I have the worst time with characters in my rough drafts. They’re always too SOMETHING- Too heartless, too timid, too something. It’s not until I get the feedback from my beta readers that I usually see it. But then the fun begins: How do you take these characters who are one or two dimensional and make them leap off the page?
Think about why this story is THEIR story. This is, I think, the foremost key. Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz had to be a farm girl with a stubborn streak and a soft spot for her dog. Anyone else would have quailed from the Wicked Witch’s anger. Imagine a pampered city girl and her cat in the same position! Without making them a Chosen One, what is it about your MC that makes them able to rise to the occasion? It’s not enough to just say, “Well, all the action happens to them.” Well, yes, but why doesn’t it happen to the girl down the street, or her brother?
How do you avoid that dreaded Chosen One angle? Your MC shouldn’t be the only person in the world with that Specialness. But… wait, didn’t you just say, this story needs to be for them? Exactly. There’s a middle ground here. This is especially a problem in SF/F because you have all these powers to use. They can fly, they can shoot lasers, they can save the universe from the powers of Evil. But… Why? What is it about them that drives them to push themselves to be good enough/powerful enough/WANT IT BAD ENOUGH to face what seems like certain doom, no matter the scale? What drives them? It has to be internal reactions/decisions derived from the external situation.
It’s two sides of the same coin. Every time I go to edit my novels, or someone else’s, I’m looking at what drives the characters. Not just the MC, though they’re my main focus; but the love interest and the antagonist too. For example, I was helping a CP with her outline recently, and the antagonist was coming across as a bit of a one dimensional villain. She was stuck. We had to dig into the story’s bones, to the backstory, to the protagonist’s core, to find out WHY. Because ultimately, you want your antagonist to be a foil to your protagonist, but not in an obvious way. If they always go right when your MC goes left, that’s boring. I adore worlds where morality isn’t cut and dry, where the choice isn’t right/wrong, save the day or doom the world. But to make us care about the stakes, we HAVE to care about the character. We need to fear they’ll lose, even as we know the narrative structure always has them win. We have to care when those they care about are lost, and to do that, we have to feel the cost TO the main character. Swat a fly, we don’t care. Crush their support system, and we care, a lot. But it’s too simple if the antagonist is predictable and unrelatable. We need to understand the motive for both, even if we don’t agree with them.
Because then, when it’s just the MC vs the antagonist? We hold our breath, and we bite our nails. The pages fly. Because either one is set up to win, and they both want it badly enough to make it happen.
Real talk, #pitchwars: Later this week, picks will be up. A tenth of you, roughly, will be ecstatic. The other 90% of you will be disappointed, even crushed. You know, the very first convention I ever went to, there were some writers from Star Trek: Next Generation, a series I adored as a kid. When they were asked “What’s the one piece of advice you’d give an aspiring writer?”, they responded “Run, run now. Get out while you still can, because if you can do anything other than this, you should.” I was completely pissed. How dare these people crush hopes?
Yet we crush hopes every time, because we can’t avoid it. We can only pick one. Last year, some of us were lucky enough to get a bonus pick and get 2. But either way, that’s nothing compared to how many we’d want to help. But wanting to help doesn’t make it so. I can’t realign the plasma conduits to give me more free time to give every entry feedback (Even the feedback for the fulls I requested that don’t get picked may happen in November rather than September because of my dayjob, client work, and the rest of life has to come first. This is why Chimera Editing exists. It allows me to prioritize giving people feedback and help far more than I’d be able to otherwise.)
What, I suspect, those script writers meant was: This is a hard industry. If you are going to be dissuaded so easily, then you won’t make it. You’ll go sell real estate, get a call center job, do anything else but chase this dream.
Here’s the secret: You have what it takes to prove them wrong. Do what you need to, but channel that anger, that disappointment, that “I’ll show them” into growing. Because we’re in an industry where we are never, ever masters of our craft. This isn’t chemistry. We can’t just take Reagent A and combine it with Reagent B and get Particulate C and Solution D. At best, we’re taking experience, often years of it, and based on what other, similar projects have had as results, saying, “This has a better shot.” That’s it.
You can chase the market or ignore it. You can add romance or keep it out with a thorny wall. Whatever you do, FOLLOW YOUR PASSION, then temper it with your head. Much like you wouldn’t run a marathon without finding the right shoes, or wearing jeans, take the time to build the skills, to read widely, and in depth. Read bad novels, read amazing ones, and see if you can figure out why they’re considered bad or amazing. What is it that makes them tick? Write book reports, reviews, intern for an agent or publisher if you get a chance. Not because the traditional publishing side is the only way to go (It’s not!), but because you learn a lot about how the book world works from it. Get reinforcement from fans, even if they’re just your friends who think you’re amazing. Get criticism from your editors, from CPs, from anywhere you can.
Because someday? If you keep at it and keep at it and keep at it, and never let anyone convince you to give up, even if that anyone is sometimes yourself? You’ll get there. You’re not there yet, but tomorrow’s always another day. ❤ For whatever it helps, I’m rooting for you all.