a critique partner or critique group to help keep your writing balanced.

Happy writing.



Carol said...

Like you, Linda, I presently write by the seat of my pants in contrast to my earlier novels. I've learned that if an author takes a deep breath, relaxes, and gives her newly introduced characters their head, often they'll take off in directions unimagined at the beginning. Best of luck with more publications in the near future and I look forward to keeping in touch with your blog articles. Carol McPhee

Anonymous said...

At a conference, I heard a writer say that when the character stomped his foot and argued with the writer that meant the character was fully formed, that the writer knew at that moment he'd nailed her. Other writers will say that's hogwash. I think the truth is somewhere in between.

I don't think our characters are or should be perfect. They need flaws. Real people are flawed, conflicted, but yes, we still need to give them a reason the reader wants to root for them (Vonnegut)

Verna LaBounty said...

Great post, Linda. I tend to plot, but my main character often leads me in directions I didn't anticipate (much like real life). I try to go along because often it makes my story better.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering what a pantser was, but I think I get it...writing by the seat of one's pants, right?