So, I’m trying to nail the nature of the main character in my newest book and as usual the ideas shift and move under me like I’m walking on a pile of old fence palings.
I’ve always struggled with my main characters. I find it easy to create the peripheral ones, they have character coming out the wazoo. I tend to cherry pick character traits, mannerisms and attitudes from real people and cobble them together into my secondary characters to give them colour and depth (making sure no-one is identifiable, of course. Otherwise, talk about how to lose friends and alienate people). But my main? Always a tricky one.
You hear some writers talking about their main character like they’re a real person. You hear these writers saying things like: “I just never know what he/she will do next”. Given my character development predicament, I can’t tell you how I envy them.
The book I’m finishing at the moment, The Outliers, has been with me for, oh 100 years, and when I look back over the old copy, I’m amazed how different my main character was when I started the novel. She not only changed demeanor and speech, but name and fashion sense as well from the first draft to the last. She started life as a short, dumpy, frizzy haired 50-something called Mavis and has ended a tall, skinny, socially inept 38-year-old called Cate. That’s a sign of a deeply rooted indecisiveness, I believe. Or maybe it isn’t.
Anyway, I know you’re meant to draw up a list of character traits for your main protagonist. This is supposed to help you get to know them and you’re encouraged to include everything from the trivial to the profound. But I’ve rarely found that this works for me. I don’t care if they prefer lemonade or Fanta, and while the little stuff can help, piece by piece, to colour your character, I don’t think it helps me to get a handle on who they really are.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve been asking entirely the wrong questions. Yes I can ponder their favourite colour and whether they eat breakfast, it does no harm, but what I really need to ask is what drives them? What are their fears? What are their most deeply buried desires and dreams? What is their most shameful secret? Ooh, that’s a good one.
Whether we’re conscious of them or not, these are the things that motivate us, that create our reactions to events and colour our perception of the world around us. They’re the filter through which we see ourselves and our lives.
All right, so now I’m sounding like the end of a Jerry Springer show, but you get where I’m coming from, I hope. I just need to apply a little psychological rigour to the process and, hopefully, it will help.
Hopefully, then I’ll be like those other writers who have their main character stepping off the page and inviting themselves to dinner. Now I just have to figure out if they prefer roast chicken or lasagne. Or maybe they’re vegetarian? What if they have nut allergies? Oh, the agony of decision.
* How do you get a handle on your characters? I’d love to know your process.
- Katniss Everdeen – I’d like a show of hands for all the people who have read these books and didn’t like Katniss. Surely, they are a scant few? Katniss is tough, beautiful, compassionate and protective. She’s the older sister and best friend everyone wants. With a side serving of PTSD, poor love.
- Odd Thomas – In this series of books by Dean Koontz, Odd starts off life as a short order cook in the fictional town of Pico Mundo. He loves being a short order cook, he loves his girlfriend Stormy Llewellyn, but his ability to communicate with the dead and predict disaster plays havoc with his life over the following eight other novels. But Odd is lovely – warm-hearted, philosophical and kind, you’re on his side right from the start.
- Jane Eyre – I’m sure there has been a small mountain of papers and books written about Miss Eyre by far more clever and scholarly people then me. But what I love about her is her humility, fierce intellect, independence and backbone. Enough said, I reckon.