Today’s ‘real talk’ involves looking at one of the main reasons why writers lose their way in books – and that’s by being overly attached to their ‘darlings’ – darlings who may or may not really deserve to be in their novel.
Anyone who’s written a long project knows how easy it is to go off on tangents, or indulge your love for a character who really belongs in another book. It’s also easy to base a character too much on ourselves and then not be able to craft them properly due to being unwilling to let go of aspects of our own personalities on the page.
I’ve already shared some of this characterisation advice in my ‘cheat sheet’ on how to self-edit and make your work shine, but today’s post is all about how you can make sure that your characters are really earning their place in your plot. I also talk about how, even as your self is inevitably part of your book (and what makes your work unique and powerful), you must also make sure that your personal experiences don’t overwhelm your players and drown them out.
There’s no room in a book for self-indulgence … you cannot keep a character just because they tickle you or remind you of your dear old uncle. Or because you have a bee in your bonnet about a particular issue and they’re your mouthpiece.
Unless characters are fulfilling a specific function – that is, they’re the lead, opposition character (villain), love interest or the lead’s confidant(e), then it’s hard to justify their presence in your novel. They certainly need to be playing one of these main roles too if you are to give their point of view in the book (i.e. getting inside their head).
In fact, the lead should have the lion’s share of the viewpoint and be introduced first in the novel (it sounds obvious, but many writers don’t do this). You need to stick with their perspective and establish a bond with the character before you jump into any other figure’s head, so the reader knows whose story this is and who to root for.
You also need to bring in your viewpoint players into the book in an order too – lead, opposition, love interest and confidant(e). Even if you don’t share the viewpoint of all these figures (which may well be too much for your novel as it pushes up the wordcount), you need to introduce them to the reader in this order as that’s the way they’ll rank in importance in the plot. After all, the opposition figure is the one who will do the most to get in the way of the lead’s quest for their goal and the love interest often forms the basis of a romance subplot. The confidant(e) is there as a sounding board and support for the lead, but they can also unwittingly get in their way by making well-meaning errors). (Have a look at my list of awesome writing books which are great on these craft issues.)
Yes, you can have a few minor players to add to the setting and build local colour (please stay out of thei viewpoints though!)- but please don’t overdo that either as it’s hard for readers to keep track of a large cast and who is who. You need to ask why every single character is needed in your book and which particular aspect of the lead they bring forth – if they’re not doing much, they’re going to the literary morgue! (Or into another novel!)
In terms of writing characters who are pretty much based on ourselves … well, we all do it to an extent as everything is filtered through our perceptions and experience, but just be careful about getting too set on having the lead be like yourself as fiction isn’t life and many of your lovely traits may not suit your lead’s role in the book or work well on the page.
Most of us have egos too and don’t like to be shown up, so if you base a character too much on yourself, you may well be reluctant to give your character the flaws all our players need to feel ‘real’ to readers. Indeed, you may well be scared to emotionally expose yourself in your writing and thus your character will remain two-dimensional.
One way to get round this is to create an autobiographical character who also has traits taken purely from imagination, together with elements from other people who know. That way you’ll feel less vulnerable when writing about ‘yourself’ as you’ll be well-hidden behind the red hair of your aunty and your imaginary supermodel legs (!) and you’ll be able to include your issues and those of others in a way which makes your character more ‘real’, but without having to over-analyse and get down on yourself.
However, one of the biggest problems I’ve seen when looking at people’s characters is that they let them go off on rants about stuff which they, as authors, clearly feel strongly about, but which just seem, literally, out of character for their lead. Unless you have written a book which addresses an issue you feel passionately about, then please don’t shove your opinions down the throats of your characters. Take your soapbox elsewhere as readers don’t like to be preached to! Yes, you can write about social and political issues, but ‘show not tell’ is key here – if you care about an injustice, show a character experiencing it … that will touch readers much more than having a characters shout about it.
Indeed, I am also against writing what you know in terms of basing leads totally on ourselves and sticking nice and safely to our own, often narrow, experience. For example, your lead has the same corporate cubicle job as you, drives the same car and so on.
Please DO NOT WRITE SOLELY WHAT YOU KNOW! I say this because most of us have terribly dull lives, filled with mundane routines … readers, arguably, read to escape this stuff (that’s why they reach for a novel during their commute), so they need more than to see their office life, for example, reflected back at them in a book.
I’m not saying work shouldn’t be a part of your characters’ lives and cannot even form the basis of a killer story, but you need to be brave and dig deep so you can get past the limited world of your own life and imagine your character in a bigger, more fascinating scenario. That’s why it’s called fiction. It’s about making stuff up, not just getting down your daily experience.
So make sure your character does not just do your job (unless you’re a zookeeper or something amazing!) and drink tea and wash up … This sounds weird, but I’ve seen manuscripts like this, where the writer had basically replicated their life on the page. I love domestic fiction and I adore Anne Tyler, but Tyler is an amazing storyteller and, arguably, does not just keep to the day-to-day experience of her life, but imagines her figures in quietly dramatic and enthralling situations.
So, for the love of tiny kittens, please don’t stick so closely to your life and routine in your fiction or you will send your readers to sleep! Readers want excitement, intrigue, passion … something different from their humdrum life. Give it to them. It’s part of our job as writers.
I hope this week’s ‘real talk’ helps you ensure that your characters are earning their keep in your novel and not spouting too much of your own opinions and living too much of your own daily life – they need to go to the literary morgue if they do!
If you would like to talk to me about your characters, I offer a free 30 minute non-salesy, human-to-human chat called the ‘Writing Breakthrough’ and you can book a session here.