Monday, October 3, 2011

The Hard Life of a Character

Last week, I finished the first draft of a new suspense novel. I’m happy about this for a couple of reasons: 1—Maybe I do actually have a prayer of getting this book finished in a reasonable amount of time and 2—I love revising even more than I love writing, so it will be fun to plunge into the second draft. I’d much rather revise a screen full of words than fill up a blank screen.

My first drafts are something I’d never inflict on anyone. I start with a rough outline, so I do know where the story is going, but I don’t know the ins and outs and details of the plot until I actually write them. This means stopping for a lot of brainstorming along the way, it means making mistakes that I need to change later, and it means leaving myself notes about things I need to add. For example, in this manuscript, I got near the end and realized I wanted a character to play a larger role, which would set her up to play a pivotal role at the end. I left myself a note about enlarging her role in the book, then wrote her in the pivotal scenes I wanted near the end. I didn’t go back and fix things, inserting her where I needed her earlier in the story—I prefer to save that kind of revision for the second draft. I want the first draft done, not perfect, and coherency and consistency is not required at this point. 

The book doesn’t have a working title yet; I usually look for a working title when I hit draft three. Right now, I haven’t the faintest idea what to call it, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be a sunshiney happy-dance sort of title (Butterflies and Sparkly Unicorns: A Mystery). True to form, I was awfully mean to my main character in this book. I’m hard on my protagonists, to the point that they all need medical care by the end of the book, and most of them need therapy. Being one of my characters is not an easy gig.

Why be cruel to characters? Why put stress and strain and trouble and conflict and peril and injury in their paths? In Orson Scott Card’s book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, he discusses selecting a main character, and one of the test questions he offers is:

Who hurts the most? In the world you have invented, who suffers the most? Chances are that it is among the characters who are in pain that you will find your main character, partly because your readers’ sympathy will be drawn toward a suffering character, and partly because a character in pain is a character who wants things to change. He’s likely to act. Of course, a character who suffers a lot and then dies won’t be a productive main character unless your story is about his life after death. But your eye should be drawn toward pain. Stories about contented people are miserably dull.”

In real life, I hate conflict. I can’t stand it if I think someone is mad at me, or if I’ve done something to offend someone. Honestly, who wants conflict in her/his life? Wouldn’t we rather have everything go happily and smoothly every day? Yep. But in fiction, we need conflict. Buckets and heaps and mountains of conflict. You don't have to be as mean to characters as I am, obviously, but throw trouble at your characters. (And one bit of advice: the trouble and peril needs to feel organic within the story—not like you’re just tossing in anything you can think of and pretty soon the character will get bonked on the head by the kitchen sink, because you threw that in too. Weave problems out of the characters and circumstances of the story; don’t just chuck random problems at the character like she’s hit a new level in a video game).

On to the second draft!


  1. My eight-year-old has been trying hard to convince my five-year-old that conflict is a necessary and interesting part of any story, particularly when they are playing with stuffed animals or action figures. His little brother denies the necessity, which produces, guess what?

    Real conflict! (Not the interesting kind)

  2. That made me laugh out loud. Thanks, T!

  3. Throwing in the kitchen sink was a clever way of putting it. It's true that the conflict must feel, as you said, organic. I enjoy watching growth of characters, and as in life, growth comes through opposition A.K.A. conflict. Great post!

  4. >>My first drafts are something I’d never inflict on anyone.

    Apparently. ;)

    Boy, you really inflicted some damage on your protagonist in Cold as Ice (and the fall guy, too. Pun intended!)

  5. Ummm . . . okay, I'd buy Butterflies and Sparkly Unicorns: A Mystery. Am I weird?

  6. Glad you enjoyed the post, E.R.! Thanks for stopping by.

    Diane, maybe I should write that one next . . . :)

    Jon, um, haha, why do I feel this sense of guilt, like there was something I said I was going to do and didn't . . .

  7. I'm like you. I like the revision process. I'm starting another novel. I'm in the pondering process stage as I work on plot points and characters. Always fun to play the "what if" game. Can't wait to read your new book.

  8. I love revising more than writing, too! Congrats on finishing your first draft! That's always so exciting!

  9. Such great advice...thanks for stopping by my blog.

  10. Isn't Card an awesome writer--even about writing. My hubby doesn't like conflict either, and he really struggles with it in books. Of course, he has serious health issues he deals with on a daily basis, so I kinda see his point.

    But we connect with the suffering of the characters we read about. It's that whole "hurt your characters, and then hurt them some more" that James Dashner talked about at LTUE this year.

    Although, poor Katniss. Seriously. Collins really took that to the extreme.

  11. I found the rundown on your process encouraging as well as interesting. To start with only a rough outline and come up with a decent first draft makes it seem more doable for those who write by the seat of their pants. Sometimes it's interesting to see what we come up with and sometimes we're thankful for an outline. Thank you for sharing this.